For the first time in the history of the paralegal profession in Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada (“LSUC”), the Ontario regulatory body which governs the legal profession, is permitting paralegals to stand for election as directors (known at the LSUC as Benchers). This LSUC board of governors is made up of 53 members- 8 non-legal or lay members appointed by the provincial government, 40 lawyers elected by all lawyers in Ontario, and now soon to be 5 paralegals elected by their membership. This is an illustrious event in the annals of the paralegal profession. Were I a licensed paralegal, I would at the very least be concerned with which 5 members were going to assist in governing my profession on everything from scope of practice to discipline. The particular 5 to be elected are all the more important on a board with significantly more lawyer members, many of whom, from the get-go, dislike, fear, and disrespect paralegals.
The voting for this election could not be any easier. All of the more than 6000 licenced paralegals in the province need simply log on to the website to cast their votes (each voter can select 5 of the two dozen or so candidates in the mix). I am one of those lawyers who has always benefited from a symbiotic business relationship between lawyers and paralegals. I regularly teach paralegal courses, write for their publications, and speak at their conferences. I was honoured to be selected to moderate one of the two major election debates between the paralegal Bencher candidates last month. So it saddens me, and it should terrify the paralegals themselves, that according the LSUC, with only a few days until the close of voting, that less than 1000 of those eligible to cast their votes actually did so. The actual proportion to have voted as of this writing is 13%.
My lawyer colleagues didn’t fare a whole lot better. In the 2011 Bencher election, there were over 100 candidates for 40 seats. There were over 50,000 lawyers eligible to vote by mail. At the end of the day only 37% cast their ballot.
This particular apathy towards voting within a fairly insular self-governing profession is not only disturbing; it could have profound results. The more interested and informed voters there are, the most likelihood there will be of actually achieving a governing body that is truly representative of the personal, business and geographic diversity within the profession. The more people involved in the debates and dialogues over issues of the day, the more voices will not only be heard but listened to by those in power. And most importantly, an active electorate is the strongest bulwark against the tyranny of the minority in power.
Regrettably, this voter lethargy is not unique to the legal profession. It is in fact merely a symptom of the endemic atrophy of voter interest in the public at large.
There will be shortly a provincial election. In the last such election, the 2011 vote which sent Dalton McGuinty back to the Premier’s office, only 48% of Ontario voters showed up at the polls. Federally, Stephen Harper secured his last majority government in May of 2011 with a respectable but we-can-still-do-better 6 out of every 10 of registered voters bothering to leave their homes or offices to do their civic duty.
Next to self-governing regulatory bodies for the professions, the single most direct impact any level of governing authority will have on an individual is at the municipal level. And yet, municipal elections have abysmal turnouts. In the last province-wide municipal elections of October 2010, less than half exercised their democratic right to select their local government. While I would not expect anything nearing the 100 percent voter turnout in sham elections run by the likes of Saddam Hussein, a turnout of three-quarters of eligible electorate would be more in line with what one would hope for in a vibrant, active democracy.
Not that any of this is new. I recall with a mix of humour and sadness knocking on doors in the 1984 federal election with the late Solicitor General of Canada Bob Kaplan, and us being greeted again and again at the doors with stunned residents who, upon looking at the pamphlet I handed them, would exclaim “oh, there’s an election on?”
I have heard all the excuses- “I don’t know anything about politics”; “I don’t have time to go vote”; “They’re all the same so why waste my time?”; My vote doesn’t count anyway” And every conceivable variation on these and many other excuses.
We live in what is, despite Americans’ claim that they are it, the most free and democratic nation in the world. We are able to elect governments from our small town local council up to our federal government. There are dozens of professional regulatory bodies in the province representing hundreds of thousands of hard-working, tax-paying professionals. For the most part, those in the professions get to vote for their leadership as well. Even the condo I live in has annual elections to ensure the board of directors is democratically elected. But we should not take this democracy for granted. Democracy ignored can turn into democracy denied. We must take to heart our democratic right to vote and when presented the opportunity, we must educate ourselves, involve ourselves and motivate ourselves to be aware of the issues and to cast an informed vote.