“Yes means yes” is a slogan not typically connected to electoral reform but I want to use it to preface this week’s topic: affirmative consent to government.
Particularly on college campuses, “No means no” used to be a slogan that was used to prevent sexual assault and rape. It implied that if one person, typically the female, expressed discomfort in escalating intimacy, the other person, typically the male, would be criminally liable if he tried to dismiss that hesitance. However, this paradigm has shifted in recent years to “Yes means yes”, where one party is responsible for outright asking beforehand for consent, which can be expressly given or withheld.
So why are we talking about rape in a blog on elections? Well, there was a time when warrior kings physically asserted themselves over a population. We now use pejorative terms like dictators and autocrats to refer to them because they rarely treated their subjects with respect. In the New World, the Intolerable Acts passed by George III’s Parliament (that had no representatives from the colonies) were an egregious example of unwelcome domination. Despite protests from the colonists, there was no relief until many died as Americans sent the message that “No means no.”
Today, throughout much of the world, violent revolutions are no longer necessary as elections are used to show that a government does rule with the consent of the people. However, not all elections are created equal. In my last two posts, I explained how elections can be fairer in Canada, both for the House of Commons and the Senate. Before that, I wrote about the need to expand the franchise to minors. This week, I want to discuss two consent-related topics: mandatory voting and declining the ballot.
1. Mandatory Voting
In their “Real Change” platform document, the current Liberal government lists mandatory voting as one of the electoral reform options that they will look at. It is a policy that countries like Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands have abandoned, while others like Belgium, Greece, and Mexico do not enforce in practice, despite having laws on the books. I do not believe that Canadians should be fined (or worse) for holding back their vote because forcing citizens to the ballot box clouds the consent they are offering by doing so voluntarily.
One country that does enforce its mandatory voting laws is North Korea, where only one name appears on the ballot and landslide victories are used to justify legitimacy. If you think that western democracies are completely different, this clip from the Simpsons should be amusing:
In Australia, where they do have mandatory voting and a non-optional ranked ballot, each name on the ballot MUST be ranked in preferential order or the vote is not counted. Going back to the “Yes means yes” symbolism, does it seem acceptable to force a girl to go to the college bar where they had to rank all of the boys in the place in the order of who they prefer to take them home that night? If they complained about the outcome, is it ok to tell her “You’re the one who chose him.”?
I have never missed voting in an election but wouldn’t want to face law enforcement in a “free” country if I did.
2. Declined Ballots
Although, I am against mandatory voting in any scenario, it would be a slightly less oppressive policy if we had already reformed how ballots are declined.
Canadian elections were not always by secret ballot. The measure was adopted in 1874 to ensure that voters would not be subjected to intimidation, while also making bribery for votes ineffective. To this day, you can keep your political preferences completely private… except for one.
A voter in Canada has a lot of options at election time. He or she can choose a candidate and vote. But, perhaps, they think that all the candidates are clowns and undeserving of their support. They can choose to stay at home and not vote at all, which can be falsely interpreted as voter apathy when it is actually voter discontent. They can also go to the voting station and “spoil” their ballot by filling it out incorrectly. (Actually, this would result in a rejected ballot if their voting intention is not clear. A spoiled ballot, using Elections Canada’s definition, is a piece of paper that was replaced with a new one, in the event a voter makes a mistake before casting it into the box.) Rejected ballots can be falsely interpreted as voter stupidity when they actually represent voter discontent. The correct way to communicate voter discontent is to decline your ballot. To do so, you have to arrive at the voting station, receive your ballot, and then hand it back to the clerk saying that you decline to cast it. It is registered in a separate tally.
One problem is that declining your ballot cannot currently be done in secret. Scrutineers representing the candidates observe the vote and can see and record your protest. The “Declined” option should appear on the ballot itself so that voters clearly realize that they do not have to choose any of the registered candidates if they don’t want to.
Furthermore, I believe that if the “Declined” option gets more votes than any of the candidates, none of them can claim legitimacy to represent those constituents. It should be perfectly reasonable to leave the seat vacant until a by-election can be called at a later date. One year should be enough time for the parties to nominate new candidates and/or for groups to form new parties.
Including “Declined” or “None of the Above” on an optional preferential ballot would provide affirmative consent to the winner of an election to make laws on behalf of the people. Just like “No means no”, our current first past the post system just doesn’t cut it anymore.
The unfortunate truth is that candidates are all too eager to start governing. Make your boundaries clear to them.