Advocacy group wants Ontario voters to know they have a 'none of the above' option June 7

Ontarians go to the polls on June 7, but some advocates want them to know that if none of the parties appeal to them, they don't necessarily have to choose a candidate. They can instead leave their ballots blank and send a message.

Democracy Watch says if voters aren't happy with the candidates, they can leave ballots blank

When Ontarians go to vote on June 7, they can choose to decline their ballot which is an official declaration that they are choosing no one on the ballot. Ontario is one of four provinces that provides that option to voters. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Ontario voters who aren't satisfied with any of their options in the upcoming June 7 election are still being encouraged to show up on voting day — and to hand back their ballots blank.

Democracy Watch, a group that advocates for democratic reforms and government accountability, is advising dissatisfied voters that they don't have to sit this election out. They can go to polling stations and formally decline their ballots instead.

"Declining your ballot essentially says you're voting none of the above," Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said in an interview.

Conacher says staying home doesn't effectively communicate dissatisfaction. But formally declining a ballot sends a message to the candidates and their leaders that none of them have impressed you, he said.

"If you stay at home, and you show no signs of concern or voting, they are not going to be concerned about you," said Conacher. "They don't care about you because you don't determine whether they win their job or lose their job."

Confused and undecided voters

Democracy Watch is in an ongoing battle with Elections Ontario and has threatened to take the agency to court because it says it hasn't done enough to educate Ontarians about their right to decline their ballots.

To decline a ballot in Ontario, a voter must receive it and return it to the deputy returning officer and say that he or she is declining the ballot. 

The returning officer writes the word "declined" on the back of the ballot. It is then set aside and counted separately. Declined ballots are not lumped in with spoiled or rejected ballots.

"I've never heard of that," said Ahmed Salem, who was sitting on a bench on the grounds of the Ontario legislature on Thursday.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, is trying to spread the word that Ontarians can decline their ballot on June 7. He says that would send a direct message to political parties that voters didn't like their options. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The 26-year-old, who works near Queen's Park, said he does want to vote on June 7. "But as of right now, I'm confused about who to vote for," he said.

Salem said none of the major party leaders are inspiring him. Voters choose a local candidate in their riding to be their MPP and the leader of the party that wins the most seats will be premier. 

Ontarians have had the option to decline ballots since 1975. Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan are the only other provinces that have the same provision in their election laws.

Democracy Watch has been pushing for all provinces and the federal government to offer the option.

Will declined ballots go up?

According to Elections Ontario, 29,937 people declined their ballots in the last election in 2014. It was an all-time high.

Conacher predicts that record will be broken on June 7.

"I think it's going to go up another 10 times," he said.

The four main political party leaders in Ontario from left to right: Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford; Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne; NDP Leader Andrea Horwath; Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. Some opinion polls show Ontario voters are not keen about any of them. (David Donnelly/CBC, Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Many voters appear to be struggling with which party leader to support. Opinion polls show many Ontarians aren't enthusiastic about the current premier, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, whose party has been in power for about 15 years. But the polls suggest voters aren't wild about newly elected Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford or NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who is fighting her third election as leader.

Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, said in an interview that his firm's polling found 74 per cent of Ontarians wish there were different party leaders to choose from in this election.

"All of these choices are, in the minds of voters, flawed," he said.

But Bricker is not predicting declined ballots will surge as a result.

"I think the average voter out there would not go to all that trouble," he said. "The obvious statement is to not vote at all."

Voter turnout was just 51.3 per cent in the 2014 provincial election. Bricker and other election observers are curious to see which direction it goes this time.

"That's the big question. We really don't know," he said.

Party leaders urge voters to choose

The party leaders are encouraging voters to choose among them and not forgo their ballots.

"I obviously think that people need to become informed and need to make a choice," Wynne said when asked Wednesday about Democracy Watch's campaign to inform people they can decline their ballot.

Horwath's campaign said in a statement that she understands people are cynical about politics.

"But I believe it doesn't have to be this way and together we can change things for the better. Your vote is an opportunity to do that, and voting is a right we need to value and diligently protect," the statement said.

When people decline their ballots, they are set aside and counted separately from other ballots. They are counted in overall voter turnout rates. (Elections Ontario)

A spokesperson for Ford's campaign said his message to voters who are struggling to make a decision is that he will clean up the "mess in government and restore respect for taxpayers." 

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement that voters don't have to "hold their nose and vote for a party they don't believe in" and they don't have to opt out of voting for one of them.

 "Instead of opting to decline their ballot, I encourage people to take a good look at the Green Party of Ontario," the statement said. "The Green Party does politics differently and tries to rise above the three-ring circus at Queen's Park by operating with honesty, integrity and respect."

Conacher doesn't buy the argument that declining a ballot is negligent or a waste of a vote.

"It's patronizing and undemocratic to tell someone you should still choose a party and a candidate," he said.

Democracy Watch wants "none of the above" printed on ballots so voters can put an "X" next to it and then write a few lines explaining why they didn't like their options. 

In some Ontario ridings — 42 of them — voters will actually be able to choose a "none of the above" option on their ballots. There is a registered political party called The None of the Above Direct Democracy Party of Ontario, which advocates for less partisanship and more voter empowerment, including more referendums.

Back at Queen's Park, Ahmed Salem had some advice for the big party leaders that, if taken, could help him make his decision.

"They should explain in more detail what their policies are rather than always attacking each other," he said.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said the advocacy group was urging Ontario voters to leave ballots blank on June 7. In fact, the group was merely encouraging voters to be aware that they have that option if they are dissatisfied with the candidates on the ballot.
    May 25, 2018 1:52 PM ET