Yes means yes… to government

“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.

What “Real Change” in the Senate should look like

It’s one of the impossible issues for a Canadian Prime Minister.  Everybody knows Canada’s Senate is broken but when it takes seven out of ten provinces to amend the Constitution, the issue becomes a hot potato.

The NDP wants to abolish it, as did the Conservatives in 2006, before they gave up on it.  Actually abolishing the Senate requires unanimous consent from all ten provinces, however, which is next to impossible to obtain.  I actually think there is a role an Upper House can play in a parliamentary democracy… but not without amending the Constitution.

First, let’s review what happened last week.  On the new Parliament’s opening day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed to implement the Liberal Party’s election policy on the Senate: avoid it like the plague.  Quite quickly, he was called out by BC Premier Christie Clark on the fact that this barely qualified as “reform” and certainly not as “real change”.  The two tweaks proposed were:

  1. He will ask other people for help in choosing who gets appointed.
  2. He will not let the Senators, old or new, sit in his party’s caucus.

One can understand the political logic behind trying to distance yourself from high-visibility personalities who have few accountability measures placed on them (and absolving yourself of responsibility for their conduct).  Stephen Harper’s Senate appointees caused him much embarassment, arguably playing a role in removing him from 24 Sussex Dr.  It is disingenuous, however, to tell Canadians that the solution is to remove the tenuous accountability measure that did exist: to their party leader.

In Canada, Senators, once appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, keep their seat until age 75.  They never need to face the public in an election.  The system is a remnant from colonial times to secure the privileges of the upper class, giving them a veto in case the commoners tried anything too drastic.  A telling feature is the requirement to own property to be eligible for appointment.  Many of the provinces also had Upper Houses but they were all abolished as unnecessary many decades ago.

Around the world, where there are bicameral legislatures (two Houses of Parliament), the Upper House does tend to imply a collection of more experienced elder statesmen who can bring a perspective that may be absent among the winners of the local election races that make up the Lower House.  In the US, Senators were appointed by state legislatures (for six year terms) until the 17th Amendment came into effect about 100 years ago.  Now, they are chosen by statewide popular elections.

What might a better system for Canada look like?  People like having a local representative that they can contact, whose office is within a drivable distance, whose phone number is not long distance, who understands the needs and mindset of their community.  For that reason, we have electoral districts which elect MPs to the House of Commons.  However, this arrangement tends to favour a two-party system (a phenomenon nerds like me call Duverger’s Law), which makes it more difficult for like-minded individuals from across the country to push issues overlooked by the main parties.  If they don’t have a sufficient concentration in any one riding, they may be completely shut out of Parliament.  Also, parties who get less than 50% of the total vote may end up getting majority governments without the consent of the majority of the people.

To address this issue, varying groups (usually supporters of smaller parties) call for more proportional representation, which assigns seats in accordance with total vote results beyond a single-member constituency.  The actual formulas and systems of proportional representation proposed vary widely.  You can check some of them out at

The Manougian Model, however, proposes something new.  At every general election, allow voters to cast two ballots.  One is a preferential ballot for their local MP, which I discussed in my last post.  The second would be a vote for the Senate, where they vote for one party. Ahead of the election, the party will make public a ranked list of candidates for Senate seats.  The intention is for these candidates to be accomplished in a field of importance to federal decision-making.  The total number of votes that a party obtains nation-wide in the Senate election would be tallied.  That absolute number would then be divided by a quotient, ignoring the remainder, to decide how many Senate seats they will get (assigned to individuals in the previously identified order).

What is the quotient?  It is a number chosen such that a typical voter turnout would result in a desirable number of total Senators  (there are currently 105 seats).  Note that it is the absolute number of votes that matters, not the percentage share that is used in many other proportional systems.  The effect would be that a lower voter turnout would result in fewer individuals sitting in the Red Chamber.  It adds an incentive to each voter to perform their electoral duty even if they are confident that their party will win.  It provides a clear incentive to parties to motivate their base.

Ultimately, it provides a much needed check and balance to a Prime Minister who has a majority in the House of Commons obtained without a majority of the popular vote.

Our colonial past officially ended in 1982 when Canada earned the right to change its own Constitution without Britain’s involvement.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and truly make it ours.  Now that‘s real change.