(Image Credit: mohammed_hassan at pixabay.com; the image is at this link)
Conservatives’ victory in the Ontario election has produced some blinkered arguments and bizarre proposals. It seems as if electoral outcomes – and indeed the very structure of our democracy – are legitimate only when a Leftist party wins.
Much ink has been spilled on the historically low voter turnout in the June 2nd elections in Ontario, and for the most part, the ire of the commentariat and on social media has been aimed at the Ontarians who abstained from voting. But no one (as far as I have seen) has asked why the two main opposition parties didn’t respond in a timely and/or effective fashion to the signs, early on in the campaign period, that the Conservatives were headed to a majority win, likely surpassing their success in 2018.
Both the parties had compelling reasons to up their game: NDP leader Andrea Horwath was certainly in her last election as the party leader unless she won – in which case her tenure would have gained an extension. The Liberals, on their part, needed to re-establish themselves in the Parliament with a sizeable presence after getting decimated in the 2018 election, if only to be in a better position in the next election in 2026. Instead, having ended up with just 8 seats (and thus yet again failing to qualify for official party status), they will once again face the same daunting odds in the next iteration of the electoral exercise. This task will be rendered even more difficult because they will have spent a total of 8 years in political wilderness. This should have apparent to the party from the get-go.
Instead of criticizing these parties for their failure in engaging the voters and ‘getting out the vote’, much of our punditocracy has resorted to blaming the voters who abstained – including, notably, prominent commentator and CBC talking head Andrew Coyne averring that all that is required is that ‘you have to get up off the couch’. The very idea that the political parties need to actually try to make voting for them desirable for voters is absent in this universe. Willy-nilly, the voter is expected to choose from a range of unappealing option on offer.
Soon after the official results were announced, someone realized that the winning team (the Conservatives) had only managed to secure about 18% of the eligible vote. This observation took on a life of its own on social media, including the aforesaid Mr. Coyne tweeting a pie-chart to convey the message in an image worth a thousand words. The idea behind this numerical factoid appears to be to insinuate that a government formed on the basis of such a low level of voter approval was somehow not legitimate.
But the fact is that this kind of approval rating is not at all uncommon in Canadian elections, and parties do form governments based on such a rating. For example, in the 2014 elections in Ontario, the Liberal Party under Premier Kathleen Wynne also secured a majority based on 19.31% of the eligible vote. Similarly, in the federal elections in 2019 and 2021, the Liberals under Prime Minister Trudeau formed minority governments based on 21.8% and 20.2% of the electoral vote respectively. It is noteworthy here that the federal elections in 2019 and 2021 set the dubious record of a government being formed on the lowest level of share of eligible votes. But we didn’t hear any anguished cries from the same people of how the result wasn’t a true reflection of the intentions of the voters, nor of how the government that was formed was an illegitimate one.
In the running debate on this on Twitter Mr. Coyne came up with the idea of making voting mandatory (and my apologies if I sound like I am zeroing in on him; the fact is that I had the most interactions with him on Twitter over this – although these interactions were almost all one-sided). He added that this is the case in Australia.
This idea may sound appealing to people with Statist inclinations, especially in the Covid-era where the reflex response to any issue is to mandate the ‘remedy’, but I see major weaknesses in the idea of mandatory voting. My starting point is that choosing whether to exercise a right or not is a right in itself – and precedes all our rights. The simplest (albeit limited and one with far less gravity) example of this is when someone has stock options. The options give a right to the holder to acquire a certain number of shares at a certain price and date. If they choose to exercise this option (=right), the other party has no choice but to honour their part of the bargain. However, the holder is under no compulsion to exercise the option to buy. Similarly, I believe that while a citizen has the right to vote in elections, they are under no obligation to vote – because not voting is also a form of political expression.
There is, of course, the adage that ‘Rights and duties are two sides of the same coin’ (as I was taught in school as part of the Civics curriculum, and I am sure you were too). But the question is whether we want to turn the moral duty of voting into a legal obligation enforceable via the use of the coercive power of the State. I believe that this would be morally offensive. Besides, people who can be forced to vote can also be forced to vote a certain way. We may think that this can only happen in oppressive dictatorships / banana republics, but my concept of a system is that it should be designed to withstand the maximum pressure. Making it a legal obligation of a citizen to vote – or else – would, given time, turn into ever-increasing penalties for non-voters, and at some point, that penalty would leave little room between a democracy and a dictatorship. I believe that, on balance, it is more prudent to foreclose the possibility of going down that road altogether.
And finally, assuming that people who aren’t voting currently would vote in favour of any party once they are forced to vote, and thus yielding a more ‘representative’ outcome of the election is a logical fallacy. Of course, they may choose not to vote for any party that matters, and instead either spoil their ballot or vote for a party / candidate that has no realistic hope of winning. The latter is, while within the rights of the voter, not very different from spoiling their vote as far as the election outcome in the riding is concerned. The latter (spoiling the vote) needs separate examination on its own.
In the exhortations to citizens to cast their votes, I often see people saying that if the voter doesn’t like any of the options on offer, they can simply spoil their vote. Ever since I heard about this (it was only after I came to Canada), I have always considered this option to be an exercise in futility. While the citizens spoiling their votes are indeed making a political statement, and specifically, a statement of displeasure at the political options offered to them, in my view this statement amounts to – and is no better than – shouting into a void. Nothing gets affected by it. Electoral exercises are about attempting to bring about a political outcome and, depending on where one stands, even political change. Spoiled votes are, in this regard, a non-starter; the political outcome remains untouched by them, much like a lotus flower in water.
If we combine the element of mandatory voting with that of spoiled votes (a possibility that Mr. Coyne actually offered, even envisaging millions of spoiled ballots) we get a wasteful exercise on a massive scale. In effect, we would be forcing people who are opposed to the political status quo to act in a way that ends up continuing the status quo, but with a different set of (vastly higher but equally ineffective) numbers. If we were serious about out politics, and indeed about our democracy, we would implement the following change:
Each ballot should have as an option ‘I am unsatisfied with all the candidates in my riding and therefore cannot vote for any of them in good conscience’ (that’s too wordy, I know. Perhaps we can arrive at shorter version of this; I am aware that ‘None Of The Above’ is the commonly used expression – but that is also the name of a political party. We will need to come with something shorter and more effective).
We should, by public consultation, establish a threshold (say, as a percentage of the total eligible voters in each riding). If the number of votes cast for this option in any riding reaches / exceeds this threshold, then the election should be declared null for that riding. The parties would need to go back to the drawing board to make a fresh bid for votes in that rising. (At the risk of overemphasis, let me add here that in this arrangement, we would be acknowledging that parties are bidders for votes; the onus is on them to make an offer that excites the interest of the voters).
I am aware of the initial confusion that will result if we adopt such a system. Should the threshold be reached in any riding, the election result (in the riding as well as in determining where the parties stand in terms of number of seats) will be up in limbo until an alternative set of candidates is offered and voted on (hopefully, without the threshold being reached again). I view this potential scenario as the external impetus (more colloquially, a push) to the political parties to do better in (a) selecting their candidates and (b) devising their platforms, such that over time, the probability of the threshold being reached approaches zero. In fact, this very possibility will serve as the fulcrum that brings about some much-needed improvement in our politics. The all-important question is whether there is a desire strong enough, and widespread enough, in the Canadian society for such a change. I am sure that at the grassroots level, it is – but the people in the driver’s seat (the political class, the media and the assorted opinion makers and policy-pushers) are likely to be the roadblock on this path.
In the Indian subcontinent, there are entire communities whose traditional occupation in feudal / pre-independence times was to go and weep at the house of the local feudal lords and other rich people whenever a member of that household passed away. These communities are known by different names depending on the language of the region. One such name is ‘rudalee’ (meaning ‘the weeper’). On the issue of voter participation (and many other issues) in Canada, I consider much of our media and public figures to be the Canadian equivalent of ‘rudalee’. One hardly sees any solutions emerging from them; all that they do it to weep over this or that situation. This latest episode of their weeping, while educative and mildly entertaining, is not something that we should wish to see continuing. Solving whatever problem it is that causes their weeping is the better way, in my view. It would also make us a stronger society that can compete globally in an increasingly competitive international arena, because the parties and their candidates will be more focused on the real life priorities of the people that they are meant to serve.