Nfld. & Labrador

Here's what happens when you spoil a ballot

Don't like who's running in your district? You could just stay home on election day. Or you could enter a spoiled ballot vote in protest.

It might feel like a valiant act of defiance — but does it have any political consequences?

You get dressed, head to the polls and submit a spoiled ballot in protest. But is it any more effective than simply staying home? (CBC)

A brief and sudden election campaign that caught parties off guard draws to a close Thursday, with only the Liberals managing to run a candidate in every one of Newfoundland and Labrador's 40 districts.

That means some regions may only offer two choices on the ballot.

So what happens if you don't like either of them?

NDP Leader Alison Coffin came under fire for suggesting, among other options, you could just write your own name down on election day, ruining the ballot and sending a message of discontent to officials and politicians. 

But where does that message go — and is anyone listening?

Political consequences?

The short answers, according to Elections NL, are "nowhere" and "no," respectively; that's because election officials simply don't do anything with spoiled ballots besides add them to a tally.

"When ballots are counted on election night, any ballots that do not clearly prove the elector's intent are rejected," explained Adrienne Luther, a training manager with the province's electoral office. 

"For instance, if the ballot is marked for two candidates or no candidates at all, it's not obvious who the elector intended to vote for. A ballot is also rejected if there are any identifying marks on the ballot, such as initials or an elector's name."

Elections NL rejected 899 ballots after 2015's election, but Luther said no further information was recorded from those votes — including whether the ballot was ruined intentionally or in an act of protest.

"A 'protest vote' does not have any political consequences, from our perspective," she said.

No clear message

Kelly Blidook, a politics professor at Memorial University, tends to agree. 

"Not voting, on its own, doesn't tell us much about anyone's reasons for not voting," Blidook said. "Spoiling a ballot is similar to not voting in that it doesn't typically communicate a clear message."

When counted together, Blidook adds, an increase in spoiled ballots could signal voter dissatisfaction. But that leads to the question of what that in itself would change, and depends on a large number of people making a similar choice.

"Overall, if someone feels strongly that they want to have a voice with their opportunity to vote, I'd suggest that spoiling a ballot is a slightly better option to staying home," Blidook said.

"But the impact of any decision with regard to voting is extremely tiny — it's always proportional to the number of potential voters, and there is no way to change that."

Memorial University politics professor Kelly Blidook is dubious that entering a blank ballot makes much of an impact. (Submitted by Kelly Blidook)

Long-term strategy?

Blidook says on an individual level, voting in itself — given the vast numbers of other ballots cast each election — really doesn't pack much of a political punch. At least, not as much as joining a party, starting a rally, writing letters to representatives or even running for office.

So why would a politician suggest spoiling a ballot as a viable option for voicing frustration?

"Research shows that the best predictor of whether someone votes in an election is whether they voted in the previous election," Blidook said, while not marking a ballot for anyone else increases chances that voter won't become attached to a rival party.

"It's a smart thing to encourage, even if it may not have been received very positively."

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