Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Just participated in a unique democratic experiment.  Experimental because it had been tried only once before in Canada.  It will be awhile before it can be properly assessed.  Anytime something is tried initially there are bound to be errors made and as we go up the learning curve results should improve.

Organizers decided to involve a bigger citizen base to help decide how to allocate available money over 31 proposals.  It could get very complicated, but these proposals were ones that had established some support from the community, but were more expensive than could be executed over the following year. A model from South America was used and titled Participatory Budget Ward 2.

What struck me was the difference in attitudes.  Some people saw it as a an opportunity to be taken advantage of.  Others were annoyed at being expected to take an interest.   Some were cynical.  Many were unaware of this opportunity.

This last problem was a concern of the organizers.  In trying to promote a democratic initiative it takes a tremendous effort to get everyone's attention.  To be effective it can cost a lot of money, money that many would argue is a waste.  That money could be spent on something more productive or just not spent to keep taxes lower.

People today in many countries are in survival mode.  Others are happy with the status quo and see no point in rocking the boat.  Most do not appreciate the power they have.  Ignorance is profound.  Most people do not realize they can make a difference.  Most people do not understand the issues or the procedures.

Ancient Greeks are supposed to have developed democracy from a sort of town hall meeting where those present got to vote on a variety  of issues.   If you had the resources to spend the time arguing over issues you could participate and help effect the outcome.

Representative democracy is really what we have.  We elect politicians to represent us.  They are supposed to understand our issues and make sure we get a fair deal.  We also recognize that we have limited time to really understand the issues and trust that our representatives will make the effort on our behalf and take care to protect our interests.

In actual fact many issues are very complicated and negotiations between interested parties are sometimes intense and/or done behind closed doors.  Money often plays a decisive role.  We are supposed to have a level of trust, but many of us are very cynical.

A single voter has limited power, but it can be leveraged.  First by actually exercising their vote.  Any politician who wants power needs to pay attention to someone who takes the trouble to vote.  More importantly is to be an informed voter.  Many people vote like a herd and most are influenced by emotional factors.  A politician cannot ignore either factor no manner how noble they might be.

With all the stresses and distractions in life a voter has power to change things, but really only if they make an effort.  Studying and questioning issues in depth force politicians to confront concerns they might otherwise avoid.  Other potential voters are listening (at least some of them).

There is another way of leveraging your vote.  In truth voting for candidates if there are more than two politicians have discovered a strategy of splitting the vote.  They don't have to necessarily get more than 50% of the vote, just the plurality.  The policies they bring forth, where they direct their financial resources are part of a strategy to hold a base of power and nibble away at their opponents. Proportional voting systems are designed to make sure that every votes count, not just the ones cast for the plurality winner. Under party systems each vote for the party counts towards a total so that although your party may not emerge on top you can still have some representation.   Many countries and elections require a single candidate to get at least 50% + 1 of the votes.

Many people prefer to organize along issues rather than parties.  Supporting a party means inevitably there will be some issue you are not in agreement with.  Supporting an issue can impact all parties.

Traditionally more voting happens at the national level and then at state or provincial level and the least at municipal.  In fact your vote has most impact at the local level and least at the national level.

ADDITION:  Education as always is critical.  We have education to help us read and write and eventually become a productive member of society (get a job in other words).  Civics is not a big deal, but could be.  Future voters (even current voters) need to know how the voting system works and would sharpen debate if we were aware of alternatives that other cultures feel deliver democracy.

It has been rare that a municipality gives voters a voice in activities that can impact them in their everyday lives.  I am humbled that I took part in the Participatory Budget vote in Ward 2 and hope this points to greater opportunities for voters.  I also hope the voters rise to make better choices.

If you do not make the effort others will recognize an opportunity to get their way, often at your expense.   Do not think you have no power to make a difference, but do not be so naive to think that all politicians really have your best interests at heart.

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