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Where some ideas are stranger than others...


The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


Few events are as illustrative of the fundamentals of European cultures as their elections. They are structured on a hierarchy of interlocking binaries, from voter to non-voter up to winner-loser. They are narrated as heroic conflicts between important men[sic], supported by their dutiful followers. The ballot box is the battlefield where the candidates deploy and manoeuvre their potential votes to play the conflict out and see which great general will win the battle. But no battle can happen without foot soldiers, so the most important challenge of all is how to convince them to do their duty. There is no question of recruitment; if you were born or became a citizen in a democratic state (or any type of state where there is periodic voting), you have already been conscripted. The battle is not for a mere elected office, but for the very future of democracy itself, every time. The stakes are so high that a level of coercion, verbal abuse, and propaganda considered unacceptable at any other time becomes not just accepted, but considered absolutely necessary. When the results of an election and the subsequent administration are unsatisfactory, the fault is invariably deemed to be that of the conscripts who could not or would not do their duty. This is a dramatic narrative, and it lines up neatly with the European penchant for finding scapegoats for what are in fact systemic problems.

Image of a sample canadian federal election ballot. Image of a sample canadian federal election ballot.
Image of a sample canadian federal election ballot, october 2015

Complementary to the battle narrative above, a complement we're bound to expect in a system of binaries, is the one that lets us know who the scapegoats are. They are the misbehaved conscripts, the ones who simply will not take their orders. I have found that this narrative has a bundle of ten messages invoked and repeated at regular intervals at all times; they merely increase in volume during election campaigns. Here they are, in no particular order.

  • Non-voters are apathetic. They don't care who wins or loses the election, or about its potential impacts on their lives.
  • Non-voters don't make considered decisions not to vote. They make bad excuses not to vote.
  • It is the fault of non-voters when governments come to power that pursue unpopular policies.
  • Non-voters complain the loudest about election results they don't like.
  • Civil disobedience and other forms of protest are one thing, but voting is what is really effective.
  • Non-voters ought to vote because others before them worked hard or even died so that they could vote.
  • University students are now so de-radicalized that they won't even vote.
  • It is a demonstration of maturity to vote.
  • Voting is the keystone act of a citizen; non-citizens don't vote.
  • Voting is a demonstration of loyalty to your country.

This creates quite the picture of the representative non-voter. Uncaring, immature, whiny, ungrateful, and a citizen only in name. Stereotypes sound silly and exaggerated when laid out in the open, but they are alive and kicking all the same. It was my own encounter with this stereotype that led me to start examining just what the election narratives are, and the nature of canada's election system in particular concerning the results it produces.

My encounter with the non-voter stereotype that got me really thinking was at a friend's wedding. I was milling about with the other guests, waiting for the ceremony to start. It was a wonderful summer's day, and the ceremony was being held outside, which meant not only could the guests enjoy the sun, they could also visit outside where it wouldn't get hot, stuffy, or too loud to chat comfortably. I was talking to one of the other guests, and the conversation veered inexorably towards the upcoming election. Politics isn't generally the best thing to discuss with people you don't know, especially at a wedding, so I opted for what I foolishly thought was not actually a political part of the election. (The oxymoron inherent in this idea probably should have warned me.) I expressed my discomfort with the negative tone of the campaign in terms of both the actions of the candidates and the references to non-voters by commentators in the media. The response I got still strikes me as extraordinary to this day. My new acquaintance promptly assumed I was not going to vote, and began shouting at me. Didn't I care enough to vote? Didn't I know any history? People died so I could vote! How could I be so irresponsible?

In representative democracies, elections are a key means of demonstrating the legitimacy of the governance system itself. An election is hardly going to be convincing proof of democracy if people are not voting in significant numbers. If people aren't voting, the corollary then is that there is not a functioning representative democracy in place. We've been taught to see democracy as our only true defence against tyranny, and nothing has contradicted that teaching in history so far. But what history has also taught us, is that representative democracy is a very delicate beast. By manipulating who is permitted to vote, a representative democracy can be made anything but. We can easily find examples of vote manipulation by means of controlling who has citizenship or personhood, number or availability of polling stations, voter registration, and voter identification. Some means of vote manipulation are a bit less direct, such as literacy, property, permanent address, or language requirements. Some of these factors must be imposed by a central authority; others may be, but needn't be.

However, in north america at least, the general consensus seems to be that the representative democracies are in perfect working order, except that potential voters are not voting. This failure to vote is explained by the ten points above, so the key challenge, the absolute necessity, is to get out the vote. However, I am not certain that the campaigns waged to achieve this are actually having their intended effect. It may be past time for the campaign designers to stop and take a good look at what they have put together, and ask themselves: "Would I vote if someone came up and said these things to me?" I have never seen a voter drive campaign in canada that doesn't seem focused on making people feel guilty, inferior, or stupid. Most recently, I actually saw a campaign with the slogan, "Just vote, dammit!", reminiscent of an aggravated parent ordering a stubborn child to make their bed. This seems more like a tactic for discouraging people from voting: the campaigners come across as insulting and paternalistic, and they don't appear to have a single rational argument for voting. From the perspective of people who work on these campaigns, it must add insult to injury that voter turn out has been dropping almost continuously for at least the past twenty-five years. Perhaps it is time to change the rules of engagement.

At first glance this seems easier said than done. Nobody wants to throw out representative democracy, since we don't have a viable direct democracy alternative for large, dispersed populations yet, if we opt to maintain states in north america. By definition then, we can't toss out elections. Logically, it makes no sense to decide it doesn't matter if nobody votes. What we can change is our base assumption about people who can exercise a right to vote. Instead of assuming the majority of non-voters fall passively into not voting, we can assume that the majority of non-voters make a rational decision not to vote. To my mind, this is a much more fruitful, as well as respectful, approach.

UPDATE 2018-09-21 - Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept seems to have grasped the point I making here, even though he keeps referring to voter apathy, which I think is wrong. It is not that disillusioned voters don't care, it's that they don't believe, for good reason, that their vote will be used in a way meaningful for meeting their needs. Nevertheless, I think this quote from his blogpost reviewing Michael Moore's new movie, Farenheit 11/9 is a thought-provoking and useful teaser: "After all, voter apathy arises when people conclude that their votes don't change their lives, that election outcomes improve nothing, that the small amount of time spent waiting in line at a voting booth isn't worth the effort because of how inconsequential it is. What greater indictment of the two political parties can one imagine than that?" Not just the two parties in the american political system, but as he concludes further on, the rotten system that so many americans want so badly to remake into a truly responsive and honest one. And indeed, parallel desires exist among the people of I suspect the majority if not all so-called western democracies right now.

UPDATE 2020-05-27 - Here is another article discussing non-voting, this time also enumerating and debunking a range of myths about non-voters and the effects of not voting by Jason Goldfarb at CounterPunch, originally published 17 june 2016, The Case For Not Voting: In Defense of the Lazy, Ungrateful, and Uni[n]formed. He also discusses the key issue of how voting in a non-democratic system effectively legitimizes it.

Voting is often portrayed as an almost mystical act that somehow magically renews the government it selects candidates for, yet in fact voting is a pragmatic act. A person votes in the expectation that the vote they cast has meaning, and will affect the workings of the government they are taking part in selecting. If that vote is found to be of low or even no effectiveness, it makes sense to turn to other means. This logic is ruthlessly applied every day by corporations that are recognized as persons under the law, but cannot influence governments by means of votes. So they do the next best thing; they make strategic use of donations and campaign funding. As this example also illustrates, not every means of exerting pressure on a government is fair or ethical. Methods more commonly used by the non-super rich are things like letter writing campaigns, petitions, or membership and activism in groups of like-minded individuals.

A voter will lose faith in the effectiveness and meaning of their vote if they do not see evidence that it has any effect on the politicians carried to office by them. (Indeed, this also holds true for public regulatory bodies when their reasons for decision show no consideration of public concerns.) For example, in canada, after two majority terms for the progressive conservative party in which the party leader became (and has likely remained) one of the most despised prime ministers in history, its traditional arch-rival, the liberal party, won in a landslide that crippled the progressive conservatives. The liberal party then proceeded to pursue precisely the same policies as their ousted counterparts. This phenomenon has occurred at every level of government in canada over the past twenty-five years. Politicians regularly campaign on one set of promises, then cheerfully do something else with no fear of any effective reprisal, especially now that now all major parties seem to have the same policy books with cosmetic variations.

Officially, every citizen in north america has a designated amount of time they are permitted to take off in order to vote in their country's elections. This is a sensible precaution, but not a wholly effective one by itself. For many people in low-wage jobs and shift-work, time off to vote is at best a dream. The farther you need to commute to work, and the working poor are most often caught in this bind, the harder it is to find the time to vote. You vote in the riding where you live, which is rarely the same riding you work in, rich or poor, so commute time truly counts. Elections are typically held on one day, and that day typically during the week. Even mail-in ballots and early polls are not necessarily a perfect solution to this challenge by themselves as they are currently set up. In canada, information about how to vote by mail and where early polls are is actually far from obvious, even for federal employees. This is an effective formula for discouraging voting running alongside misguided voter drive campaigns and peculiar, hyper-cynical arguments like, "you should vote so that you can have the right to complain."

Another factor that can cause people to seriously reconsider the value of voting is a world currently hedged about with a variety of powerful economic organizations staffed by non-democratically elected officials, by elected leaders making policy affecting people who never voted for them, or by elected officials striking deals and making policy in secret. There is no way to get at this type of organization through the ballot box, especially when they try to keep their dealings under wraps and even invoke the resources of host states to create temporary militarized zones to hold their meetings in. When people opt to use peaceful protest to curb the power of such organizations, they are upholding democracy in the former soviet union or any country that is out of favour with the "west." But it they do so at home, they are cynical, disaffected, "why don't they get a real job" slobs. Such people aren't a grassroots upsurge in the "west," but a group of the gullible, piloted about by interest groups, according to the mainstream media. Protesters of any stripe are regularly defined as somehow outliers or even outsiders to mainstream society, yet when we look at who gets covered by this description in a given month or so, it's an awfully big group. At any given time, it includes practically everybody except 5 to 10% of the population at best.

Canada has an incongruously separatist federal party and a small selection of parties beyond the "big two" who garner a serious part of the national vote, but get either no or few seats. The separatist party can win anywhere from twenty to thirty more seats than one of these small parties with an equivalent number of votes. Currently, there is a growing call on "the left" in canada for everyone to "grow up already" and unite the putative left. "Growing up already" seems to come down to choosing a policy platform that will offend as few people as possible, with the end result that ostensibly left wing parties stand firmly for nothing. In the case of the supposedly left wing liberal party, this has apparently led to it becoming another version of the conservative party, which they are still in serious denial about. If you would like to vote for change and a firm stand for different values than neo-coservative or neo-liberal ones (the terms have become equivalent in colloquial meaning, although of course they aren't in a technical sense), this sort of coalition concept offers at best cold comfort.

But supposing none of this is really convincing, which means fundamentally the rules of engagement haven't changed, and people who could vote are considered to be inclined to be too lazy and apathetic to do so. Well then, the obvious solution is to make it against the law not to vote. I have found two examples of "western democracies" that have tried this idea out, australia and belgium. It turns out that making it illegal not to vote has not spared belgium governance problems, even if its three main regions are relatively homogeneous in language within themselves. The belgians had to cope with a lengthy failure of their elected representatives to form a government in 2010, then spent most of 2019 without a government as well. In the case of australia, which is a large country with a large, diverse, and dispersed population, things don't seem to be quite working out as might be expected. For one thing, quite a few people simply invoke one of the accepted reasons for not voting, and that's that. Others pay the fine for not voting. Many others spoil their ballots, leading to australia having among the highest number of spoiled ballots in any "western democracy." For my part, I'm not sure this deals with the accountability issues I outlined above, or any other systemic problem that may be contributing to dropping voter turnout. It certainly hasn't helped defuse or oppose the growing authoritarian streak and general horribleness of the australian government.

And the truth is, non-voters can be an effective political force. Their historical efforts are misrepresented today during almost every federal election campaign. At one time or another, racialized people, women, people of specific religions, and men without property have all been disenfranchised by the governments of their countries. In each case, by dint of stubborn, unyielding pressure, they ended that disenfranchisement, at least in law, by the very protest tactics being decried in favour of ineffectively complaining. They took the right to vote by the way, it was not magnanimously "given" to them. They fought for respect for it every step of the way. But not one of these groups was ever just looking to get the right to vote. The fight for the vote was a focus to get organizing and tactics worked out, a step to longer term, bigger changes. Changes like the end of slavery in all its forms, legalized or not. Like an end to sexism and racism. Or true freedom from religious persecution and authoritarian government.

So, if we really want voter turnout to improve, and we'd rather not be in the horrific mess that united states is in right now, which has been turning out unprecedented desperation votes in hope of stopping their terrifying slide into authoritarianism, we need to make sure that in our election systems, not a single vote goes to waste. To do that, our six best tools are carefully designed proportional representation, a free press, longer election periods, paper ballots, a "none of the above" option on every ballot, and keeping the pressure on.

Proportional representation is some form of seat allocation in a legislature based on percentage of the popular vote, starting from a sensible minimum. Not only can this be designed to work towards minimal vote wastage (this is the real world, so we can't honestly expect none), it can overcome issues like the artificially lopsided regional representation by one or two parties that occurs in first past the post systems with peculiar riding structures. It is a little known fact that canada's method of drawing up ridings was studied by apartheid south africa, and that voting colleges in the united states were invented to curb the power of the votes of emancipated slaves. Proportional representation is not a simple panacaea though, because it must be carefully designed. One of my colleagues has pointed out that so far the modes of proportional representation proposed and implemented have simply helped tip the states using them into high level authoritarianism as opposed to authoritarianism-lite that so many of our ancestors and ourselves have gotten unhappily used to.

For clarity, I should define what I mean by a "free press." Rather than just referring to the publication of newspapers without undue influence from governments or businesses, I use it here to refer to any information publication under those conditions. In this sense I have learned that in the united states context, "the press" was not simply conflated with newspapers to begin with, but with having an actual printing press and the wherewithal to write and print off copies any publication type, from books and pamphlets to yes, newspapers and broadsheets. Originally I wrote here that governments, businesses, and individuals of all sorts can contribute to the operating budget, but they must have no control over editorial decisions. However, on further study and observation of the miserable saga of The Intercept from which Glenn Greenwald has finally resigned, it is clear that this is not a correct assessment. If a government, business, or individual is underwriting production costs in some media firm, then they will inevitably affect the content. Therefore their role should be openly acknowledged, and they should not be allowed to prevent others from disseminating alternative views or critiques of their positions. There must not be just a handful or less of huge conglomerates producing and disseminating news and other forms of information. Otherwise it is all too easy for them to become no more than uncritical propaganda grinders. Furthermore, it should be illegal to abuse control of directories people use to find those publications such that only certain views are propagated. This means both paper directories which are little used now, and their electronic near equivalents, web search engines.

Now immediately on reading or thinking through this, a person reasonably wonders what to do about people who use their printing presses to incite violence and support such practices as trafficking and sexual slavery. This is a tough one, and the famous example of not being allowed to shout fire in a packed theatre is only so helpful. What about the people today who verge on eviscerating the meaning of the word "violence" by insisting that not using their preferred pronouns is violence? Or that merely being offended is to suffer a form of violence? The thing is, we have plenty of solid ways to check publications that incite violence, starting with usually the people who undertake violence based on what those publications say point to the publication as part of their justification. If the experiences of major wars have taught us anything, it is what a dehumanizing and violence justifying publication is, and the difference between real life risk or actual affect to life and limb versus rather childish powerplays in public. Lest we forget, people who have been targeted for systematic persecution on the basis of their religion, perceived "race," or sex, or indeed all three, are not protesting dehumanizing and vile depictions of them because those depictions make them feel bad. They are protesting because those depictions are all too empirically connected to literal physical violence inflicted upon them as a group or class and/or on an individual basis as members of a group or class.

So what's tough about managing free presses responsibly is not managing them, but acting on the responsibility. We know how this stuff works, and we know that firmly refusing to accept dehumanizing and vile depictions is required of us especially at fraught times like elections. And by "us" I don't mean a centralized police force or government alone. I do mean all of us. I admit that this is not my favourite answer either, but some things just can't be delegated or ignored.

The value of a free press is widely assumed, yet in much of north america at least, we are in the curious position of having a press that is becoming less and less free. This is being allowed on the grounds that the press is made up of corporations now, and must be run as such. We are already seeing that if we want to see accurate information from a variety of points of view, this model of running the press does not work. It certainly doesn't work if we want the press to serve at least in part as a means of imposing accountability on politicians, because representing the interests of the majority conflicts with the business drive for profit. Profit comes from the people who have money, but the majority of people are poor. A free press isn't chained to the profit motive or government subsidies. The corporation, which is not allowed to merely break even but must make a profit no matter what, has no place in the press.

What I mean by a longer election period is having the polls open for a given election longer than one day, for more extended hours, and on weekends. As I understand it, this was tried out in several parts of the united states in its 2012 election, and this appears to have contributed to better voter turnout in those places. This would remove an important practical obstacle for many voters, and also improve logistics at the pollings stations. After all, the more people who are trying to vote, the longer the line ups, and this is one of the most practical ways to mitigate that issue. By this I don't mean extending the in-person voting for weeks, rather that it should span a weekend for the advanced and main polls.

It may sound strange for a person with a website who obviously spends plenty of time with computers to advocate paper ballots. However, I am not convinced that electronic voting is properly anonymous, and it is no easy feat to catch or prevent fraud or "vote flipping" by faulty software. And we all know how computers are; they get too overloaded, and they crash, and you're back to paper anyway. Also, these should not be machine punched ballots, which have all sorts of inevitable headaches once the hole punchers get dull. Anyone who needs convincing on this point should feel free to do a web search on the terms "hanging chads" and "voting" – the second term is necessary to filter away a range of vile web memes generated by a sub-culture of socially inept males online. In the end a good old-fashioned ballot you have to make a mark on with a pencil that people have to count is the solidest option. Ballot box stuffing is not so easy as those who have tried it might imagine, especially when we have election monitors. If nothing else, this is a method of voting that voters can see and trust. They can see they definitely marked the ballot, folded it up, and stuck it in the box. If they can't, they will not feel secure enough to vote. They also can't feel secure enough to vote if they are not convinced they can cast their ballot anonymously, and as we keep learning again and again, current computer software as designed seeks to de-anonymize everyone who uses one. It was the majority who demanded and fought for the anonymous vote precisely in order to curb bullying and buying of voters.

At first read, a "none of the above" option on a ballot may sound rather ridiculous, yet it can serve a highly useful purpose that spoiled ballots can't. Currently, if you find all of the candidates you could vote for unacceptable, your only choice is to either not vote or spoil your ballot. Many jurisdictions do not provide a write in slot, and writing in an alternate candidate is of little use if not enough people write in the same person, or the candidate written in is a joke that can be brushed off. These are perhaps the most awful conditions to find yourself not voting in, because then the double-bind of the non-voter narrative come into play. You are not only disenfranchised by a lack of any candidates you would be willing to vote for, but also by the idea that any decision not to vote should be punished by disenfranchisement anyway. Spoiling your ballot is no better, because how is anyone to tell that you spoiled your ballot for that reason? The vote counters have no time to read any messages you may write them on your spoiled ballot. A "none of the above" option provides a tracking mechanism for the phenomenon of lack of acceptable candidates, as a preliminary step towards proportional representation and/or a check for how a new proportional representation system is working. The "none of the above count" could be an important tool for increasing accountability, since it would provide a real number to consider rather than anecdotes that are all too easy to dismiss.

Last, but far from least, is keeping the pressure on. Elections and voting simply can't have real effectiveness without the ongoing work of all those stubborn groups of people who write letters, protest, pamphlet, and teach. In effect, they are the real mechanism for accountability of politicians and the press alike. To see the proof of this point, we just have to look back into the gains of women, racialized people, and workers over the past hundred years. None of it would have happened without their hard work to keep the pressure on. As things stand, most politicians are not part of the not so rich, non-white majority. They are often perfectly comfortable, and have no reason to make any changes so long as they stay that way. This may be an all too human response, but they cannot be expected to overcome that response by having it politely explained to them. Nor can they be expected to make changes at the behest of what they can interpret as "mere complaining." They need it made clear to them that people are serious about holding them to account and not letting them loose until they do the job they said they would, acting as democratically elected representatives.

All together, this is a pretty non-european way of going about an election, although it is no silver bullet. It takes hard work and some time to fix a broken electoral system. Yet it's a far more promising approach because it's about actually trying to get a handle on systemic problems. It would also take a great deal of coercion and disrespect for voters out of the equation, which work against what a representative democracy needs: lots of people who choose freely to exercise their right to vote because they see that their vote always counts.

  1. The word "apathy" and its derivatives are thrown around a lot, so it's well worth considering whether we're all talking about the same thing or even the same people when we use them. Another perspective again is provided by Dave Meslin in this talk videorecorded and made available on RabbleTV. The talk was sponsored and brought together by an organization called TED, a non-profit that states that it works to make intellectually challenging talks by a wide range of speakers available for free.
  2. Notice the problem here? It doesn't matter whether citizens want or have a duty to vote, they can't because they are not citizens!
  3. bbc world news: belgium fails to break political deadlock, 18 october 2010.
    euobserver: belgium's political deadlock is complete, Koert Debeuf, 5 november 2019.
  4. Yes, this stupid, oxymoronic name that insults peoples' intelligence is the name of a major political party in canada. There was a short period where it was just called the conservative party, but once Stephen Harper and his cronies had finished seizing the party it proceeded to take over its branding.
  5. I wrote the very first version of this essay in 2008, in the same period as Is It Fascism Yet? and then revised it heavily in 2012. It is terrible that things have gotten horribly worse in the united states.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:53:08