You Can Lead a Voter to Water, But...


Well, who’d have thought that the Australian election would be this interesting?

As a representative of one Commonwealth country to another, who has woken up with their parliament so finely balanced between the various parties as to be basically deadlocked, let me be the first to say “welcome to our world”. As one who has lived with not only minority parliaments over the past six years, but finely balanced minority parliaments, I can say that it’s not the end of the world. The business of the country seems to get along just fine, even if the shenanigans on Parliament Hill grow and grow to become almost a national embarrassment. Frankly, we’re not about to end this minority situation soon, even if an election occurs this fall, like I suspect it will. Just as Labor and the Liberal/Nationals essentially lost this Australian election together, we’re simply not willing to give either of the two largest parties (Liberal or Conservative) the satisfaction of a majority anytime soon.

Reading through the Twitter feed #ausvotes was interesting last night. It’s good to see that many Australians are treating this situation with good humour. But I noticed a few comments complaining about people “informally voting”, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I had to look it up before the answer made sense.

“Those who do not wish to vote for any of the available candidates sometimes resort to informal voting—placing a blank or incompletely filled-out ballot in the ballot box. In principle, informal votes are excluded from the election count.


Hmm… So, this is no different from the Canadian (and American) practise of spoiling one’s ballot. In previous elections, I’ve acted as a deputy returning officer and a poll clerk, so I’ve experienced these first hand. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately, people fail to mark their ballot properly, and their votes aren’t counted. I’ve had the pleasure of reading out such votes for “You all suck” and “crudely drawn representation of a middle finger” into the official record. These ballots are not counted as part of the final tally, but their numbers are logged (even if the statistics are hard to come by). Canadian voters can even decline their ballot, by showing up at their polling booth, announcing themselves and announcing their intentions. The poll clerk then ticks the voter off the list as having voted, and places the unmarked ballot into the ballot box. It’s counted exactly the same as a spoiled ballot.

Australians are legally compelled to vote. Canadians aren’t. You see the impact of these different policies by the respective turnouts: 95% Australia, 58% Canada. But perhaps since voting Australians no longer have a low voter turnout to complain about, those frustrated at the closeness of the contest, or the fact that the Liberal/Nationals might be a hair’s breadth from toppling the ruling Labor Party, have expressed frustration over those who have “voted informally”. Basically, it’s along the lines of what we hear in Canada: “those who don’t vote don’t get to complain about the politicians we elect”. That sort of thing.

In this election, reflecting the fact that neither Labor nor the Liberal/Nationals electrified the electorate, informal voting was at an all-time high: as many as 1 in 20 spoiled their ballot. However — and this is important — it is their right to do so. Australian law says so, as do the basic principles of democracy.

In a country where voting is compulsory, the refusal to make a choice on the ballot is as clear an expression of “none of the above” as it is possible for one to make without “none of the above” actually being on the ballot. Any attempt to subvert that democratic option renders your country a dictatorship by multiple choice. People who complain about people spoiling their ballot are no different, in my opinion, from supporters of one party calling the supporters of another party “idiots” for expressing their own political opinions. If your party failed to convince enough voters of the merits of its own platform, the fault does not rest with those who decided to express disapproval, the fault rests solely with your own party. It’s not their fault that you’re out of touch with that section of the electorate. Fix the problem yourself, or get over it.

Countries everywhere, not just Australia and Canada, could benefit if the “none of the above” option is placed on the ballot. Whether it has any formal impact, or ends up being counted as akin to a spoiled ballot doesn’t matter, so long as the choice is available and the records are made public. Let’s see what sort of mandate our MPs could have if the “none of the above” vote starts outpacing certain parties on the ballot. In Canada, it could actually lead more people to vote.

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