Declined ballots are nonsense

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It’s not often that I’ll give democratic reform minister Pierre Poilievre credit for anything, but the fact that he has stated last week that he will not be exploring legislation to bring in “declined ballots” federally is actually something he deserves kudos for.  Being as Ontario is one of the few provinces that allows for a declined ballot option, attention was paid to this during the provincial election as a movement sprang up that encouraged people to do just that, apparently in protest for the poor options being presented.  While there are a number of competing conspiracy theories as to who was behind such declined ballot campaigns, the result was that the number of declined ballots was up considerably, for all the good that it did anyone.

The logic behind the movement is that unlike people who don’t show up at the polls, this is a more substantial form of protest because people obviously bothered to get to the polls before they declared that they didn’t want to vote.  Sure, it’s a number that you can track, but to what end?  What message does this send exactly?  And if you listen to the likes of Democracy Watch, even declined ballots don’t go far enough because they feel that there should be lines at the bottom of the ballot for someone to explain why they chose “none of the above.”

There are a number of problems with that kind of proposal, but the most glaringly obvious one is that I’m not exactly sure what Elections Canada is supposed to do with all of those written-in refusals.  Even if they do generate a report, how much value is it for them to report that x number of Canadians said “this is stupid” or “they’re all corrupt” or “they’re all servants of the freemasons/Illuminati/lizard people/Antichrist,” or what have you.  It’s not Elections Canada’s job to tell the parties to somehow do better.  That job actually belongs to the voters.  I’m also not exactly sure what good of a metric it is to say how many people bothered to show up to refuse their ballot or mark “none of the above,” because it doesn’t actually do anything substantive.  So you didn’t want to make a decision?  What did you do about it?

And that is really the crux of what we’re getting at – making a decision.  It’s what democracy is about, fundamentally.  When you go to the ballot box, you need to make a decision.  Sometimes it’s a clear and easy choice.  Sometimes it’s a hard choice because there are no clear and easy options, no matter on what particular measure you’re basing that decision on, whether it’s the strength of the local candidate, because you like the leader, or you have a particular policy issue that you care deeply about and you’re still not sure which party is going to best advance that goal for you.

What declining or “none of the above” winds up meaning is that you don’t want to make a decision.  But with how many other areas in life can we refuse to make a decision so casually, despite the fact that our very governance is a pretty important decision.  Don’t like the options, so you’re just going to refuse?  It’s a pretty appalling attitude to have considering that as a citizen, it’s not only a duty but a responsibility to make that decision once the time comes, as it does every few years.  And sometimes that decision is going to be “what is the lesser evil?”  Life is hard, and we all need to make tough choices from time to time.

But beyond that, if someone doesn’t like the choices that are on offer, perhaps their next question should be “what did I do to improve this situation?”  One of the most common, and perhaps most toxic, attitudes that pervades our democracy is that it’s somehow a kind of spectator sport where you only need to mark a ballot every three or four years, and then leave it up to someone else to fight it out the rest of the time.  But it’s not how our system actually works, nor is it the way it should work.  Voting at a general election is actually the end-point when it comes to engaging in our system of democracy – it is neither the beginning, nor the be-all and end-all.

Our system depends on people to provide inputs into the system.  That means joining parties, getting involved in policy discussions at the riding level with other grassroots members and advancing those ideas to the party during biennial conventions, where they can be voted on and be adopted as party policy.  It’s about looking for better candidates, and holding incumbents to account at the local, party level so that if you’re not happy with their performance, you can replace them before the next election rolls around.  And if the party wants to protect that incumbent, then there are all kinds of means of protest that can be done at that time as well.  It’s a dynamic system built for input.  The problem is that people have abandoned that engagement and input and let it fall to the party elites and leaders’ offices to take care.

There should be no reason why a person could not be involved in the system in some way in advance of the actual time when it comes to casting that ballot.  There should be an ownership in the whole process, not simply the end-point.  When people abdicate their responsibility to actually participate in the system to arrive to that point, and then want to decline making that most important choice while they complain that they don’t like the options that they are left with, one has to ask who they have to blame.  They are not the poor victims for whom the system has been imposed on them.  They are, in fact, the problem, and perhaps they need to be reminded of that fact.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Democracy, not technocracy
Time for a rethink on leadership contests
A looming Senate crisis is history repeating
Chong’s Reform Act is a step but not a panacea
NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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4 Responses to “Declined ballots are nonsense”

  1. Paul Schratz

    There’s no need for a specific declined ballot category. Spoiling your ballot is a perfectly acceptable way of communicating your dissatisfaction with the available choices. It may not accomplish much politically, but it provides an outlet for someone who cannot in good conscience vote for any of the candidates.

    Reply
  2. Settler Colonial

    Presupposed throughout this piece is the notion that the political machinery works to turn policy preferences voiced by citizens into policy outcomes that match up to those preferences. It does not. Unless of course we assume that environmental degradation and poverty have been the preferred policy outcomes of Canadian citizens for the last 100 years. Most progressive policy in Canada came during the era when governments were paranoid about a Communist take-over of the economy. Much of it came before any threat of a left-wing/socialist party gaining seats. Indeed, the NDPs most successful electoral performances in history have taken place during the decline of progressive policy, in an era of deepening neo-liberalism, which is precisely the opposite result you’d expect from the mantra that “progressive policy is enacted by centrist/right-wing parties because of a fear of NDP electoral success”. If this theory were true, Harper would be the most left-wing Conservative PM in history. So, to be convincing, this article needs to be prefaced by another article in which the burden of proof is cashed out and participation in formal political arenas is shown to do more than abjuring the vote altogether.

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