We're learning something about the Canadian electorate through two, unrelated controversies for the Conservatives this month -- specifically, what it takes to get folks engaged in political debate, and what it takes to put them to sleep.
First we had last week's unexpected, massive uproar about Public Safety Minister Vic Toews' proposed legislation on online surveillance. At one point, the social-media protest in Canada had become so huge that it was a top trending topic, here and internationally.
Now we have new revelations about the fraudulent "robo-calls" placed to voters in as many as 27 ridings across Canada on Election Day last year, telling people that ballot-box locations had changed. (Bravo, Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, for staying on this story.) This is definitely an active discussion on Twitter these past couple of days, but it has not yet reached the level of fury or interest registered in the Toews' uproar. ** Update** By the end of the work day Friday, apparently, #robocalls was trending at #3 in Canada. That's still far behind the volume or force of the #tellviceverything trend, though.
I think there are important differences, which I'll get to in a second, but let's stand back from this robo-call business for a second and look at the motivation behind the fraudulent calls -- why someone thought it would work.
"Voter suppression" is the alleged purpose of the calls. The idea was that if you phoned people, told them the voting location had changed, they'd just decide it was too much of a hassle to go and cast a ballot. Think about that for a second. To pull this off with any success, you had to count on people being so lazy, busy or disengaged that they'd throw away their democratic franchise because of a minor inconvenience. Cynical? Or just realistic? Voting, the most basic act of our democracy, rests on the idea that people will make a physical effort to participate. Someone (or many someones) calculated that the prospect of even slightly more effort would kill voter motivation. That's kind of insulting, actually. Not as insulting as calling people child pornographers, I guess, but still a rather minimalist view of the Canadian public -- as robots, easily reprogrammed.
Now look at the Toews' protest. Distinctions are important.
- First, Bill C-30 is a real, tabled piece of legislation; it's not an alleged intrusion on your rights or privacy -- it's there, in black and white, for all to see. It's coming from the government, not just a political operative (rogue or otherwise.)
- Second, it's about the Internet, not a telephone line, and the proposed intrusion would be long-term, not just a one-off call on election day. (I wonder, though, as an aside, whether people are just accustomed now to shrugging at telephone calls, and place far more value on the net for true communication.)
- Third, even Conservatives, mainly of the libertarian stripe, were joining in the protest against C-30. With the robo-calls, mainly there's been a circling of Conservative wagons. (Some hapless Conservative may be cast out of the family for a while, but generally, exiles for egregiousness have been temporary or short-lived.)
- Fourth, and most importantly, getting riled about the Toews' protest was easy -- and fun. You didn't need to get off your couch or your chair to register your anger on Twitter; all it took was a press of the "send" button to #tellviceverything. Bonus, you could be hilarious doing so. It was an entertaining protest.
And that's where we get back to the similarities between online surveillance and robocalls. It's about what's easy and what's difficult in Canadian democratic participation. Voting, casting a ballot, requires effort -- effort vulnerable to being thwarted. Joining an internet protest is easy, and fun.
There are lessons here -- but whether they're about making it easier to vote or raising the bar for protests is a whole other discussion.
Update: In a stroke of excellent timing, StatsCan has released a report today on why people didn't vote in the last election. Click on the link to see the full study, or read the summary, below:
Voting rates in the May 2011 federal election increased with both age and education, although the impact of education was much stronger among younger voters.
For example, among people aged 25 to 34, the difference in voting between those with at least a bachelor's degree and those with less than a high school education was 42 percentage points. This gap narrowed to 10 percentage points among people aged 55 and over.
After controlling for education and other factors, 25- to 34-year-olds were 15 percentage points less likely to vote than 45- to 54-year-olds, while 65- to 74-year-olds were 19 percentage points more likely to vote than 45- to 54-year-olds.
The presence of children was associated with lower voting rates in all family types. The effect was particularly strong for single parents, as 36% of those with children under age 5 voted, compared with 60% of couples with children the same age.
Overall, immigrant citizens were less likely to vote than people born in Canada, but voting rates generally increased with time in Canada.
Employed people were more likely to vote than the unemployed or those not in the labour force after controls were in place for factors like age and education. Among the employed, those working in the public sector or in high-skill occupations were most likely to vote. Voting rates were lower for those working 40 hours or more per week, and for those in less-skilled occupations.
Home owners had significantly higher voting rates than renters.