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Voting is the most important undertaking a citizen has in a democracy. With the Ontario election upon us and others looming, consider some non-partisan advice on how to cast your ballot. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

How to cast your ballot: The non-partisan’s voting guide

There are an increasing number of online tools to help citizens figure out who they should vote for, generally focusing on personal preferences regarding specific policy positions.

Vote Compass in Ontario is typical, tabulating results based on a potential voter’s views on a range of issues — from rental, university tuition and electricity costs through to sex education, the power of unions, minimum wage, a guaranteed annual income and taxation on corporations. But such tools are only of limited use.

A millennial voter, one who feels maligned because of the criticism levelled at her generation for not voting, asked me recently about why she should vote, and how to think about voting as an act of citizenship rather than partisanship.

That led to a discussion about how one might assess politicians, either the real or aspirational variety, as well as parties — less on issues that divide, and more on ability to serve and how to do the job well.

Then a retired friend posted on social media that he is so discouraged by the current slate of candidates in the Ontario election that he’s thinking of not voting at all for the first time since becoming a Canadian citizen.

Here’s my advice to them both, and to any voter, Canadian or otherwise, heading to the polls in the weeks or months to come. Canada’s next federal election is only a year and a half away, after all, and American voters cast their ballots in mid-term elections this fall that will determine the makeup of U.S. Congress.

Government is important

How you vote is an indication of the role you think government plays in society.

But understand that there is more than one “core business” of government. Governments legislate, regulate, provide funding, collect taxes — enabling and prohibiting actions large and small. In the 21st century, no magical thinking can erase the need for governance, but the scope and content of governance can and should be regularly contested.

A Nebraska State worker inspects food at a restaurant at Mahoney State Park, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Beware of candidates who claim government should be run like a business.

Private enterprise is largely motivated by profit; government is about the public good. Think about food safety, transportation or environmental regulation — all of which must consider public protection and not be ethically compromised by serving the interests of private corporations.

Experience matters in politics, but not only experience gained in the private sector. Previous public service, volunteer experience, the charitable and NGO sector — all are important in generating well-rounded candidates capable of taking on the challenge and the responsibility of elected office.

Politicians should lead, not follow.

If an unpopular policy makes sense, then inspired and articulate leadership requires appealing to the better angels of our nature as citizens, not the baser instincts of our behaviour as consumers.

Canadian political leaders of the past we most admire had the determination to convince naysayers of a broader, longer-term vision — think of John A. Macdonald and the national railway, Tommy Douglas and health care, Pierre Trudeau and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And those elected to government must remember that they govern for everyone, not just those who elected them.

Queen Elizabeth II signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ron Poling

Be wary of single-issue candidates who are experts on, or only committed to, one position. After all, government is complex. Likewise, an unwillingness to learn or to change when faced with new facts or circumstances is not necessarily a matter of principle. It could be obstinacy or even idiocy.

Facts matter

Policy-making is difficult, often affording poor and worse courses of action. Ideology may be helpful for providing an over-arching vision, but less so when assessing policy options, where fact-based evidence should be paramount. Spinning or crafting facts to suit a political agenda can lead to decision-based evidence-making, rather than evidence-based decision-making.

Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once reputedly said that what sends any government off course is events beyond the control of any politician or party. No one can claim full responsibility for what goes well or awry during any administration. But pay attention to how and if politicians change their minds when faced with new or unexpected circumstances.

Regarding strategic voting, be sure to invest some time and energy. Let German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative be your guide: Act in a manner such that your behaviour is generalizable. Before supporting a candidate as a protest vote, or spoiling or declining a ballot, consider if everyone were to vote the same way. Could you live with that choice?

Finally, and if really undecided, then think local: Look at the candidates in your riding, district or constituency. Think about supporting candidates so that your choice helps government better reflect our society, incorporating previously silenced voices and alternative perspectives.

Wherever you live, elections are probably looming on the horizon. Vote responsibly — it’s one of your most important duties as a citizen of any democracy.

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