Web-heads look to Obama example to encourage indifferent voters to cast ballots

Ottawa     March 13th, 2011     Originally published:

A group of young Canadians inspired by Barack Obama’s ability to energize apathetic American voters have launched an online effort to combat voter indifference in this country ahead of a possible spring election.

Leadnow.ca wants to leverage the web to trigger increased political participation after close to half of all eligible voters opted to stay home rather than cast a ballot in the 2008 federal election.

Leaders of the fledgling group believe the internet is a comfort zone for an increasing number of Canadians. By approaching them in this space Leadnow hopes to have a better chance at spurring conversation, debate and perhaps, voter turnout.

The movement aims to emulate the success of MoveOn.org, a U.S. advocacy group that amassed a following of five million progressive voters during the 2008 election that propelled Obama into the White House.

Leadnow.ca executive director Jamie Biggar, 28, is a former Liberal based in Vancouver who now insists his movement is aimed at progressive voters from all parties.

He says the idea is to ease indifferent citizens into participation. Sharing ideas online is a low-commitment task compared to something like joining a political party. Once participants are comfortable discussing issues, the goal is to move them “up the ladder of engagement,” says Biggar. Anyone involved in discussions online may be easier to convince to hold an event or join a rally.

The braying, bullying and brawling that has become commonplace on Parliament Hill has come at a cost, Biggar says — voter tune-out. “A lot of people have become turned off by the toxic nature of politics at the federal level, especially younger people.”

Biggar says escalating attack ads and empty insults hurled during question period by politicians are examples of the white noise that prompts voters to turn away from the political process.

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Federal voter participation was 58.8 per cent in 2008. Twenty years earlier, when the debate over the Free Trade Agreement gripped the country’s attention, it was 75.3 per cent.

Conservatives have achieved electoral success in great part because they are considered the best party at identifying and motivating their supporters to donate to their cause and get out and vote. Biggar says he believes Leadnow.ca will be able to interest and include Conservative supporters in their discussions.

Why? He says the pugnacious partisanship of Stephen Harper’s Conservative party makes some Tories ill at ease.

“I think that there are a lot of people in the Conservative base who actually aren’t comfortable with (the government’s) tone themselves, and would be interested in having more co-operative and more collegial conversations with their peers,” says Biggar.

A Google search reveals Biggar has been critical of Harper and his party on several occasions. Most of his comments were directed at environmental policy, with the Victoria Times Colonist quoting him in 2009 saying the government was working to block an agreement during climate talks in Copenhagen.

But Biggar insists he has never done any work for a political party and isn’t fronting for the opposition. The group is non-partisan, but he admits to finding the Conservative party message “the most divisive and negative.”

Young people have traditionally been indifferent to voting. Just 34.7 per cent of Canadians 18 to 24 years old cast ballots in 2008, according to Elections Canada.

Brenda O’Neill, a professor who studies civic engagement at the University of Calgary, says young people are often frustrated because they don’t believe governments take their priorities seriously.

“Youth aren’t really interested, I would argue, because they don’t think the politicians are dealing with issues they think are important. And it isn’t clear to me that all of this work is going to matter directly to whether or not politicians take those concerns into account.”

Biggar says Leadnow.ca’s focus will be getting young Canadians interested in politics, although he hopes to encourage dialogue between different generations.

He wants to get the apathetic electoral army to rouse out of its slumber and declare what priorities it would like government to address.

The indifferent and apathetic will be asked to list those priorities online at Leadnow.ca and meet face to face in small discussion groups.

“We’re trying to create a new way for generations of Canadians all across the country to come together, find their shared values and their highest priorities for Canada, and create a strong, independent voice that can be heard in Ottawa,” explains Biggar.

But O’Neill says a movement like Leadnow.ca doesn’t have what it takes to mobilize the vote.

A charismatic leader like Barack Obama working to restore faith in the democratic process had more to do with MoveOn.org’s success in increasing turnout than anything else, she says.

“You have to make youth want to be vocal in large numbers, and unless you have something like the Obama factor, it’s not going to happen.

“I’m not saying that no one is going to participate. I think you are going to get youth participating, but it’s going to be youth who are already involved with politics.”

Biggar says the group hopes to have a draft declaration of issues ready to be voted on at Leadnow.ca in time for a spring election.

 

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