Taylor: The real test of democracy

Democracy’s more about the turfing out the known, bringing in hope for something better.

On a typical day, I shower in municipal water. I flush my wastes into a municipal system—or I would, if the municipal system ever reaches the rural area where I live. I drive to town on municipal roads. I buy products and services from municipally-licenced businesses. I spend most of the day in a house on which I pay municipal taxes.

What Ottawa does with its CF-18 fighters, its regulatory agencies, its international trade agreements, seems very far away.

And yet roughly twice as many people make the effort to vote in federal elections than in municipal ones. Federal elections average a 60 per cent turnout. In the 2011 municipal election, only three B.C. cities managed to top 30 per cent.

Why? Wouldn’t you expect immediate concerns to take priority over distant ones?

Is it complacency—the universe is unfolding as it should? Is it apathy—the belief you can’t fight city hall?

Most definitions of democracy focus on having the right to vote. I think that’s only a partial definition.

Hong Kong has the right to vote. But not for candidates chosen by the voters. Only for candidates chosen by another level of government.

Egypt has the right to vote. But if they elect the “wrong” person, a combination of mass protests and military intervention can overrule that vote.

Although almost every country in the world now has some form of voting, it’s not necessarily a right. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the U.S. Constitution does not specifically include the right to vote. Which puts it in company with Iran, Libya and Singapore.

Many countries also exclude large proportions of their residents. Saudi Arabia does not allow women to vote at all. Nor does the Vatican, that country within another country, because it only votes to elect a new pope, for whom only cardinals may vote. None of whom, under canon law, can be female.

To me, the crucial characteristic of a democracy is not the right to vote someone into office, but the right to vote them out. After all, Hitler and Stalin were both elected to start.

The first thing that all dictators do is revise constitutions, alter regulations, and manipulate voting processes to ensure that they cannot be voted out of office. As George Orwell once wrote, “Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship…The object of power is power.”

Unfortunately, ballots never include a box for voting against a candidate. The alternative is to vote for a different candidate who will, you hope, turn out closer to what you expected.

Despite campaign promises and policy platforms, no one ever knows how a candidate will act after getting elected. So you always vote for an unknown quantity, what my mother used to call “a pig in a poke.” And some do turn out to be pigs.

But there is a solution. This Saturday, residents of B.C. communities get a chance to turf out any pigs, and to replace them with preferred choices. It’s a serious choice. Please take it seriously.