Why protest votes don't count ⁠— even if you drink your ballot

Elections Canada says there's no process for protesting a ballot in federal elections. But that hasn't stopped some from trying.

Elections Canada says there's no way to register a protest vote in federal elections

Marika Warner takes a sip of a smoothie with her subpoena in it after being charged for destroying her ballot by drinking it during the 2000 federal election. She said it didn't taste that remarkable: 'It’s a thick paper with a lot black ink on it.' (CBC Archives)

Marika Warner went to her polling station hungry; along with her required ID, she brought bananas, strawberries, soy milk and a blender. She got her ballot, walked over to a wall socket and threw it all in the blender.

The buzz of the blender fell over the quiet polling station. By the time any poll workers realized what was happening, Warner was already gulping down her ballot.

"They weren't angry. It was just 'what is happening here?' ... complete befuddlement," she said. "Which speaks to how dead democracy is when people just show up, drearily mark their ballot and leave."

It's been almost 20 years since Warner staged her smoothie protest in Edmonton during the 2000 federal election. She was protesting both the candidates and the first-past-the-post voting system. But little has changed. In the eyes of Elections Canada, there's still no process for protesting your ballot.

In fact, what Warner did was considered an offence under the Elections Act. She and a few other members of the aptly named Edible Ballots Society were charged with destroying their ballots. She said the charges were eventually dropped.

No photos are allowed in polling stations, so Warner recreated the smoothies using the subpoenas she and her Edible Ballot society colleagues received to appear in court after eating their ballots. 'I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates at that time,' she jokes. (CBC Archives)

Another election, she chose to go into the booth and quietly eat her ballot before leaving. 

As she's grown older and started a family, she's stopped eating ballots and now opts to vote strategically. But her voting options — or lack of them — continue to frustrate her.

"I still resent the system where 40 per cent of the popular vote can get a majority," she said.

'No mechanism' for protest votes

The protest ballot doesn't exist at a federal level — there's no way to successfully vote for none of the above.

If you vote for no one, your vote is counted as a rejected ballot and tallied in Election Canada's final vote count. There were 120,515 rejected ballots in the 2015 election, or 0.7 per cent of all votes. That's roughly equivalent to the population of Ajax, Ont., a suburb about 50 kilometres east of Toronto.

But these can't be considered protest votes because many types of ballots are counted as rejected, including the aforementioned ones with no votes, ones with multiple votes and ones that are improperly marked.

If a voter hands back their ballot in protest, Elections Canada staff is supposed to let the elector know there is no process for protesting or refusing a ballot in federal elections. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Even if you were to take your ballot and hand it back unmarked immediately, it would be considered rejected.

"There is no mechanism to track people who want to protest their vote," said Matthew McKenna, who works in media relations for Elections Canada.

In Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario provincial elections and territorial elections in the Northwest Territories, you can actually decline your ballot, which gives a better indication of those voting in protest.

Attempts at change, but none have stuck

There has been a years-long push to get the federal laws changed — including unsuccessful private members' bills in the House of Commons and the Senate.

David Rodriguez, a University of Ottawa law student, even took the federal government to court in 2017 over his inability to vote none of the above in the 2015 election. Rodriguez considered it a "unjustified limitation on his right to freedom of expression."

He wanted the government to justify why it doesn't offer the none of the above option. A Federal Court judge dismissed his case, concluding there was "no genuine issue for trial." But he did say it "raised serious issues concerning freedom of expression under the Charter and democracy."

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-partisan group which pushes for political accountability and electoral change, has long been pushing to get none of the above on the bottom of each federal ballot. He'd also like to see a spot to write in why someone is voting that way. 

As co-founder of Democracy Watch, Duff Conacher has long fought for changes to how we do politics. He advocates for the addition of a none of the above option to the ballot, along with a space to write why someone is voting that way. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

His hope is those responses would then be categorized and made public, which Conacher argues would benefit the parties. "They would get direct feedback on what people see as a weakness in their platform," he said.

Conacher admits it would add a bit of a burden to Elections Canada's workload, but he wouldn't expect the responses to come out on election night. 

He thinks the declined ballots option available in some provinces and the Northwest Territories is a start, but calls it "imperfect." And he doesn't think many voters even know they have it as an option.

"It's still vague. It's still why did you decline?" he said. "The system we want is the one that would give the clearest indication."

Conacher plans on using his ballot this election to fight for this change. He'll be writing none of the above on it anyway. He knows it will be put in the pile with the other rejected ballots but hopes the scrutineers and ballot counters see it and take note.

Whether during an election or just a regular day of the year, people are bombarded with news and information in their feeds. So how do we know what's true and what's false? A lot of it unravels with a little digging. We show you what to look for and how to protect yourself from falling for disinformation and misinformation. 6:56

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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