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Every Voter Counts

By Elizabeth Lines
Network, Spring-Summer 2007

An inclusive society is one in which all members feel valued and engaged in the civic processes that define democracy itself. And the hallmark activity of a democracy is the right to vote. Voter turnout rates, however, are often disappointingly low. While some suggest complacency by way of explanation, there is also concern that citizens in general are increasingly alienated from the political process.

And then there are those who may never have been connected in the first place: people with mental illnesses or other disabilities who have been excluded or marginalized through stigma and discrimination.

As a recent report from the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia notes, ‘Exclusion… is the shadow of civic engagement. If everyone does not feel entitled to participate, we risk silencing and discouraging the voices of significant portions of our communities. The result is decisions that marginalize people.’

Allan Strong is the Recovery Education Coordinator at the Self Help Alliance, a working partnership of four consumer/survivor organizations in the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network. He is a consumer himself. And he has run as a political candidate in elections at each of the three levels of government – municipal, provincial and federal. So he brings a rather unique view to the challenge of building an inclusive society.

‘My experiences with the mental health system began with my life as a child growing up in a home where one of my parents had significant mental health difficulties and was hospitalized frequently,’ reflects Allan. ‘And then I was hospitalized about 12 years ago and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So I’ve had the opportunity of experiencing the mental health system from a variety of perspectives.’

He has always felt a passion for politics. ‘I feel that the strength of our government and our democracy is driven by engagement and participation,’ he enthuses. ‘I believe that the government is not a faceless thing that interacts with us from the shadows. Rather, it’s a living, breathing organization that is driven by the active engagement of all of its citizens. So it is incumbent upon all of us to be engaged and participate. And of course the other thing that really drives me is my desire to see the end of prejudicial beliefs about individuals with mental health problems. That has fuelled my political activity as well.’

‘In reality, the government is us,’ continues Allan. ‘It is citizens acting individually and collectively to make their wishes known and also to establish what we feel are priorities for us as a society and a culture. The ballot box provides a singularly important opportunity for us to make those wishes known. But to me, it doesn’t stop there. We need to consistently be engaged and aware of what’s going on because we are ultimately responsible for holding our elected officials accountable. No one else is going to do it for us.’

According to Allan, ‘One of the biggest barriers to civic participation for people with mental health problems remains the risk of stigma and discrimination. For instance, when I was a candidate in the 2003 election, I did not disclose my mental health history. I thought the public reaction would be so negative. But as I contemplate running this year, my feeling is I wouldn’t run and hide. I think it’s only by putting oneself out there and taking that risk that change will come.’

‘I think there is the lingering perception that people with mental health issues may not even be competent and capable enough to vote, let alone run for office. That’s a pretty damning indictment,’ observes Allan. ‘In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that people in psychiatric institutions were not legally allowed to vote. But just because a person may be in hospital with depression, or a psychotic illness, does not mean they’ve lost their competency or ability to understand what’s happening in terms of an election. Unfortunately, this false belief about the abilities of people with mental health issues remains a major obstacle to participation and it’s one that’s founded in misinformation, ignorance and fear.’

A lack of participation may also be a result of competing priorities and the cumulative impact of social and economic exclusion. As Allan puts it, ‘When all of your energies are spent on keeping a roof over your head and buying food and trying to maintain income and employment, then those are your priorities. There’s virtually no time or energy for anything else.’

Allan suggests too that there need to be ongoing efforts to reach out and educate people about these issues and a concerted effort to see that there are no additional practical barriers to being on the voters list. ‘We need to figure out ways to promote the participation of all and make a commitment to reach out to people who may be on the street and include them as part of mainstream civic life. So we’re really talking about building an inclusive community.’

In fact, at the provincial level, Elections Ontario has been formally engaged in this very kind of activity since 1999. According to Heather Bussey, their manager of communications and external relations, ‘Elections Ontario is committed to providing for a fair and accessible election process for all Ontarians. In striving to fulfill this commitment, the Outreach Program was developed to ensure that electors with special needs and circumstances have the information they require in a format they can use and are then able to act on.’

Elections Ontario has refined its products and services through consultation with various groups and organizations that represent those with special needs. It continues to work with stakeholders to make them aware of the products and services available and to identify the best ways of communicating with electors with special needs. In addition to organizations serving people with mental health issues, Elections Ontario works with stakeholders serving people who have mobility challenges, low literacy or developmental disabilities, or who are blind or deaf. Elections Ontario also works with organizations serving people who require information in a language other than English or French. As well, they work with organizations serving people who are homeless or in women’s shelters. Heather notes that they often find there are crossover applications that serve more than one group.

‘For example,’ Heather continues, ‘we produce materials in Braille and audio format as well as on Voiceprint. Legislation and guidelines are in place for wheelchair access at polls. We also have pictographs without words for persons with low literacy or whose first language isn’t English or French. Then we also produce materials in a number of languages other than our official two languages. In the case of the homeless, we provide voting information to shelters and we provide a template that they’re able to use to create a letter on the organization’s letterhead which can provide proof of where a person is currently living in the absence of permanent housing. So that’s an idea of what we do.’

‘Ideally, we work through the various stakeholder groups so they can support and inform their constituents as to the electoral process. It’s most effective if we can reach electors with important information through the stakeholder communication channels they are used to.’

The Outreach Program continues to evolve. ‘The feedback from our efforts in the 2003 election was quite positive,’ remarks Heather. ‘But still, we’ve identified a number of areas that we want to work on, including the further development of our relationships with organizations that serve the needs of those with mental health issues, such as CMHA Ontario. And,’ Heather emphasizes, ‘we always want to be sure that citizens know they do not need to have a permanent address, nor are they disqualified from voting if they have a mental illness.’

Certainly, the outreach efforts of Elections Ontario represent a critical step towards greater civic engagement and inclusive practices. ‘I really applaud the steps that have been taken by Elections Ontario,’ commends Allan. But inclusion is a two-way street. ‘Not only do we need to treat the disenfranchised as full citizens and educate people about the rights and entitlements of citizenship in this province and country, we [electors] must also assume the responsibilities of citizenship.’

As the next Ontario election approaches, there are many things that citizens can do to exercise their civic responsibilities and include themselves in the process. Among these, Allan implores us all to ‘Learn about the issues, educate yourself about the process, and attend your local all-candidates meetings. And if you support a particular party or candidate, there are lots of opportunities through the campaign period to get involved by knocking on doors, or dropping off literature, distributing signs or answering phones. There are a variety of tasks that need to be done during an election that allow us all to contribute to the political process. Being a candidate is actually a bit like being the tip of the iceberg. It’s everything else behind the scenes that makes the biggest difference.’

Elizabeth Lines is a researcher/writer in areas of health and social issues.


Fast Facts

65%
Percentage of eligible voters who voted in the 2006 federal election
(Source: Elections Canada, www.elections.ca)

57%
Percentage of eligible voters who voted in the 2003 Ontario election
(Source: Elections Canada, www.elections.ca)

41%
Average voter turnout in Ontario municipal elections in 2006
(Source: Association of Municipalities of Ontario, www.amo.on.ca)


Ontario Provincial Election 2007

Mark your calendar! The next Ontario provincial election will be held on October 10, 2007.

Since legislation was passed in 2005, provincial election dates are now fixed by formula so that they occur every four years, unless the government is defeated by a non-confidence vote in the legislature prior to that time.

For information about any aspect of the election process, including accommodations for voters, contact Elections Ontario via e-mail atinfo@electionsontario.on.ca or call 1-800-677-8683. Elections Ontario is a non-partisan agency of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario that is responsible for the organization and conduct of elections.

For more information, visit www.electionsontario.on.ca.


Defining Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is an umbrella term for a wide range of ways to be involved in a community, including active involvement in neighbourhood affairs and direct involvement in local politics as a candidate or as a voter….

Voting patterns demonstrate that non-voting can be read not simply as individual apathy, but also as disaffection or disconnectedness. Education level, household income, and age correspond closely to voter participation rates. We also see correlations between other markers of identity such as gender and religion and levels of engagement in civic affairs. Among newcomers, cultural traditions around gender roles and the social position of elders or youth may play a role. Comfort with official languages may also be a factor….

A further concern is that deficiencies in access to adequate housing, a secure income, education, and employment opportunities also create significant barriers to community participation. Meeting these needs may well be a pre-condition for widespread civic engagement….

Civic engagement, including voting, can be understood as an individual’s decision to engage or not, but it can also be understood as a process to engage community members. It is a series of ‘strategies and actions to promote participation of individuals and groups in the full range of civic and community life to enhance social interaction, harmonious neighbourhoods and active citizenship.’ Civic engagement means actively inviting community members into the process of local governance. Yet civic engagement – sometimes called civic participation – often caters to the interests, networks, and habits of a middle-class, ethnically homogeneous group. Diversifying civic engagement requires new spaces and approaches that foster inclusion.

Source: Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia, ‘Policy Spotlight on Diversity and Civic Engagement,’ November 2005,www.sparc.bc.ca.


» Return to Network, Spring-Summer 2007 – Contents