Last week was a provincial election, and perhaps the most surprising fact was that voter turnout bucked recent trends and rose a wee bit. Yet it was still just barely above half, which means almost half Ontario’s potential voters didn’t show up at the polls, which means their views will not be reflected at Queen’s Park.
The most ridiculous development around not-voting in this past election was the “decline your ballot” social media movement, built on the fantasy that if enough people showed up to vote but declined their ballots, the media or the parties would sit up and take notice and somehow change their ways. Well, I have news for you: no such luck. As a long-time party insider, even from a party particularly obsessed with democratic engagement, I can tell you that declined ballots go into the same big conceptual pile as spoiled ballots, blank ballots, and voters who don’t show up. All non-voters are at the bottom of the list for party engagement efforts.
In a decade of partisan political activity, people have told me many reasons for not voting, although a lot of them stem from a basic perception that voting doesn’t change anything, or the bizarre paradoxical complaint that “voting only encourages them”.
I certainly share the frustration of casting a ballot that doesn’t elect anyone, having done that almost every time I’ve voted. But I also know that every vote, even for a party that doesn’t win, has some effect on the political process, while not voting has none, except for letting the governing parties get away with more.
Many ridings are swing ridings – two or more parties have a strong chance of winning. And Barrie has proven to be a swing riding, first federally, and more recently, provincially, as we’ve gone PC-Liberal-PC-Liberal in 4 successive Ontario elections. In swing ridings, candidates and parties know the difference between victory and defeat can be just a few hundred votes, while third and fourth parties often pull in thousands of votes each. That means the contending candidates will try to seduce a segment of those votes, or at least try not to bleed any more away. So, for instance, in regions with strong Green Party vote results like the +10% in all 4 ridings bordering Lake Simcoe in 2008, environmental issues get more attention, and we even saw a characteristically enviro-hostile Harper government commit a surprising (but welcome) $30 million to improving our lake.
But if you feel your vote is ineffective, the answer isn’t to spurn it. We have a fairly open political system in Canada: you can join any political party and take part in choosing that party’s local candidate, leader, and (sometimes) policy direction. And since only 1% of us ever do that, you will have a disproportionate effect, especially if you recruit some like-minded friends alongside you. Join the party that sits closest to your values, or even start your own, and you’ll find you can actually influence the voting options to the point that you will always see a ballot choice deserving of your support, and will never again feel your vote won’t count.
You will never get more responsive government by backing away; by engaging, you will be able to exert a real (if small) influence.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Declined ballots go into the scrap pile".