Over a year ago, when the Ontario general election (that I did not cast a vote in) was happening, I saw encouragement on social media for voters to consider declining their ballot.
The premise is simple.
If you have a bad taste in your mouth regarding an election, you could — according to the way it is portrayed — still participate in the democratic process and make your voice heard.
You could go to the polling station, and, upon being given your ballot, declare to the election official that you’re declining your ballot. At that point, they’re supposed mark you as declined on election documentation, write “declined” on the ballot, and place your ballot in a separate envelope. It never enters the ballot box, and will be counted and tracked formally alongside of the other declined ballots.
The symbol of a large amount of people declining to cast their vote could be an impressive one. Even on an individual level it is strong — much stronger than abstaining from the process completely, and a little stronger than spoiling your ballot and throwing it in the box with other clearly marked or spoiled ballots.
By taking time out of your day to head to a place where you can participate in the election and vote, publicly declaring you’re declining your ballot, and having that ballot counted separately, you’re showing you value the democratic process and that it interests and engages you to some degree. However, it’s made clear that the conditions and state of the election presented to you is something that you are rejecting on the whole.
In Canada specifically, the reasons that someone might be driven to decline their vote become even more interesting when you consider the fact that the provincial and federal political landscape doesn’t have exclusive two-party systems. In the Ontario election of 2018, for example, four major parties ran candidates in all ridings. The Progressive Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, and Green Party won approximately 40%, 33%, 19%, and 4% of the popular vote respectively, and all of them have members (or a member) in the provincial legislature now. So, if you don’t want to simply vote for the mushy middle in the strictest sense, you have some viable alternatives —if none of the alternatives work for you, that’s something!
So, here came the Canadian federal election of 2019. Armed with the option to decline my ballot floating around in the back of my head, on the day of the election I looked up exactly how to do it. I figured the procedure would be the same or similar to the one described on the Elections Ontario website.
After some unfruitful Google searches for instructions on exactly how to do this for the federal election, I finally landed on a very short news article from about five years ago that explains that you simply can’t decline your ballot in a Canadian federal election. In fact, you can only do so in the provincial elections of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
This should change.
One of the most toxic things that happens around election time narratives in Canada are the amount of people —perfectly content with the status quo that the mainstream political parties represent — who turn their noses up at the people who aren’t voting for a party and are abstaining from the whole election process. They cast the people who make this decision as simply “complainers” who aren’t doing anything to influence politics, and sometimes even say that if you don’t vote you shouldn’t be complaining.
“Get out and vote,” they say. “At least do something other than taking issue with the system and the candidates!” They will also preach that the best thing to do is to (I’m annoyed to even type this platitude out) “choose the lesser of two evils.”
This crowd, and their attitude, misses the opportunity to take note of two very important things.
The first is that complaining about things is engaging in the overall democratic process.
“Oh,” some may say, “now you’re defining democracy too broadly.” Quite the contrary! The idea that democracy simply means choosing a candidate from a pre-determined list every four years is defining democracy too narrowly.
If, a few months before the election date, you: start taking note of a few political personalities; form strong sentiments about who you like and dislike; take note of a few pieces of rhetoric you agree and disagree with; share a bunch of posts on social media you sympathize with; and, on election date, head into a polling station to mark a box beside a name only to forget about this whole episode of your life a few weeks later; that’s a very limited form of democratic engagement.
I grant that anyone who participates to that extent and no further should be satisfied with themselves to some degree — at least more than, say, someone who completely avoids even thinking about anything political at all. However, they shouldn’t be more satisfied with themselves than the people who do a lot of complaining about the political landscape and how the issues important to them are not being addressed.
Happily, or begrudgingly, voting for a candidate in an election should not be the beginning, middle, and end of your political concern and democratic engagement.
Articles that claim to be concerned with democratic engagement (noticeable only around election time) encouraging people to still just “get out and vote” if they feel disengaged or unhappy with their options or the election, and the people that judge the validity of a political opinion based only on whether someone voted or not are, in reality, more concerned with the fashionable signal and statement voting can be. After the election, these folks congratulate themselves for “getting involved” and are more than content with not putting any more effort in understanding politics beyond the season’s callings and party propaganda cycles.
In my experience, many of these people can be found shortly after an election on social media or at a social engagement, disinterested in politics or political issues, preferring to avoid any semblance of a political conversation because of the bad vibes and mental burden it creates1.
A healthy democracy would see the people that live within it reasonably aware of, and possibly engaged with, the politics that affect them and their community — directly and indirectly — every single day. Complaining about, or criticizing, the political system, elections, candidates, party platforms, party ethics, party members, etc. is part of the overall democratic process and part of living in a democratic society — whether it’s election season or not.
Voting should be the end of a cycle or process — an indicator of broader democratic interest, engagement, and involvement, and not sum total of it. An election should be the chance to put new politicians in a legislative hall to represent the concerns of their constituents, not to delegate one hundred percent of your political interest and stock to a special class of people.
All of that to say, if you find out that your friend on the one hand, or a large segment of the population on the other, has some critical things to say about the democratic process that causes them to not want to vote, you should first recognize that they in that very moment are participating in democratic thought and process in a very important way, and then pay attention to the reasons they describe feeling disengaged from the current political processes and landscape — they may be worthwhile.
Which brings me to the second point that many naysayers of non-voters and complainers miss.
Declining or low voter turnout is sometimes discussed in the context of voter apathy — the idea that certain people don’t care about democracy in general or a specific election. Often thrown into that discussion is the idea that the new generation and “younger folks” might not have the same values as seen in the past when it comes to active voting and political engagement. However, disengagement from the democratic process is, like deciding to vote every now and then, something that we shouldn’t be comfortable discussing as a simple matter of taste, choice, and preference.
A portion of a populace being disengaged can probably be attributed to a form of indifference of result. However, it’s hard not to believe that just as many, if not more, people feel less that way, and more of a sense of helplessness or alienation from the democratic process in general. Genuinely not caring what party wins in your riding is very different from feeling detached from the entire process and the benefits of democracy because of feelings of hopelessness about your influence on political results and how they will eventually affect you and your community.
The sentiment that the system and issues surrounding you are too big to handle or impact on and that the only alternative is to completely disconnect from concern about things like taxation, foreign affairs, war, government subsidies, land development, pollution, climate change, issues with policing, poverty, and healthcare (just to name a few) may be useful to a political class that is more than content to run things without your input, but is certainly not becoming of a system that (at least in the narrative that’s taught) is supposed to be a reflection the concerns of the general population.
So, how would being able to officially decline a ballot at the federal level help any of this?
Obviously, it doesn’t fix democratic engagement and concern. No single change will do that.
However, similar to Ontario, it, at the very least would give those with a none-of-the-above attitude toward a general election an official option on a ballot to voice that exact sentiment — a formal grievance that would be separately counted and recorded.
If someone feels negatively toward all of the options in an election as presented to them or the political climate in general, it seems silly that the election process should signal to them something along the lines of “too bad, you have to pick one or stay at home.” The addition of the option to officially decline or mark none of the above on a federal ballot is a way to encourage people to stay engaged in the practice of voting and the overall democratic process, but not be made to play the game of false choice.
It would be gratifying to see the results reported alongside of others during an election. A favorable cultural shift would be for the results of this change to produce a statistic that is taken seriously and reported on as keenly as the party votes per riding. In an interesting way, people will still feel represented by this choice even if they don’t elect a representative.
The article I mentioned and linked above concludes with a quote from a Liberal Party Member of Parliament, Scott Simms, who says that the idea of federal ballot declining sounds good in principle, but has concerns over how it might work in practice in a federal election:
“It’s one thing to do it, but then you have address the question (of) what do we do now if the majority decline?”
Well, if the majority of the people did feel that way and actually had the option to formally vote for it, that would be democracy wouldn’t it?
1It should be noted here that I don’t intend to be dismissive or too harsh on the folks I’m describing in this area of my writing. The disincentive to get involved or concern yourself in a serious way in political issues is strong, and the general population is definitely made to feel (sometimes consciously) by the political class (and other classes like the business community) that politics is quite a messy and tricky business that the average person would be better off happier forgetting about.