Canadians are heading to the polls today to vote in the federal election. Social media has been full of discussions about the election, with one particularly popular sentiment: if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the elected government. We need to stop legitimizing this rhetoric of voting as the only valid form of political expression, as it disregards the myriad of ways in which people can be politically engaged in favour of the one-time act of casting a ballot, and can actually limit political engagement.
Framing voting as the main form of political engagement disregards the fact that it’s not accessible to everyone. For example, permanent residents are not allowed to vote federally despite living and paying taxes in Canada and being able to vote in municipal elections; this citizenship condition is arbitrary and difficult to obtain. Polling stations may not be accessible for people with physical disabilities, people who have to travel further in rural areas, or people who cannot afford to take the time to vote due to incompatible work schedules. Additionally, the Conservatives’ so-called Fair Elections Act has made it more difficult for certain populations, such as Indigenous people, young people, and homeless people, to meet the voter identification requirements to cast a ballot. The act of voting is most accessible to those already privileged in Canadian society, while the people who can’t vote are often the ones who would benefit the most from political change.
Further, the emphasis on voting as an act of civic responsibility can have the opposite of its intended effect in that it can actually limit political engagement. Praising those who vote as politically engaged legitimizes the notion that tuning in to vote every five years or so is enough to enact change. By focusing only on voting, this rhetoric restricts political expression to the limited range of ideas in the platforms of political parties. Because there is significant ideological overlap between the three main political parties, systemic change cannot necessarily be achieved through elections.
There are many other ways people in Canada can get politically involved and enact actual change. Political engagement outside of the governmental system through civil society groups and grassroots organizations can be effective in tackling systemic issues. Protesting and striking are other effective ways of promoting the interests of groups whose concerns are not addressed through voting, as both actions place economic pressure on the government in a call for change. While voting might incite some change within the confines of our current oppressive political system, we should not perpetuate the rhetoric of voting as the be-all and end-all of engagement. Our federal candidates might be promising real change, but we must start legitimizing other, often more effective and accessible methods for creating systemic change.
—The McGill Daily editorial board