With the latest round of voter malaise given voice by the recent Ontario election, Alheli Picazo took aim at the 'Decline your Vote' meme that started to gain popularity. While I agree with the spirit of the argument, I find that I cannot accept the logic of it.
She had two main points, "declining your ballot succeeds in 'sending a message' about as well as abstaining achieves a 'total revolution.'" and "after ballots have been counted, get involved. Become politically engaged with your party of choice." Let's start with first point. People want to decline their ballot because they want to send a message or make a point. Alheli is correct in the larger sense, this really matters not a whit when all is said and done. While a formal declining of the ballot will be counted (unlike spoiling your ballot) nobody in politics really cares what that count turns out to be. To a point. Where the argument fails is that it assumes a legitimate vote does send a message, that it means something. Unfortunately, the most a vote for a candidate does is add one to the sum total of votes. If your vote is for the winning candidate, congratulations, you had 1/1000th (or much less) of an impact! If you voted for a losing candidate, you had exactly zero impact. The same as if you had declined your ballot. No party that forms the government ever cares what the final numbers were for anyone else. They won. That's all that matters. Any larger message hidden behind the votes tallied is lost and ignored.
The recent win by the Ontario Liberals puts this point in sharp contrast. The Liberals won a majority of seats, resulting in a majority government. A very large segment of the population did not want that result. They wanted a minority government. (Listen to the views expressed during Ontario Today for an example of that.) The support for this majority government is very soft. One of the most tenuous majorities other than the one granted to Bob Rae in 1990. (That election still casts a shadow over Ontario politics to this day. Ontario had a one night stand with the NDP, and it has never wanted a second date.) But it is unknown how aware the Ontario Liberal party is that the message behind the result is they have been granted a pass with strict conditions. They won. They have four years to do whatever they want with all the power of a majority behind them. Will they just count on voters being fickle with short memories? We will have to wait to find out. So much for sending a message via a ballot. In the end your vote is nothing more than a number. A tiny sliver of a percentage point. It is the cumulative result that sends a message, and the winners get to pick what that message is.
The ballot box is a poor vehicle for sending a message, but it is one that all of us have. Because it has such limited power, I believe it can be used to send any message you want. Decline your ballot, spoil your ballot, vote for a no-chance candidate. Heck, drop trou and leave a big steaming pile in the middle of your ballot. I'll even cheer you on. (The police will likely not be as supportive.) If you choose one of the options of not voting for a candidate, there is a threshold at which a message will be sent. What will happen if electoral turnout/valid ballots cast drops below 40%? 30%? 20%? Can we agree then that the message is the electorate is dissatisfied with the electoral system, and that we have a crisis of confidence in how our governments are formed? We all better hope so.
As to becoming involved with the party of your choice, that isn't a realistic option for everyone. It's an option for the few. Personally, I prefer to remain none-partisan. I want to choose from the buffet table of political options. (As dismal as they are.) But not everyone can, or will, be a member of a party. It's rather the point of an electoral system; citizens don't have to be deeply engaged because the powers are being delegated to others. And yes, by choosing to delegate, you lose the power of your own voice. But how much of a voice do you have in a large party? Too many voices will dilute your own. It takes a certain personality to put up with being ignored, constantly being optimistic about your own input, and about being part of a team with a minor role. Not everyone has that fortitude, I suspect it is a minority of people that do. The party system only attracts certain kind of people for any length of time. That's a reality that's not going to change.
I do encourage everyone to stay politically engaged. The system we have may not be perfect, and could have a long way to go before being perfected. But it is the system we have. Make your voice heard; with friends, colleagues, heck even strangers. Use twitter, blogs, or any other online platform. Join a party, vote, write letters to the editor, stand on a soapbox with a megaphone. There's lots of ways to add your sliver of a percentage to influence change. But don't let that sliver drop to zero. I think on that last point Alheli and I can find 100% agreement.