How can we protect our democracy? By casting a vote

How can we protect our democracy? By casting a vote

If you’re not using your vote in Monday’s election, why not lend it to a foreign hacker? Or some mischief-maker closer to home?

Election meddling is one of the great fears of the digital era, yet a good number of Canadians are curiously complacent about their own vote.

As many as one-third of the eligible voters in this country may choose not to cast a ballot at all on Monday, if long-term trends hold. Moreover, we keep being told that turnout may be an issue in this election in particular because the whole thing has felt so nasty and pointless — no single “ballot-box question,” as the pros put it.

There is a point, though, in taking the time to vote, especially at this juncture in history. Look to the U.S. or Britain and the turmoil in politics there over the past few years. Democracy matters. Elections matter. Voting matters.

That’s why hackers and trolls want to wreak havoc on the system; because our democracy is only as strong as its weakest links. Complacency is a weak link.

Back last summer, I sat in on a large news conference featuring some very senior people in the Canadian public service, laying out the measures being taken to protect the integrity of the current election.

They talked of how they had been doing “tabletop exercises” all summer in how to handle an incident of election meddling — the steps that would then be taken by the high-level panel of deputy ministers to insulate Canadian democracy from the threat.

The mere existence of this panel should tell us something about how seriously the state takes elections and the basic rights of Canadians to vote.

We haven’t heard from this panel over the past six weeks of the election campaign, so we can probably assume that either there hasn’t been a serious threat to report or that it was contained before Canadians needed to be publicly warned.

Reporters were told at this summer news conference that the media played a part in this process — that the government’s own meddling-prevention squad would only kick into gear if the media had failed to expose the attempts to fiddle with a free and fair vote.

The Star and others have done some good work on that front — exposing the efforts of the strange “Buffalo Chronicle,” for instance, to spread misinformation among Canadian voters.

Again, the question has to be asked: why would a foreign-owned platform, masquerading as a real media outlet, go to the trouble and expense of swaying Canadians’ voting intentions? And again, the answer is the same: because elections matter.

Two elections ago, hundreds if not thousands of Canadians received fraudulent “robocalls” on voting day, directing them away from their legitimate polling places. Mystery still lingers about the breadth and origin of that scam, but a former Conservative operative, Michael Sona, did spend some time in jail for it.

Regardless of the source or scope of that “robocalls” scheme, what always struck me about it was its most basic, cynical assumption — that it was this easy to knock democracy off track. A random phone call, a minor inconvenience to a busy citizen, and precious votes could be suppressed. The robocall scammers were counting on the fact that complacency about voting is indeed the weakest link in a fair election.

I like to believe that this was why turnout went up in the 2015 election — because enough Canadians wanted to say to would-be hackers and robocallers that their voting rights couldn’t be thwarted so easily. This may be an overly optimistic reading of that seven percentage point jump in turnout from 2011 to 2015 — from the historic low of 61.4 per cent to 68.5 per cent — but I’m sticking with that story.

In that similarly optimistic vein, I’m hoping that 2015 wasn’t a blip — that the upward trajectory in turnout continues on Monday, because we’re seeing how fragile democracy can be, even in nations with deep, democratic traditions, such as the U.S and Britain.

Advance polls have been encouraging. Nearly 5 million Canadians took advantage of the opportunity to cast a ballot early over Thanksgiving weekend, sending a strong signal that voting still matters, no matter the unhealthy, even ugly tone of this election.

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Yes, the past six weeks have shown us that our politics is very unhealthy. That needs to be fixed. Our democracy need not suffer the same downward spiral. One way to keep it inoculated from the cynical sickness that’s pervading politics is for Canadians to cast a vote; a free, fair and informed one.

Plenty of forces are out there in the world — and at home here in Canada — eager to play fast and loose with democracy. They believe elections matter. So should we.

Susan Delacourt


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