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Wake Up and Reject Your Ballot

I am officially fed up with this thing we call Ontario democracy. I am fed up with first-past-the-post representation. I am fed up with barriers the transient and poor face when voting. I am fed up with scripted candidate debates. I am fed up with the farce of minority parties running in established ridings.

This Thursday, on election day, I am going to do something about it. For the first time in my life, I am going to reject my ballot.

Let's be precise here. I am going to go down to my polling station, show my (hard-fought) registration form, and state that I am formally rejecting my ballot. At that time, I have been led to believe that the voting staff will record that I have rejected my ballot. Then I will leave with a clear conscience.

Here are some things I am not going to do. I am not going to abstain from the voting process by staying at home. I am not going to spoil my vote by defacing, eating, or burning my ballot. I am not going to vote for a fringe party that has no chance of winning in my riding just so that I can feel warm and fuzzy inside. I am going to formally reject my ballot, and -- if you are eligible to vote in a first-past-the-post system where rejected ballots are tallied -- I urge you to do the same.

Why would I do such a horrible irresponsible thing? Don't I want to have my say in how the province is run? Don't I respect and cherish our hard-fought democratic rights? Can't I be bothered to make an intelligent, informed choice of candidate? My answers to these questions are: because I care about democracy; I am; I do; I have.

Look. I like democracy. I like the vote. I am very grateful to all those who have fought (militarily and otherwise) to bring forth a system of government where people have some say in how their states are run.

At the same time, I maintain that ours is a weak form of democracy, and it is growing weaker. Voting rates are falling. We have lost much faith in our government. We have little respect for our politicians. And -- most importantly -- I believe we take our right to vote for granted, that we are forgetting what democracy is and how to keep it healthy.

I strongly believe in the power of proportional representation to address some of these problems. Proportional representation is a simple idea: some fraction of the seats in a parliament should be chosen according to the percentages of people voting for each political party. If the Progressive Conservatives got 30 percent of the votes, they should get approximately 30 percent of the proportionally-determined seats. If the Family Coalition Party got 7 percent of the vote, it should get approximately 7 percent of the seats. There are many different forms of proportional representation practiced around the globe -- take a look at the Fair Vote Canada website for more information. Some of them work better than others, and I am not sure of the system that Ontario (or Canada) should adopt. I am certain that we could come up with a system better than the horrible broken one used in Italy, and I believe that a proportional representation system would improve the strength of our democracy -- at the very least, it has the potential to make our representative democracy more representative of minority voices that are currently silenced because they can't get elected. Some people fear minority voices in our governments, but I champion them -- even when they don't agree with my own views.

I could go on a long and boring tirade in favour of proportional representation, but I am not going to. I am rather ticked off and disappointed with our electoral system right now, and I want to relate some experiences that demonstrate why.

The farce of strategic voting

My first anecdote goes all the way back to 1999, when I was all hot and bothered because the Mike Harris government was facing a second term in office, and nobody seemed to care. I naively urged people to vote. Others urged people to vote as well: the buzzword that season was "strategic voting," whereby people were supposed to vote for the candidate most likely to bring down a given PC candidate in a given riding. If it looked like the Liberal candidate was going to win the riding, you would vote Liberal even if you believed in the NDP or Green party or some independent candidate. Similarly, if it looked as if the NDP guy had a good chance of beating the Liberal, you would vote NDP. All we wanted to do was to get the Tories out of power.

Surprise! Strategic voting failed spectacularly -- the Tories cruised to an easy victory. Would they have done as well under a proportional voting system? It would not have been likely. In the 1999 election, the Tories won 57 percent of the seats with 45.1 percent of the vote, while the Liberals won 33 percent of the seats with 39.9 percent of the vote and the received nine percent of the seats with 12.6 percent of the vote. Maybe the Tories would have retained their majority under proportional representation, but I doubt it would have been as comfortable. The sad thing is that by first-past-the-post standards, this result is fairly representative -- far more so than the Bob Rae government of 1990, for example.

One thing is clear to me, though. Strategic voting failed miserably. The bleeding-hearts could not co-ordinate their actions well enough, and the thought of voting Liberal when you did not believe in the Liberals felt cheap. Furthermore, it made Tory supporters feel smugly superior, because the opposition admitted it could not win a government without resorting to voting trickery -- and it did not win a government anyways. Even more demoralizing was the thought that we who did not support the Tories effectively had no voice in the new government, because a majority government can pass whatever bills it wants.

I can't remember whether I voted strategically in that election or not. It doesn't really matter. I was thinking hard about the idea all the way to the pooling booth, and that was damning enough.

Clearly, proportional representation would have made a difference in 1999. The Tories may still have won their majority, but the fraction of seats they won would very likely have been smaller. That's strike one.

Systemic barriers to the vote

For strike two, we only need to look at the hassles I had to go through in order to appear on the voter's list at all. I am somewhat transient these days -- I have a home, but I move frequently. The electoral system is biased against people like me for a number of reasons. People who have mortgages and own houses (or who live in the same place year after year) get on the voter's list easily: they get their card in the mail, and they go vote on voting day. Those of us who do not have a stable address have to go down to the returning officer's office and show some identification: two pieces of ID with our photograph, and one piece of ID with our address.

Fortunately, I could provide the photo identification even without a driver's license. If I had not been a university student, this would have been very hard, though -- I had to rely on my health card and my student card, because these are the only two pieces of (current) ID that have my photograph. The identification containing my address proved to be nearly impossible for me to obtain, because I don't receive mail at my place of residence.

Were the folks at the returning officer's office sympathetic to my plight? No. Their job is to ensure that I am not lying when I say I live where I live. What happens if -- for whatever reason -- I do not have such evidence? Then I am out of luck. One person helpfully suggested that I vote in the riding for which I was last registered, instead of voting in my current riding. That's disgusting.

I am not going to complain about my experience too much. I managed to get myself on the voter's list with a few hours of work and a couple of trips to the returning officer's office. However, there is no question that this procedure is a lot more trouble than those who live in stable residences face, and there is little doubt in my mind that anybody less determined than I to exercise my voting rights would have given up. That means poor people are less likely to vote than rich ones, because poor people tend to move around more. That means that students are less likely to vote than people who work full-time, because students are supposed to vote in their home ridings, not the riding where they go to school. What a mess.

I don't know a good solution to this problem, unfortunately. At the end of the day, the elections office needs to maintain the integrity of its voting lists. However, I reserve the right to point out that there is a real problem here. Would proportional representation fix this problem? Not directly -- but it might make the hassles more worthwhile than they are now.

The sham of multiple candidacies

You know, it's not hard to get me all worked up over the elections process. Every election I get a little more disheartened and grow a little more cynical. I don't know whether I have ever been more disheartened with democracy as I was last night, however. Yesterday I attended an "all"-candidates debate held at a local hotel. For posterity, let's record the names and affiliations of the candidates running in my riding:

You probably have enough fingers to count how many candidates were running in my riding. In case you are having difficulties, I'll tell you: seven candidates were running in my riding.

The format for the debate was as follows: first, each candidate got to make some opening remarks. Next, three important media people (from a local newspaper, radio station and television station respectively) got to pose one question each. Next, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. At one point, the moderator got a media wonk to ask one additional question, and then there were more audience questions. Finally, the candidates were allowed to make their closing remarks.

The question format was as follows: each questioner was allowed to direct his or her question to exactly one candidate. Only that candidate would be allowed to answer, unless the questioner asked a question of one candidate and referenced another candidate while asking the question, in which case both candidates would be allowed to answer the question. This means that we could tally where "audience" interest lie for the debate.

Why do I put scare quotes around "audience"? I do so because the debate was a sham. The candidates from the three major parties (Tories, Liberals and NDP) stuffed the room with their supporters.

The moderator prefaced the debate by making some opening remarks. He mentioned that having so many candidates was a sign of a "healthy democracy". Hogwash. Let's look at the number of questions each candidate received during the debate:

For two hours, four of the seven candidates quietly sat in their seats and were ignored. They worked on their closing remarks and gave some really wonderful speeches. This is a healthy democracy?

Look. Everybody knows that our riding is a race between the Liberals and the Tories. I attended three candidates meetings in this campaign, and from what I have seen at least three of the five candidates who were not Liz Witmer or Sean Strickland had good ideas and potential. In particular, Lajoie impressed me as an impressive speaker with good ideas, Fergeson showed a lot of personal integrity in a losing cause, and Richards had some insightful personal anecdotes to relate that illustrated the wisdom of her party's platform. Did any of these candidates get a voice? After paying the registration fee, did these candidates get an opportunity to convince a televised audience that they would be worthy MPPs if elected? No. Not really. They were stifled. All night, people jabbed at Strickland and Witmer, and happily ignored the other candidates. That's not healthy democracy. It made me feel sick, and made me realize that I am throwing my vote away if I vote for the candidate which I support. My candidate is not going to win the riding, and voting for my candidate is not going to influence future policy in any real way. So why bother?

It gets worse, of course. Many of the questions were hard-hitting, with no easy answers. For the most part, the candidates addressed did not bother answering the questions posed. Instead, they uttered platitudes and promises of how much taxpayer money they were going to fix to solve problems. For example, one woman related her experience of waiting for six and a half hours in an emergency waiting room before giving up and going home. She directly asked Witmer how she was going to solve this problem (and she could very easily have asked how this situation reflects the money the Tories have supposedly poured into health care). Witmer responded with platitudes: the Tories were building more medical schools, attracting more foreign doctors, and on and on. But none of those things related to the Tory record (which claims to have solved emergency room waiting times) and these initiatives to train doctors will not show up for the next 10-12 years until those doctors graduate. Furthermore, Witmer had the gall to blame the Bob Rae government from 1992 for reducing the number of positions available in medical schools -- despite the fact that her government has had power since 1995, and has had eight years to reverse that decision. Hog wash. Many, many of the answers were of this nature. This is a healthy democracy?

This is not the first time I have seen such farces in candidate debates. I attended a federal debate during the last election, and it was basically the same -- the Canadian Alliance and Liberal candidates packed the room with their supporters, and those supported jabbed at the enemy all night.

Some of the other debates I attended during this campaign were better -- at least every candidate had the opportunity to speak. At one debate (put on by a local tenant activist association), every candidate had lots of opportunity to speak -- because neither Strickland nor Witmer thought the debate important enough to participate. (Witmer "expressed regrets", and Strickland originally came and then left because a CBC television crew was recording the debate as part of a documentary in which Dan Lajoie -- who is disabled and uses a wheelchair -- was to appear.) That's a healthy democracy? That is how much the debates think of rental voters?

Sick and tired, again

I am tired of it. I am tired of this hopeful farce that we can make some difference by voting with our minds and hearts for minority candidates. We have been voting for minority candidates for years and years, and with one major exception -- the Bob Rae NDP government -- nothing has worked. Minority candidates can't get their messages across. The media ignores them, and thus those who follow the media ignore them as well. For example, Frank de Jong of the Green Party was not allowed to participate in the televised leadership debate this campaign, even though the Green Party is running candidates in all but one riding in Ontario. The Greens were running as many candidates -- if not more -- than the NDP, and they are not seen as a legitimate political party. They are seen as a fringe party not worthy of consideration -- or maybe they were seen as worthy of consideration, but the powers that be did not want to open the floodgates.

I am tired of it. I understand that some of these smaller parties are building up their popularity base, and that they are making some strides. The Greens, in particular, have been making strides into Ontario, and -- who knows? -- they might surprise everybody and take a seat or two within the next few elections. That may encourage me as a Green supporter, but it is small consolation to supporters of the Family Coalition Party or the Freedom Party or any of the other small parties running candidates in this election -- parties that have real supporters and whose voice will be silenced. Certainly, the NDP does not want the Green Party getting too strong, because they fear that the environmentalists who currently vote NDP might switch sides, and the NDP will get fewer seats. I don't think that is right. That is an implicit coalition -- of people who would ordinarily vote NDP and those who would vote Green if they had the chance. It makes far more sense to me that the coalitions be explicit.

I am tired of this charade. I support democracy. That's why I support a national (or multinational) movement for people to reject their ballots.

I think that Canada and Ontario will eventually have some form of proportional democracy. Activist organizations are pushing the issue, and the federal government is even considering the idea. Sooner or later -- probably sooner -- we will have some form of proportional democracy in this country. However, we do not have proportional representation yet, and it is not in the narrow self-interest of any majority government to support proportional representation. So long as governments can continue to win elections on false majorities, they will continue to benefit from the broken system we have now.

The provincial Liberals are promising to re-evaluate the voting system, possibly implementing some form of proportional representation. The federal Liberals are promising similar things. I do not believe any of these promises, because I have heard them before. I will believe these promises when they are implemented, in a way that is fair and truly allows my vote to count for something. Until then, they are more empty promises.

Here's what I can do. I can use my vote to show that I am tired of the current electoral system. I can reject my ballot, and encourage my friends and neighbours to do the same. Then the activist organizations can point to the many people who have rejected their ballot. They can dispel the myths: that people are too apathetic to vote, that minority votes matter, that our democracy is strong. They can point to our rejected ballots and argue that we, the people of Ontario and the people of Canada, have given our electoral system a vote of non-confidence. If we are lucky this will scare our lawmakers enough into keeping their fine promises of proportional representation, and we will see some positive electoral reform in this province and in this country.

I cannot think of a more useful way in which to use my vote. Because rejected ballots are tallied (and, I hope, published), a rejected ballot counts for more than a spoiled ballot. A rejected ballot refutes the idea that I am too lazy to vote, because I have to go through the same procedures that everybody else does. A rejected ballot does not reject the idea that I am ignorant of the issues. but it at least shows that I have put some thought into my decision. A rejected ballot gives me some voice -- not the voice I want, but more voice than I would have by voting Green or NDP or Family Coalition Party or for an independent candidate.

Yes. I am still wasting my vote, because not enough people will reject their ballots this election to show that we are collectively ticked off. That's fine. We're building a movement -- a movement that works. Regardless of the candidates running in your riding, you can reject your ballot. Regardless of your party affiliations, you can reject your ballot. When enough people not represented by the current election choices reject their ballots, then we will see change. I think that the numbers exist to make a real difference. I think it will take co-ordination and hard work to get the word out that this movement is real, that people are being patriotic -- not terrorist traitors -- by rejecting their ballots, that they are making their voices count in a real way instead of wasting their time and energy voting for parties and candidates that have no impact on future governments.

There is a good criticism one could make of rejecting one's ballot. Maybe by doing so I am denying minority parties funding, because there is actually some form of proportional representation in effect, and parties get funded based on the number of votes they receive. This is a legitimate point, but I am not so sure it is actually the case in our electoral system. If it is, I might change my mind -- but there will still be a strong argument to be made for issuing our governments a strong wake-up call by rejecting our ballots. If you disagree, then vote for the party you believe in and hope that they will get the funding they need to have a say in our government.

I should express another caveat here: I am intentionally leaving municipal politics out of this tirade. I do plan to vote in the upcoming municipal and regional elections. These systems have their problems as well, but the problems are different because the situations are different. On the municipal level, candidates typically do not run with party affiliations, so we have to pay more attention to individual candidates when we vote. Also, on a regional level more than one candidate in a riding can win a seat. These make the problems of municipal voting systems different than those at the provincial or federal level, and I do not think that rejecting one's ballot at the municipal level makes a lot of sense.

I have a few more confessions to make before I shut my fat mouth and leave you alone. First of all, I did not even know that you could reject your ballot until Prabhakar Ragde mentioned the possibility on his CS 251 weblog. Once again, I am in great debt to him. Secondly, I am so fired up at the idea of rejecting one's ballot that I feel like starting up a national movement to support the idea. I am even thinking of running in the next federal election bearing my message, asking people not to vote for me, but to reject their ballots instead. I would like to make promises and vow that I am going to spearhead electoral reform, but I think we all know me better than that. I don't exactly have a good track record of living up to my promises. So if you want to take this idea and run with it, go ahead. If you want to offer your support to this cause, please do so. Maybe together we can make this crazy idea work. More likely, it will never go anywhere, or it will blow up as badly as strategic voting strategies did, but I care about democracy too much to give up on the idea totally.


First of all, the proper term for rejecting one's ballot is "decline". This is important because there is a formal procedure associated with declining one's ballot.

I received this link from one Matt Jelly, via Prabhakar Ragde. It offers official confirmation that declined ballots are counted in the vote. However, nobody makes any promises that the results of these declined ballots are released in any convenient format (for example, Elections Ontario does not summarize the number and percentage of declined ballots overall).