Voter suppression is a term political consultants use, but rarely publicly.
There’s a reason for that. Voter suppression is a strategy — employing tactics ranging from dirty tricks to multi-million-dollar ad campaigns — to quite literally persuade your critics to stay at home on voting day.
If there is a weapon in the political consultant’s arsenal more fundamentally anti-democratic than voter suppression, I don’t know what it is. Sometimes voter suppression isn’t just nasty or inconvenient. Sometimes, it’s flat-out illegal.
When you see or hear reports about the appalling things that happen in the Third World on voting day — threats, intimidation, electoral fraud and disappearing ballots — you are experiencing voter suppression in its rawest form.
In places like Haiti or Afghanistan, voter suppression and electoral fraud have been elevated to an art form.
(Why Canada glosses over its support for the regimes in both those countries remains an enduring mystery).
But voter suppression, sadly, isn’t just found in the Third World. Sometimes, we get to experience it right at home. So, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2007, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives launched an expensive ad campaign carefully designed to depict the then-Liberal leader as a weakling who couldn’t speak English.
“Stephane Dion is not a leader,” the Super Bowl ad proclaimed.
The spot featured a clip of Dion and his leadership opponent, Michael Ignatieff, verbally sparring at a debate. Ignatieff tells Dion the previous Liberal government “didn’t get the job done” on the environment.
Dion, outraged, sputters: “This is unfair. Do you think it’s easy to set priorities?”
Nowhere in the ad does Harper’s campaign team declare they were hoping to persuade one million Liberal voters to stay home.
But that in fact was their objective and they achieved it. Extensive focus group and polling research had told the Tories that while many Grits despised Harper, they also had serious misgivings about Dion’s “image” as a leader and his ability to communicate.
If they couldn’t persuade those million Liberal voters to come over to the blue team, the Conservatives concluded, they would persuade them to stay home on election day.
Thereafter, the Tories spared no expense in their multi-million-dollar voter suppression strategy. It worked.
When all the votes were counted in October 2008, Dion’s Liberals had plummeted to 25% support — a drop of nearly 900,000 Liberal votes from 2006. In 2011, of course, the Harper vote-suppression gang did it again.
Their research had shown many card-carrying Liberals, or Liberal-leaning voters, had serious misgivings about the fact Michael Ignatieff had spent almost 30 years of his life abroad.
They zeroed in on that finding with relentless intensity, and Ignatieff and his maladroit senior staffers piloted the Liberal party to a distant third-place finish on May 2.
Which brings us to Statistics Canada’s latest report, focusing on those who didn’t vote in the May 2 election.
Said Statistics Canada: “The most common response for not having voted was that they were ‘not interested in voting’ (28%), which also includes feeling their vote would not have made a difference in the election results.
An additional 23% indicated they were ‘too busy,’ which includes having family obligations or having a schedule conflict at work or school.”
In total, 7.5 million Canadians were eligible to vote — but didn’t.
Out of those, younger Canadians were among the worst offenders. Youth have always been a constituency that has eluded the Conservatives’ grasp.
Votes don’t matter
But they told Statistics Canada they didn’t think their vote would matter.
That isn’t just a disgrace, of course — it’s music to a vote-suppresser’s ears.
If a constituency or a demographic traditionally hostile to your political party doesn’t bother to vote, you are that much more likely to win.
For Tories — who have a smaller, but highly motivated base — this has always been so.
Voter suppression: It’s disgusting, it’s wrong, it’s anti-democratic.
But it also works.
It’ll be back in 2015.
Count on it.