Let’s Make Spoiled Ballots Count

By Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

Sometimes in life we become so accustomed to the absurd nature of certain things that we fail to recognize them as absurd. Nowhere are these absurdities more prevalent than in how we manage to govern ourselves with a system designed for a very different reality some 200 years ago.

In my own country of Canada, for example, 35% of the voting electorate choosing a particular party is often times enough for that party to govern with a legislative majority. As our checks and balances are even fewer than the Presidential model and strict adherence to the party line more enforced, Canadian Prime Ministers have more power than almost any of their counterpart Heads of Government in the world. Despite the fact that 65% can vote against the party in power, that same party and its leader can govern with few impediments except the judicial branch and the force of popular opinion. To summarize: absurd.

Watching the French elections unfold last month and observing what is happening in Mexico now, I can’t help but feel that both of those countries have suffered an extreme poverty of options. In Mexico it’s hard to find anyone who feels particularly inspired by any of the candidates. In France one had the feeling that many people were happy to see Sarkozy lose but sad to see Hollande win. If I were a citizen of either of these two countries I would want to reject the false options entirely, yet through the binary limits of the ballot box there is no meaningful way to do so. It’s sort of like when you’re parents said to you “you can either do the dishes or clean the room.” In logic we all that a false option: what if I don’t like either of those choices?

This is why I believe we should make spoiled ballots of null votes count. Right now a null vote is merely a symbolic act: sort of like calling the police if you get pick-pocketed in Caracas. You can go through the motions, but you’re really doing it more for your own peace of mind. Similarly, if you spoil a ballot in any election you become part of an ambiguous statistic, lumped together with those who seem to have trouble understanding the ‘check a box’ system. Politicians are happy to overlook your statement because while there may have been an intention at some point, the message is lost in translation.

What if instead of discounting spoiled ballots we registered them as a vote against all of the choices on offer. Then, if enough people spoiled their ballots the country’s main political parties would have to hold new primaries, select new candidates that propose new platforms. Within a certain time period the elections would be re-run. The candidates would therefore be forced to respond to the will of the people, rather than the people having to choose between options they’re not entirely satisfied with. After all, it’s our government.

Such an empowerment of the null vote would obviously be a challenge to implement as politicians would be reluctant to give value to something they’ve been happy to disregard for some time. Being forced to re-design their electoral strategies would also be bothersome because it would break up political monopolies and disperse power from among a small group of predictable people to a larger, more unpredictable political class that might be more willing to challenge the status-quo. Still, as Wael Ghonim so gracefully reminded us when helping overthrow the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the power of the people is far greater than the people in power. We can, if we want.

The ultimate absurdity for me is that we pride ourselves in our democratic system when in fact a small group of individuals govern with our consent and our very limited input. We are forced to choose often times between two unattractive choices and live with the consequences, regardless of how grave they may be (i.e. failed wars, de-regulation of the financial system, etc). At the moment we outsource decision-making to others and thus feel no responsibility towards owning the decisions that are made. If we do, though, manage to find means to demand more of our democracy, such as by using null votes to reject false options, we can begin to take responsibility for our collective future.

About Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

A former Google and Twitter manager, Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the founder and CEO of Céntrico Digital, a managed marketing services company.

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