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adam goldenberg

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.Mike Dembeck/The Canadian Press

If the Supreme Court orders a new election in Etobicoke Centre, the Greens should not run a candidate, and neither should the New Democrats. So says Elizabeth May. A by-election ought to be "a clean vote between Borys and Ted," she told the Globe earlier this week.

Ms. May is a smart woman, but this is a spectacularly silly idea. Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj may be the sole candidate challenging the result, which saw Conservative Ted Optiz elected by a mere 26 votes last May, but he was not the only one affected by voting irregularities on Election Day.

So was New Democrat Ana Maria Rivero, who garnered 7,735 votes. And so was the Green Party's Katarina Zoricic, chosen by 1,377 Etobicoke Centre residents.

If the election results were tainted, and the Supreme Court tosses out the result, then every one of those votes will be voided, as will the 149 ballots cast for Marxist-Leninist candidate Sarah Thompson–and, yes, the 21,644 for Mr. Optiz.

As I argued here last week, the result of an election is not the same as its outcome; the result is the final vote tally, the outcome is the identity of the winner. The question for the Supreme Court, under a truly democratic interpretation of the Canada Elections Act, is not who should or should not have won, but rather whether the result – that is, the number of votes cast for each candidate – was affected by Election Day irregularities. Votes for Mr. Optiz and Mr. Wrzesnewskyj are not the only ones that matter. Why count every vote unless every vote counts?

Ms. May seems to think otherwise. A by-election, she says, ought to be a two-man run-off between the Liberal and Conservative candidates. Now, as a Liberal who hopes to see Mr. Wrzesnewskyj return to Parliament, I can hardly argue with her electoral math. But our election laws are indifferent to partisanship, mine or Ms. May's, and for good reason; her suggestion is at odds with democracy itself.

Elections are not primarily about picking winners and losers. The process matters more than the outcome. All of us have the right to vote for any candidate, and to have that vote counted. If there is a by-election in Etobicoke Centre, then every voter in that riding deserves the same full and fair choice, no matter how they cast their ballot.

Other democracies have adopted various forms of proportional representation to enhance the electoral impact of votes for losing candidates. Canada has not yet done so. But even if, in a first-past-the-post election, votes for non-contenders have little impact on the outcome, they are not without value–and just because they do not contribute directly to the margin of victory does not mean that they should not be cast or counted.

We publish the full vote tally because the will of the electorate cannot be crammed into to the simple identity of the winner. And, for the same reason, our election laws allow any candidate or voter to challenge an election result in court. Every vote – and every voter – matters equally.

Were it otherwise, the Green Party itself would have little reason to exist. Its candidates give voters a valid option in each election, but there is only one riding in Canada where votes for Ms. May's party directly affect the outcome: hers.

Ms. May may personally prefer a Liberal MP to a Conservative one, given that the Green candidate (as she has now admitted) has no hope. She is fully entitled to use her pulpit as party leader to encourage the Greens of Etobicoke to vote as she would. And they are fully entitled to ignore her.

But urging local Greens and New Democrats not even to run candidates is different. Doing so would deny those voters who would otherwise defy Ms. May's instructions the opportunity to be heard, fully and fairly, at the ballot box.

As for the electoral consequences, there may ultimately be none. Greens and New Democrats who detest the Conservatives – and who share Ms. May's assessment of their candidates' prospects – may well vote Liberal anyway. And those who disagree with her may stay home on election day if their candidate of choice drops out.

Ms. May apparently sees herself as a non-Conservative first and a Green second. Other Greens, and Liberals and New Democrats, certainly see themselves differently. But a robust democracy requires candidates who are proud of what they are, not what they are not. Why should a by-election be any different?

Greens and New Democrats in Etobicoke Centre should know that their votes belong in the ballot box and Ms. May's silly suggestion in the trash can – not vice versa. When the Supreme Court overturns a tainted election result, we should not water down democracy in the do-over.

Adam Goldenberg (@adamgoldenberg) is a Kirby-Simon Fellow at Yale Law School and was chief speechwriter to former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff

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