Voter suppression – ‘the dirty little secret’

We are encouraged to believe a malaise of political indifference has infected the national psyche. It’s true. This virus has a name: “Voter suppression.” Disengagement by design.

We are encouraged to believe a malaise of political indifference has infected the national psyche.

It’s true. This virus has a name: “Voter suppression.” Disengagement by design.

There is one national political party, the Conservatives, that benefits from voter apathy and is actively cultivating it. Behind its highly organized, committed and motivated base of support, the Tories cultivate disgust and apathy in the rest of the electorate knowing the outcome will be electoral success.

We hear commentators lament Canada’s dwindling voter turnout. Elections Canada reports voter turnout in 2008 was the lowest ever — 58 per cent of those eligible, down five per cent from 2006 and down 17 per cent from an all-time high in 1988.

Several explanations are given, but not the most important. Elections Canada cites: Little policy to galvanize voters; the global financial crisis; and, disenchantment amongst Liberals.

It neglects to mention the big one: voter suppression.

Sound Machiavellian? It is. It is a strategy of suppressing opposition turnout that has its roots in the U.S. Republican Party. The goal is to increase the number of eligible voters who fail to vote because they believe politics is inherently corrupt

Turnout suppression works best when the attacking party has a solid core of support more committed than its opponent.

The Hon. Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s Liberal MP) raised the issue in March. “There is no question that people are concerned about all-time high cynicism. There is serious concern about negative advertising and the way that the party in power seems to be employing Republican voter suppression techniques.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May also raised the alarm. “Attack ads are fundamentally anti-democratic. They discourage voters from showing up. I’m afraid this very anti-democratic strategy has come to Canada. It’s time to send it packing,” May says. “People around the world will risk their lives to get democracy and in Canada we appear to have people willing to deliberately poison democracy.”

Venomous commercials are just one of many tactics. More sophisticated techniques are used in the U.S. to sour opponents. One is a “push poll,” a smear campaign that sounds like a neutral phone survey. As well, direct mail efforts are used to keep people home. The Republican Party once sent “voter registration bulletins” to 150,000 African-Americans, who tend to be Democrats, warning them that if they showed up to vote they would be questioned about their residency.

In Canada, Conservative voter suppression has exposed us to relentless attack ads about Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. He’s an ugly American, isn’t he? Just visiting?

Recently, the Tories raised the suppression stakes with human smuggling attack ads.

Liberal MP Bob Rae says these ads cross the line. “It is based on fear, and is directly prejudicial to a fair determination of refugee claims that are currently being considered.”

He focused on pictures of the MV Sun Sea and superimposed statements about “crimes,” “smugglers” and attacks on the Liberal Party.

This strategy to sully the process so completely that we lose interest in voting altogether has been described as “one of the dirty little secrets of political consultants.”

Thus, Stephen Harper is coached to keep insisting this election is “unnecessary.” Why? Because it isn’t necessary to vote in an unnecessary election. M

The Kieran Report: www.briankieran.com

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