© 1999 Karen Selick
Itís My Ballotóand Iíll Spoil It If I Want To
An edited version of this article first appeared in the May 22, 1999 issue of The Globe and Mail.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.



Itís My Ballotóand Iíll Spoil It If I Want To

I suppose you could call me one of Ontarioís undecided voters.  I definitely intend to go to the polling station on June 3, but I havenít decided yet whether to spoil my ballot or simply decline it.  

There are pros and cons to each.  Itís very satisfying to scrawl across your ballot something like "None of these individuals is qualified to govern me."  That conveys your message pretty clearly to the officials and scrutineers at your polling station.  However, when your stationís results are aggregated with the rest of the riding, your bold statement is consigned to oblivion.  Henceforth, you are simply another spoiled ballot.  No-one knows whether yours was a cry of despair over the abysmal state of provincial politics, or whether you were simply too stupid to put your X in one and only one of the little circles.   

On the other hand, Ontarians can choose to invoke Section 53 of the Election Act.  It says you can hand your ballot back to the deputy returning officer and decline to vote.  If you do, the officer must write "declined" on the ballot and preserve it.  Also, an entry is made in the poll record that you declined to vote.  

The advantage to declining your ballot is that it canít be mistaken for an act of stupidity.  Declined ballots are recorded separately.  The provisions for declining a ballot are not widely known.  Anyone who invokes them has obviously given the issue some thought.  Itís hard to mistake the voterís message for anything other than an expression of repugnance at the available choices.  

The disadvantage of declining your ballot is that you have to identify yourself as a disgruntled voter in front of everyone within earshot at the polling station.   In effect, you lose your right to a secret ballot.  

For me, this is not particularly bothersome.  Iím not shy about expressing my opinion in public.  However, there are some people who might find it embarrassing to have to publicly identify themselves as declining their ballots--the candidatesí family members or campaign workers, for example. 

Undoubtedly, some readers out there are muttering to themselves, "She should be ashamed.  Itís her duty to vote.  Even if sheís not completely satisfied with any one party, she should just hold her nose like everyone else and vote for the least of the evils."

If there were a Libertarian Party or Freedom Party candidate running in my riding, I would vote, but there isnít.  As far as the three major parties are concernedóokay, Iíll admit that I consider one of them to be the least of the evils.   But I donít treat that phrase a synonym for "marginally acceptable."  I take it literally.  The least of the evils is still, by definition, evil.  

H.L. Mencken put it nicely:  "Elections are advance auctions of stolen property."  I donít care to endorse this organized plundering of the population, even if one party is promising to plunder somewhat less vigorously than the rest.

I know there are other voters who share my quandary, although not necessarily my reasons.  Two B.C. residents tried to express their dissatisfaction in the 1997 federal election by tearing up their ballots.  They found themselves charged with "fraudulently destroying a ballot paper," an offence under the Canada Elections Act.  Unlike Ontarioís law, the federal one makes no provision for registering a protest by declining oneís ballot.

Perhaps the most common way of expressing dissatisfaction with the whole mess is not to vote at all.  With Ontarioís voter turnout ranging between 60 and 70 percent in recent decades, Iím sure there have been cases where the abstainers in a riding have outnumbered the votes cast in favour of the winner.  

Even with low turnout, though, we canít be sure of the message.  Is it despair or nirvana-like unconcern?  Are non-voters saying none of the candidates is acceptable, or are they saying any of the candidates is acceptable?

The only way weíll ever know is to give voters the option of making an explicit statement.  A simple line at the bottom of the ballot permitting voters to choose "None of the above" would do the trick.  If None of the above captured the most votes, a new election would be held, with all of the defeated candidates disqualified from running.

A non-partisan organization called None of the Above (NOTA) has been advocating this option in the United States for years, garnering support from such diverse sources as The Wall Street Journal and Ralph Nader.  NOTAís website, discussing the advantages and mechanics of this proposal in greater detail, can be found at http://www.nota.org/.  The state of Nevada adopted NOTA legislation in 1976. 

Until Ontario follows suit, Iíll continue pondering spoiling or declining in each election.  Meanwhile, with my neighboursí lawns sprouting candidatesí signs like dandelions, Iím thinking of putting up my own lawn sign, reading:  "Donít voteóit only encourages them."

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January 18, 2001