Suppose that, after almost 15 years of Liberal government, you’re ready to see the back of Kathleen Wynne. But the thought of what Andrea Horwath’s NDP might do to Ontario’s finances worries you, and you find Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford’s populist anger just plain scary. Should you decide not to vote in the Ontario election? Or maybe spoil your ballot?
There’s another option. On election day June 7, if you want to vote “none of the above” you can, by going to your polling station and formally declining your ballot.
A little-known sentence in Ontario’s Election Act allows a voter to register his or her protest at the choices on offer by declining to vote. Section 53 states: “An elector who has received a ballot and returns it to the deputy returning officer declining to vote, forfeits the right to vote and the deputy returning officer shall immediately write the word ‘declined’ upon the back of the ballot and preserve it to be returned to the returning officer and shall cause an entry to be made in the poll record that the elector declined to vote.”
In the 2014 Ontario election, more than 4.8 million votes were cast, and just under 30,000 were declined. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta also have provisions in their election acts for declining a ballot, although it’s not an option in federal elections.
As a form of protest, declining your ballot is preferable to not voting or spoiling your ballot, because it’s unambiguous. After all, people don’t vote for any number of reasons, the most common being that they’re too busy or too lazy.
If you spoil your ballot − say, by writing “a pox on all your houses” across the face − that ballot will be included with ballots that were rejected because they were improperly marked, which could have happened by accident.
But by declining your ballot, you register an official protest that must be counted and included in the total of votes cast in each riding.
“If you choose not to vote by declining your ballot, that for you would be fulfilling the duty you feel to the democratic process, and you wouldn’t feel you didn’t take part,” said Laura Stephenson, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario. “You took part, and you used your ballot in a very specific way.”
But, she added, “there will be a premier of Ontario after the election. And even if you don’t like any of the options, by not putting your mark in one of those boxes, you’re letting someone else decide.”
That is why it is far better to vote for the candidate of your choice, no matter how hard a choice it might be.
For some, choosing whom to vote for in this Ontario election is difficult. Typically, Ontario alternates between Liberal and Conservative governments. But the governing Liberals are deeply unpopular − polls show the party in third place − and many fear the belligerent populism of Ford Nation.
The NDP is climbing in the polls, but is not, as yet, threatening to displace the Progressive Conservatives. Many still harbour not-so-fond memories of the Bob “Rae Days” NDP in the 1990s.
A reasonable voter might choose to say to all political parties: I am dissatisfied with your policies and/or your choice of leadership. The political system has failed me, and by declining my ballot, I register my protest at that failure.
Elections Ontario includes the option of declining a ballot in its literature on how to vote. But even some election officials are unaware of Section 53. Two friends who have declined ballots in past elections say voting officials were flummoxed by their declaration. But Elections Ontario says accepting a declined ballot is part of the training of election officers.
“We do provide specific training to all polling officials who are providing ballots to voters … and declined ballots are covered in our materials,” said Jessica Pellerin, a spokeswoman for Elections Ontario.
All of us have a right and a duty to have our say on election day. Vote for one of the parties, if you can. Decline your ballot, if you must. But be heard.