I probably wouldn't have voted at all if I hadn't run into St Patrick's Ward candidate John Bacher at the downtown Farmers' Market on the weekend. I thought I'd left it too late to register as a voter, but he advised me to go along to the polls with as much ID as I could gather and exercise my right as a citizen. So I did.
This afternoon, I phoned City Hall to confirm that I could just show up with proof of citizenship and residency. Some gremlins interfered with the line, and I got cut off before I could ask where to go to vote. Ah well, I figured the information would be readily available online. I checked out the City of St Catharines website, but found the interactive map rather unwieldy. Nevertheless, I decided the polling station was St Catharines Central Library, and set off on foot this evening.
An hour later I was still wandering around downtown trying to find the polling station. No one was around to ask--Niagara Police Headquarters was shut, City Hall was empty, and the only people in the street were pushing around shopping carts or scouring the sidewalks for cigarette butts. Oh dear.
I gave up and returned home to recheck the details, discovering that the library was in fact the advance polling station, open over a week ago, and the actual polling station was in the school directly behind my apartment building. I suppose I should be rather proud to have endured a two-hour merry chase, all told, to take advantage of my democratic rights.
I voted only for mayor and ward councillors. (The ballot also included regional councillors and school board trustees.) Even then, I had difficulty remembering who was who. In the UK, local councillors almost invariably represent a political party, so you know whose box to tick depending on whether you're a lefty, a righty or a moderate who can't make up his mind. Here, it depends on knowing each councillor and what they stand for.
The municipal website wasn't overly helpful in my decision. Most of the candidate descriptions were full of fluff that didn't tell me much. For example:
During the past term of Council we have put into place broad plans for economic, social and cultural renewal. Over the next 4 years the detail of these initiatives must be developed to build the foundation upon which our success can grow. I bring to the residents of St. Patrick's Ward 4 and the City at large, a commitment to address these challenges with a sound business sense, a creative approach, with openness and transparency, and most of all, a strong vision for the future!
Which tells me what, exactly? That there were plans, that the candidate is going to build on the plans, and that he thinks he's good and honest. Well, fine, but what is he actually going to do?
Another candidate wrote:
I want St. Catharines to be a place of opportunity for all of our children. Our city is at a crossroads and smart, well thought out growth has to be our priority. I want to help lead that growth.
Sure, but tell me something concrete that you're going to accomplish.
Times are changing and we need fresh new ideas and outlooks. As well many serious issues are not being looked at with the importance they need to be, and I plan on addressing these issues.
Oh dear. All the right words, but what are these mysterious issues? (In fairness, he later mentions poverty, sustainable income and economic development, but these are vague, and I'm still left asking what, if any, policy is being suggested.)
Tonight, many people in St Catharines are bemoaning the low turnout at today's election--little more than 30 percent.
I suspect the voter apathy is partly the fault of a system that makes people really work. (Even harder than I did in my quest to find the polling station.) Of course, in an ideal society, everyone would take the initiative and go out and find out for themselves who's running and what they stand for. But most people just don't have that level of political interest. They want to be able to pick up a leaflet or log onto a website and see in black and white what the candidates stand for and what they plan to do for the city, and make a decision there and then who to choose.
If voters have to turn to a dozen different sources to cobble together information for themselves, they probably aren't going to make the effort. Perhaps that's sad, but it's the reality. Make the information relevant, useful and accessible, and maybe people will vote.