Wednesday, April 08, 2009

voting, participation, guides against marginilization 2009

The Toronto Star

November 12, 2006 Sunday

There's voting, and then there's participation

BYLINE: James Motluk, Special to the Star


LENGTH: 866 words

When it comes to voting, I have been a model citizen. I have dropped a ballot into the box in every election since I reached the age of consent. I have been motivated partly out of a sense of duty, but equally by the intoxicating feeling I get from knowing that the future of the country lies in my hands and the hands of others just like me.

Lately, however, I've been suffering from voter malaise. I'm starting to question the whole point of voting, and I'm not alone.

In the 2004 federal election, Canada saw the lowest voter turnout since Confederation. Politicians have committed millions of dollars and thousands of people hours in an effort to reverse the trend. All sorts of models have been explored that would make it easier and more exciting to vote. Some brilliant minds have even proposed turning elections into lotteries where one lucky voter has the chance not only to influence the direction of the nation but also to take home a jackpot of $1 million.

But is all this emphasis on voter turnout really warranted? Does the quantity of participation equal the quality of representation? Or is voting simply a secular opiate of the masses, a quick and easy way of distracting the people from the real prize of greater participation between elections.

For example, when the Toronto District School Board was struggling recently to balance its budget, board members claimed the province was not providing adequate funding. The province complained that it, too, was being shortchanged, by the federal government. The federal government, sitting on a multi-billion-dollar surplus, decided to use its wealth to pay down the country's debt rather than increase social spending.

Imagine how different things might have looked had the people, and not just the politicians, been directly involved in making these decisions. It may sound like pie in the sky, but it's actually part of a growing global trend toward participatory democracy.

For advocates of that movement, the key is decentralization. They believe governments must move beyond merely consulting the public and begin to delegate real decision-making powers to the citizens.

One of the most successful examples can be found in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. In 1989, a coalition of left-wing parties called the Popular Front formed the municipal government on a ticket of greater democratization. Their first act was to create what they called a participatory budget.

Traditionally, the city budget had been written behind closed doors by elected officials. Now it is put together in bottom-up fashion. Ordinary citizens meet in local councils to identify problems and set spending priorities. Delegates are then selected to take these priorities to the city executive, and together they write the budget. The completed budget is then presented to the elected legislators for a vote.

The result, according to most observers, has been a more efficient use of public-works money and greater participation among citizens, particularly those in poorer neighbourhoods.

Since 1989, more than 140 municipalities in Brazil have adopted participatory budgets. The process is now being studied by municipalities throughout Europe and even North America.

But participatory democracy is not limited to city budgets. A similar style of grass-roots governance can be found in the Chicago public school system.

Rocked by a prolonged teachers strike and battered by a reputation for having the worst school system in the country, the state of Illinois in 1989 passed the Chicago School Reform Act. The legislation decentralized the Chicago school board and placed greater authority in the hands of parents by establishing local school councils. Every public school in Chicago has a council that consists of the school principal, parents, teachers, and community members who are elected annually.

In Chicago, local school councils carry out many of the responsibilities that are handled here by our centralized school boards. They oversee the selection of principals, they set curriculum guidelines, and they approve school budgets. Rather than issuing directives to the school councils, the central board in Chicago acts more as a support system, providing technical assistance and training.

In both instances, the participatory system has allowed marginalized groups access to a political system that otherwise would have shut them out. In both cases the changes to the system were initiated and supported by the government.

Observers have found that the participatory system creates a greater sense of political awareness and civic duty among citizens. Perhaps in Canada the problem is not so much voter apathy, then, as an unwillingness on the part of our governments to initiate anything more than cosmetic changes to the system.

There is no denying that voting is an important and necessary part of the political process and should be nurtured. But in a healthy, vibrant democracy, participation can't be limited to casting a ballot once every four years.

In the end, the best way to improve participation at the polls may be to create more opportunities for participation after they close.

James Motluk is a documentary filmmaker and writer in Toronto.

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LOAD-DATE: November 12, 2006




Copyright 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
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Date/Time April 8 2009 10:44:23

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