Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Cultural norms and vote disclosure

While it's not exactly something they test for in the infamous Canadian "points system," one of the things that always helps any new immigrant integrate is a certain knack for armchair anthropology. After all, it's only when you can figure out the differences between your culture of residence and your culture of origin that you have the option of altering your behaviour so that you come across the way you want to come across. But some differences are more elusive than others, and one of the things that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out was the Canadian cultural norms for vote disclosure.

Case in point: I have frequent and regular discussions about politics with several of my local friends. These aren't political junkies like you and me, but they do pay attention to the news, and they think about politics pretty much every day. Sometime over the course of the 2004 federal election, though, I finally realized that not a single one of them had ever told me how they voted. Without even thinking about it, I asked one of them how he was planning to vote this time. He told me, but his body language and shocked expression told me that it had been a major faux pas to ask.

I've always been the type to poke at something until it makes sense to me, so I responded to this by taking an informal poll in a forum that consisted of about a third Canadians and half Americans. The question: "Are you comfortable with telling your friends how you're planning on voting in an upcoming election?" This prompted not only a terrific discussion, but also answers: of the Canadians who responded, two said they were comfortable, and eight said they weren't. Of the Americans who responded, every last one of them said they were. Light dawned. It's hardly publishable data, but the trend is pretty clear.

This is a fascinating distinction, and it's made all the more fascinating by the fact that the two cultures seem to completely switch places when it comes to disclosing your vote to a campaign worker. I've volunteered for a couple of campaigns since moving up here, and I'm constantly stunned by just how willing Canadians are to tell complete strangers how they're voting. If they're supporting that candidate, they'll tend to say "yes, he has my vote," or "I always vote [party x]," or "I'm afraid I'm voting for [party y] this time." The volunteers will spend hours asking people the same questions, and only very rarely is anyone unwilling to spell out who they're voting for. This is quite the opposite of my mother's experience doing similar work last fall for one of the U.S. presidential campaigns, in which every second person she phoned told her it was none of her business.


Anonymous said...

Here's a question: did you take age into account at all? I was at a party last night and no one was at all reticient about disclosing their vote. There's hardly a big age gap there, but who knows.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I didn't, actually, and that's an interesting point. How old were the people at your party?

Anonymous said...

We're all between 21 and 25 (mostly 22). It's interesting, because we're kind of the missed generation in election advertising - we didn't have the Rock the Vote thing or anything like that, as far as I can remember. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, though - just an observation. Interestingly enough, almost everyone at the party was also an advocate of proportional representation. There's an age study for you. ;)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Cool! You should tell them to start coming to the Fair Vote Alberta meetings. :-)