Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ More Provincial Election Post-Blather

More Provincial Election Post-Blather

As of this writing, it has been less than three weeks since Election Day. Tomorrow the provincial government starts up again; if I don't get down my thoughts now I will probably never get around to it (and what a shame that would be, right?). Already the election feels like a thousand years ago. The lawn signs are gone, and with it the pervasive sense of uncertainty before election day.

My ears have been giving me discomfort, and I am worried that podcasts may have ruined my ears for the rest of my life. So lately I have not been listening to The Agenda or Business to Business, which is probably better for me in the long run regardless of whether podcasts damage my ears. So I have not followed a lot of recent developments post-election. I still have uninformed opinions, however.

The Results

I still cannot understand what happened. The Liberals won a majority government with about the same share of popular vote that got Dalton McGuinty a minority government in 2011, but (relatively speaking) the Progressive Conservative vote collapsed. So Kathleen Wynne is our premier, and she does not need to listen to any of the other political parties for another four years.

In some sense, I am relieved. At least we won't have the threat of an election hanging over our heads constantly. In a better world the NDP and Liberals would have cooperated more closely to see the previous government through its full term (and there might have even been a formal coalition), but we do not live in that world. In this world, the three major parties jockeyed for position, which in my opinion is the real reason the NDP refused to support the Liberal budget.

It feels strange to say this, but I mostly got what I wanted:

On the other hand, no Green candidates got close to being elected, and although Mike Schreiner did okay in Guelph he did not even finish second. That's disappointing, but maybe not surprising. The Green share of the popular vote did go up a little, so the election was not a total disaster for them. My guess is that the fate of the provincial Greens is closely tied to how well the Greens do federally. Unfortunately, it is not clear how well the Greens will do in the next election. It is not even clear that Elizabeth May will be allowed to participate in the leaders debate, although it will be entertaining to see what contortions the broadcasting cabal goes through to keep her out if they do not want her presence.

Overall, my hope is that the Liberals do not interpret their win as a "strong mandate", and that they follow through on the lip-service they have provided to some actual fiscal responsibility. I feel it would be a bad sign if they were to re-introduce their insane budget without changes.

My other hope is that the Wynne government will be a responsive dictatorship that listens to the opposition parties (and the province as a whole) and is responsive to those concerns. This is a faint hope, but part of Wynne's image is that of a facilitator and a moderator.

Overall I am pessimistic that the next four years will be easy. We are in for a lot of fiscal pain, and as usual the poor and vulnerable will get the brunt of things. Either governments will respond to the wishes of the (unelected, unaccountable) credit rating agencies and cut services, or interest rates will go up and we will lose services to debt service charges (or we go bankrupt, which is a whole other level of pain). I expect there will be all kinds of labour union strife. I expect that we will face turmoil at my workplace, and I expect (hope?) that I will be out of a job before the term is up, because I am getting sick and tired of the job uncertainty.

And then there is the calamity, which if/when it hits will blindside us. As usual, environmental concerns were well down the list on this election, and I do not expect to see much progress on this front at all.

Declined Ballots

Over thirty thousand people declined their votes this election. That is phenomenal. According to this article 31 399 people declined their ballots, 22 687 spoiled their ballots (intentionally or otherwise) and 12 059 left theirs blank. This means a lot of people were aware of their option to decline their ballot and explicitly chose to do so. In contrast, 2335 declined their ballots in the 2011 election.

The Decline Your Vote organizers did a good job, there was lots of media coverage during the final days of the campaign, and voters responded. More people declined their ballots than voted for the Freedom Party. Some of those people may have declined their ballots "for the wrong reasons" -- to feel smug, for example -- but these numbers are very good.

Furthermore, voter turnout overall also went up, so it is difficult to argue that the net effect of these declined ballots decided the election.

Having said that, the response to the "Decline Your Vote" initiative made me real mad. All of the left-wingers were painting the initiative as a Conservative conspiracy to drive down the left-wing vote, because "Decline Your Vote" founder Paul Synnott served as a consultant for the Ontario PC party. I felt quite defensive about this. I have been advocating that people be aware of this ballot option for years, and to my knowledge I have never voted for either the provincial or federal Conservatives in my life. (I have voted for municipal candidates with roots in the Conservative party, however.) In my view, initiatives to decline one's ballot are not a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue, and it makes me angry to think the issue might get polarized this way. Declining one's vote is a "fed up with the system" issue. It is a concrete mechanism for indicating that one is engaged enough to get on the voter list and show up on polling day, but that one is sufficiently unhappy with their options not to vote for a candidate. There are many ways to interpret that unhappiness. Maybe the voter did not like any of the candidates. Maybe the voter did not feel that his or her preferred candidate had a chance of winning. Maybe that voter did not feel that he or she was informed enough about the election to cast a meaningful ballot. Maybe the voter felt that the system was rigged, and that casting a ballot for a candidate would demonstrate implicit support for that rigged system. A declined ballot does not resolve ambiguity entirely, but rules out laziness and it rules out disengagement.

That, of course, has not been the reaction. As an example, let's examine the response from one newspaper troll named "Chucklehead", published in the article linked above:

Declining your vote is an utterly worthless and wholly unproductive exercise which gives deluded souls the false belief that they're having some sort of meaningful political impact. At the end of the electoral day, those with actual democratic influence have chosen the composition of their government, and the party in control of which must proceed with their plans. Those who have declined their vote haven't conveyed any message with regard to the policy or platform that constitutes said plans. There is no specific message, other than the petulant one "I don't like any of you!" Well, big deal. Nobody cares. What is anybody supposed to do with that? Therefore, kindly stand over in the political corner while the adults handle things.

Let's look at this sentence by sentence:

Declining your vote is an utterly worthless and wholly unproductive exercise which gives deluded souls the false belief that they're having some sort of meaningful political impact.

"Utterly worthless and wholly unproductive"? Not really. Firstly, it was noteworthy enough to get written up as a news item. Secondly, it was noteworthy enough for "Chucklehead" to troll that article. Thirdly, it indicates discontent with the voting system in a way that is not accomplished by voting for a candidate (which indicates support for the voting system, not discontent), staying home (which is interpreted as laziness), or spoiling one's ballot (which is intepreted as incompetence).

As for "false belief" that people are "having some sort of meaningful political impact", declining one's vote is not much worse than voting for a candidate that one knows will not win the riding. Nobody really cares how many people voted Libertarian in this election.

At the end of the electoral day, those with actual democratic influence have chosen the composition of their government, and the party in control of which must proceed with their plans.

I agree with this statement. However, "those with actual democratic influence" are not the voters. They are the backroom party hacks. The people at central office have to sign off on every candidate nomination. They decide the funding that goes to various ridings. They are responsible for the centralized messaging that wins or loses elections. Maybe voters have a role to play in this collectively, but an individual voter has almost no "democratic influence" on the system, and any voter who votes for a third-place candidate or less has no influence at all.

Those who have declined their vote haven't conveyed any message with regard to the policy or platform that constitutes said plans.

Correct. However, somebody who votes for a party does not indicate an unambiguous message either. When I vote Liberal, does that mean I like the party leader, my local candidate, the party platform, or something else? Does it mean that I just don't like the Conservatives?

Declining one's vote is not a comment on any particular party or platform. It is a comment on the system on the whole.

There is no specific message, other than the petulant one "I don't like any of you!"

Wrong. It might be a statement that "I don't like any of you." It may also be a statement that "I like some of you but those people will never get elected, because the system is rigged".

Also, calling "I don't like any of you" is far from petulant. When our trust is violated again and again by parties and their politicians, calling us "petulant" when we indicate our distrust is an epic feat of victim-blaming.

Well, big deal. Nobody cares.

Not yet. This is not a strategy that will make a difference in one election. It is a difference that could start to show itself over the course of three or four elections. If the number of declined votes were to start competing with minor parties like the Libertarians and Greens, and then start competing with the major parties like the NDP, then the message would be getting louder and louder. Parties will still ignore this data and brush it off in the same way "Chucklehead" does, but the credibility of the system would be diminished in a measurable way.

What is anybody supposed to do with that?

Pay attention. Find out what people are not liking about our electoral system and do something with it.

Therefore, kindly stand over in the political corner while the adults handle things.

The adults are handling things. The adults are recognising that the system is rigged, and they are doing something (however small and ineffectual) about it. Voting for losing candidates election after election is not "handling things". Putting power in the hands of the Liberals and/or PCs election after election is not "handling things" when those parties take us for granted and are not responsive to our needs. Dismissing those who express their discontent with the system in a concrete way as not "adults" is a cute rhetorical trick, but it is not legitimate.

Furthermore, what does "stand over in the political corner" supposed to mean? Not voting? Lots and lots of people are doing that already, thanks, and that is not doing any good either.

In response to these kinds of misleading attacks, I wrote a response on Facebook. It has said what I have written here many times before: if you have a party to vote for, then vote for that party. If you don't, then decline your ballot. Don't let the political controllers intepret your unhappiness as apathy.

I sincerely hope that the "Decline Your Ballot" initiative continues. I am not promising to get involved with the group, but I am sorely tempted to do so. I only wish we had the option to decline ballots in the federal election so that we could build up some momentum.

The Enemies of Democracy

After the election (but before my ears started to hurt) I listened to an episode of The Agenda recorded immediately after the main leader's debate. The episode consisted of an analysis carried out by some political consultants, some journalists, and a University of Waterloo political science professor analyzed the debate and the leader performances. This podcast really rubbed me the wrong way. Not having watched the debate, I guess I am not entitled to an opinion on this matter, but ignorance has never shut me up before.

The panel unanimously concluded that Kathleen Wynne had lost the debate and that Tim Hudak had won it. Apparently, Wynne didn't have a message, but Hudak had a good story to tell. Wynne also was asked difficult questions about the gas plant debacle at the beginning of the debate, and apparently did not recover her composure. All of those criticisms might have been true, in some sense. The panellists obsessed over "performances" and the mistakes Wynne supposedly made during the debate. Here were a few of the gems offered by the panelists, many of which concerned Wynne's performance:

and the kicker (which came right at the end of the episode):

It is easy to mock this kind of analysis now that we know the outcome of the election. Despite losing the debate Wynne won the election (which must have flabbergasted this panel) and now they no doubt have just-so stories about why the Liberals won the election even though Hudak won the debate. (Actually, that is a lie: some of them may have just-so stories about how Wynne actually won the debate despite their earlier analysis.) But there is a really important point here: many of these panellists have worked on political campaigns, and several of them have prepped leaders for debates such as these. And if you look at their criticisms and advice, so much of it is toxic:

These political analysts obsess over their candidates winning debates (and elections). If doing so means making opponents look bad, then so be it. If doing so means being dishonest and playing tricks that undermine our overall trust in politics and our politicians, then that is not a problem (and when the population then stops voting or declines their ballots, you can blame them for apathy and tell them to leave politics to the adults).

I feel so angry when politicians behave in slimy ways:

These are all habits that undermine our trust in democracy. But these political analysts preach all of these bad habits, and to nobody's surprise, our trust in democracy is declining steadily.

One aspect of the federal Fair Elections Act that infuriates me is the way the federal government has undermined Elections Canada's ability to run motivational "get out the vote" campaigns. This is supposedly because political parties are supposed to be the ones getting out the vote. But political parties have no interest in strengthening democracy; they are only interested in gaining power and winning elections, and if it is easier to win an election by repressing the vote instead of encouraging it, they have no problem in doing so. The political parties and the backroom political analysts cannot be trusted with the well-being of our democracy.

We can see the effect these political handlers have on our politicians. Often I will be drawn to new politicians because they come across as genuine and honest. But when they are interviewed a few weeks later, they have degenerated into slick-talking, well-managed politicians full of talking points, just like all the other politicians none of us trust. (Eric Hoskins comes to mind, as does Kathleen Wynne herself). But when politicians leave office, they become human beings again, actually demonstrating their intelligence and appreciation of complexity.

Political messaging is toxic to our democracy. People like the analysts from that Agenda episode are directly to blame. They are the enemy. Without them, our politicians would undoubtedly make more gaffes and look bad more often, but our democracy might be healthier and we might trust those politicians more.

There's a part of me that wonders whether Kathleen Wynne's "weak" performance during the debate might have actually helped her. She showed herself as vulnerable and human (apparently she apologised for the gas plant debacle frequently) and maybe that did not hurt her as much as these analysts would have you believe. I do not think that this theory is true, but it is an interesting one to consider.

e-Voting and Convenience

I am more convinced than ever that -- for most people -- e-Voting is a bad idea. The great advantage to e-Voting is that it is supposed to be convenient. But the real work of voting lies not in casting a ballot (I think I spent all of 10 minutes at the polling station) but in understanding the issues and figuring out who to vote for. For me, that means attending at least one all-candidates meeting, reading a little bit of campaign literature, possibly researching one or two topics and maybe listening to some podcasts or reading some papers. And I still consider myself an underinformed voter; I know that I cast my ballot based on ignorance and tribalism.

For those people who say that it is inconvenient visiting a polling station during the day I have little sympathy, because even people who work during the day are entitled to time off in order to vote. There are also lots of advance polling stations for those who really are on fixed schedules.

Is it okay for people to cast their votes on a whim? Maybe. I have mixed feelings about this. Do I believe that more people will cast their ballots if they can do so on their smartphones? Maybe, but I do not think it will raise the voting turnout dramatically.

Then there are the issues around security. Getting e-Voting right is a hard security challenge. I believe that it is a tractable challenge, but (drawing on my experience as a mediocre sysadmin) I do not think it is an easy one. I highly doubt that e-Voting is more reliable than paper voting yet. On the one hand, every registered voter should be allowed at most one electronic vote. On the other hand, nobody should know how an individual electronic voter has cast his or her ballot. These two constraints are very difficult to reconcile.

None of this matters, however, because there is one group for which e-Voting is a clear winner: the disabled. Electronic ballots have the potential to be much more accessible to people with vision disabilities and mobility challenges, which means that in order to accomodate these people it is only a matter of time before we implement some kind of electronic voting system. Then everybody will be encouraged (and then obligated) to use this system. I have no problem with making voting more accessible for the disabled; I have a lot of problems with using disability/accessibility issues as a wedge to push e-Voting to the population as a whole.

Here is the nice thing about paper ballots and the voting system we have now: you have to go out of your way to cast your vote, which means that you have to plan ahead at least a little, which means that voting is a little bit of a special occasion. That means the election is a little bit of a special occasion, which means that people have some incentive to pay attention to the election. That, in my opinion, is where the real problem lies: the inconvenience of paper voting is less of a barrier than taking the overall election campaign seriously.