It Doesn’t Work That Way

Legislation interfering with a municipal election does not violate freedom of expression ― contrary to what an Ontario judge has found

Last week was a busy one for me, as I was travelling to, around, and from Western Canada, having a good time, and giving five talks in four days, but the rest of the Canadian constitutional law world had an even busier one, courtesy of Justice Belobaba of Ontario’s Superior Court, and Doug Ford, its Premier. The former delivered a judgment invalidating the reduction, a mere two months before an election, of the number of seats on the Toronto city council: Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney-General), 2018 ONSC 5151. The latter responded to this judgment by bringing forward legislation that will invoke section 33 of the Charter, and allow the election to go ahead notwithstanding the fact that, according to Justice Belobaba anyway, holding it in this manner violates the freedom of expression. The Twitterverse was all atwitter; the commentariat commented; professors professed various shades of disbelief and indignation.

It would not be possible for me to recap and respond to everything, but I do want to make some observations ― even at the risk of repeating things that have already been said, and that I have missed. In this post, I will address Justice Belobaba’s reasoning. I will post separately on the use of the “notwithstanding clause” by Ontario’s legislature ― and some of the responses to it by commentators. Co-blogger Mark Mancini made a number of important points on both issues in an excellent (as always) post last week, and I largely agree with him. In particular, when it comes to Justice Belobaba’s decision, Mark is right that it “massages a chosen constitutional right” so as to “best achieve [the] result” it is after ― constitutional text and doctrine be damned. Here are some additional reasons why.

One thing I’d note is that the descriptions ― common in the media as well as in Justice Belobaba’s reasons ― of the redesign of the Toronto Council as having been imposed “in the middle of the city’s election” [6] need to be put into perspective. The legislation received royal assent almost 70 days before the voting was to take place. The time remaining in the election campaign was identical almost to the day to the duration of the last federal campaign ― whose length was unprecedented and, pretty much everyone agrees, quite excessive. No doubt federal and municipal elections are very different beasts; but we should perhaps hesitate before accepting the claim that the provincial legislation effectively subverted the voting process in Toronto.

Yet this is essentially what Justice Belobaba accepts when it comes to the first issue he addresses, that of “whether the enactment of Bill 5 changing the electoral districts in the middle of the City’s election campaign substantially interfered with the candidate’s [sic] right to freedom of expression.” [27; footnote omitted] Having so stated the issue, Justice Belobaba follows up with a rhetorical query: “Perhaps the better question is ‘How could it not?'” [28] Actually, there is an answer to this question, but it is worth pointing out that merely asking is not a harmless stylistic flash, but a reversal of the burden of proof, which lies on the applicants when it comes to establishing violation of their rights.

Justice Belobaba insists that pre-existing electoral arrangements “informed [the candidates’] decision about where to run, what to say, how to raise money and how to publicize their views”. [29] The new legislation disrupts plans and means that some, perhaps much, of the campaigning that has already taken place will now go to waste. As a result, it “substantially interfered with the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters”. [32] It also “undermined an otherwise fair and equitable election process”. Justice Belobaba relies on Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 for the proposition that “where a democratic platform is provided … and the election has begun, expressive activity in connection with that platform is protected against legislative interference”. [37]

Yet Libman held no such thing. It was concerned with the constitutionality of a law that prohibited persons not having joined a referendum campaign committee for spending money to make their views on the referendum issue known. This wasn’t about fairness ― indeed, fairness in the Supreme Court’s view supported the silencing of “third parties”, if not quite a complete one ― or about interference with an ongoing campaign. The contrast with the legislation here is quite telling. No one is being prevented from communicating any message to anyone. No one is told to stay out of the redesigned election campaign. Sure, the legislation is disruptive and ill-timed, and that’s a valid policy objection to it, but not any disruption of a municipal election is a violation of the candidates’ rights. Suppose a government ― whether provincial or even federal ― announces a major new policy on funding municipalities, and the announcement happens to coincide with a municipal election somewhere, effectively forcing the candidates to adjust their messaging, their spending plans, and so on, has that government thereby infringed the Charter?

As Mark noted in his post, the Charter protects our right to speak, but does not give us any assurance that our speech will be listened to, or be persuasive. Justice Belobaba’s reasons take constitutional law in a new and unwarranted direction. It’s worth noting, too, that with fixed election dates now being the norm federally and provincially, the “permanent campaign” is here to stay. Decisions about how and where to campaign are being made all the time. If any law that interferes with them, or forces prospective candidates or campaigners to revise their plans, is an interference with their freedom of expression, then there is literally no electoral legislation, regardless of when it is enacted, that is not a prima facie Charter violation. This too strikes me as an absurd consequence of Justice Belobaba’s decision.

Justice Belobaba, however, has an even broader objection to the legislation restructuring the Toronto City Council. He says that the restructuring infringes the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression because the wards that it creates are simply too large for citizens to receive “effective representation” from their councillors. This defect, unlike interference with an ongoing election, would not be cured by delaying the application of the legislation until the next one. As Mark and many others have noted, Justice Belobaba imports the doctrine of “effective representation” from the cases that applied section 3 of the Charter ― which protects the right to vote, but doesn’t apply to municipal elections. Justice Belobaba argues that voting is an expressive activity, so there is no reason not to import tests developed in the context of the right to vote into freedom of expression cases. Like Mark, I think this is objectionable. Why bother with having a distinct, and carefully circumscribed, guarantee of the right to vote if it is anyway subsumed into freedom of expression?

But I would go further than my esteemed co-blogger, who I think is a bit too quick to concede the possibility of “overlap” between the right to vote and freedom of expression. As I have argued here, “[v]oting in an election is actually an incredibly bad way of sending any sort of message to anyone”. A ballot does not say who speaks, why, and what it is that they actually want. The act of voting is no more expressive than that of picking up a particular item from supermarket shelf; if anything, it is less so, since there usually fewer, and less palatable, choices in the voting booth. I do not mean to disparage voting. It is an incredibly valuable thing, this ability to make a choice, even among unpalatable options, of who is going to exercise power over us. But it is valuable for reasons that are quite different from those that make freedom of expression valuable ― even freedom of expression in the political context. It makes sense to have distinct constitutional protections for these activities, and distinct doctrines implementing these guarantees. There probably are cases of genuine overlap between some Charter rights, especially within and among the various “fundamental rights” protected by section 2, and to some extent between at least some of these rights and equality rights in section 15. But the right to vote is its own thing, and there are good reasons of principle as well as of legal craft to keep it separate from others.

It is hard to avoid the impression that Justice Belobaba strongly disliked the legislation on whose constitutionality he had to pronounce, found it unjust, and convinced himself that the constitution simply had to provide a remedy for it. His disclaimers about “the importance of judges exercising judicial deference and restraint” [8] (a sentiment with which I disagree ― there is no reason for deference and restraint in the face of legislation that actually is unconstitutional) ring quite hollow. He bends constitutional doctrine to get his way ― to, and past, breaking point. His decision is bound to do mischief, and should not be allowed to stand. Over to you, Court of Appeal. And for all that, it doesn’t follow that the government’s response to Justice Belobaba’s ruling was appropriate. More on that soon, I hope.

Toronto v Ontario: A Remedy Seeking a Right

Constitutional politics and the notwithstanding clause

Yesterday, Justice Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court released his decision on the Ford government’s plan (“Bill 5”) to cut Toronto City Council in half, deciding that it infringed the s.2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression. In response, Ford announced his government would reconvene the legislature and pass a bill to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding” clause of the Charter, under which Charter rights can be “overridden” (though this word isn’t used in the text) for a period of five years.

It was an eventful day all around, and there were many comments from people more qualified than I to speak on freedom of expression, the notwithstanding clause, and the interaction between the two. I will, however, comment on two points in this sordid saga: (1) the conflation of s.2(b) and s.3 of the Charter in Justice Belobaba’s decision; (2) the notwithstanding clause

Freedom of Expression in the Electoral Context

First, to the decision. Justice Belobaba began the analysis by properly noting that the question was “not whether Bill 5 is unfair. The question is whether the enactment is unconstitutional” [7]. But just as quickly, Justice Belobaba ultimately concluded that the province had “clearly crossed the line” [9] because (1) Bill 5 was enacted in the middle of an election campaign and (2) it doubled the population size of wards in the city, breaching a voter’s right to “effective representation” [20]. On the timing issue, Justice Belobaba concluded that the freedom of expression right was impacted because of “confusion” and “uncertainty” owing to Bill 5 [30]. The ultimate conclusion was that “…the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters” was impacted by Bill 5.

While I won’t dwell on the point, this seems a stretch. Section 2(b) is broad and the Supreme Court has rightly affirms the particular importance of political speech (see Libman, at para 31). But it doesn’t guarantee a right to expression in perfect circumstances—nor does it proscribe government conduct that could make political speech “ineffective.” The fundamental question under s.2 is whether a government law “limits” speech. There is a distinction between effectiveness of speech and freedom of speech; the latter is a necessary condition, the former is not. If courts begin to delve into the messy business of striking down government laws that merely affect the effectiveness of speech, the Charter could end up restricting the marketplace of ideas in ways that are typically repugnant to a liberal order. Practically, it also means that in some cases the court will need to determine whether a law renders speech “ineffective,” which would require some fairly metaphysical evidentiary standards, not to mention a voyage into the content of the speech. It is even more difficult to prove an infringement in cases where, as here, the purported restriction speaks only to the environment (confusion and uncertainty) in which candidates campaign, not to legal restrictions on the political campaigns and voters themselves, such as in the typical s.2(b) electoral cases: BC FIPA, Thomson Newspapers, Libman.

I’m more concerned with the second finding in the decision—the essential application of s.3 of the Charter concerning voting rights in a case where it does not apply. Section 3 textually reads that it applies to voting for federal and provincial representatives. Under the purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, the purpose of s.3 is to guarantee “effective representation” (Reference Re Prov Electoral Boundaries) in these fora. Mathematical parity is not the test, but what constitutes effective representation appears to be a fraught question. But in this case, against the backdrop of one affidavit, Justice Belobaba concluded that the expressive right to vote for effective representation had been breached because the ward population size had been doubled [51, 60]. This is fundamentally the language of s.3, not s.2(b). Justice Belobaba, to his credit, is alive to this concern. He ultimately concludes that voting is a form of expression rendered ineffective by Bill 5, and whether or not it is rooted in s.3, it can be transposed to the s.2(b) context [43 et seq]. But here again we get into the business of effectiveness—especially what constitutes an effective vote. The language is striking, calling to mind a category mistake; should we be in the business of assigning value to votes based on resulting effectiveness?

Regardless, s.2(b) and s.3 are distinct Charter guarantees. They have distinct purposes, with “effective representation” being the purpose of s.3. While these purposes may sometimes overlap, it seems to me that the purposive approach to Charter interpretation has to insist on some analytical distinction between the rights to be of any use. If rights are to be interpreted in their “historic, political, and philosophic” context, surely that purposive context changes with the right in question. This has particular implications for the relationship between Charter rights and s.1 of the Charter. As Peter Hogg notes in his important article, how we construe Charter rights at the infringement stage has implications for the s.1 stage. If a right is construed broadly at the first stage (the purpose is construed broadly), then we leave s.1 for more work to do. Similarly, a right that is characterized with a narrow purpose may leave less work for s.1. This is a rough-and-ready purposive analysis, but it means that regularly mixing and matching Charter rights can have consequences for the evidence required to prove a Charter breach, the evidence required to sustain one, and the intensity of review that courts apply to particular infringements.

There is also the obvious problem here of essentially applying a Charter guarantee where it doesn’t apply to municipalities (despite Justice Belobaba’s comments regarding Haig, I think he fundamentally imported s.3). I call this “constitutional substitution.” It means that a court, seeking to vindicate a result that seems unfair or unjust in the abstract, massages a chosen constitutional right that will best achieve that result. It is perhaps an uncommon phenomenon, but it is present in this decision—s.3 does not apply, s.2(b) does. While I’m alive to the idea that the s.2(b) electoral cases could implicate s.3, those cases dealt with different legislative schemes that, again, directly impacted/limited the ability of participants in the political system to participate (ie) through financial restrictions.

I don’t mean to advocate for a “watertight compartments” approach to Charter rights, in part because I think the reality of constitutional facts make this difficult. That said, as Mike Pal very aptly noted, we have no real doctrinal means to deal with overlap of constitutional rights as opposed to the reconciliation of rights. We should start from the premise that the Charter lists distinct guarantees that the Supreme Court has insisted should be interpreted with distinct purposes. From there, we deal with the hard cases that arise where rights overlap, such as in the case of s.2(b) and s.3. And this isn’t the only area of the Constitution where rights can overlap—the recent Ktunaxa ruling demonstrates a contested area between the freedom of religion guarantee and Aboriginal rights under s.35. While each overlap may have to be resolved differently, some unified principles would be helpful.

Brief Comments on the Notwithstanding Clause

I can’t do much to add to the already booming discussion on the notwithstanding clause. I for one accept its legitimacy as part of the constitutional order, in part because of the evidence that it formed a part of the pact leading to the Charter, adopted itself by our elected representatives and because one part of the Constitution cannot be breached by another. The notwithstanding clause is a power that can be used by elected officials assuming they follow the form requirements set out in the Ford case (no relation).

I will venture two points. First, simply because the notwithstanding clause is legitimate itself doesn’t mean that it can’t be misused illegitimately. The exercise of state power—even a constitutionally entrenched power—does not operate in a vacuum. We should expect a duty of good-faith in a constitutional democracy to attach to the use of such powers; put differently, and without entering the foray into constitutional conventions, we should expect elected officials to abide by constitutional norms as they are defined.

Part of this norm, given the atrophied s.33, should be a public justification for the use of the extraordinary override. The populist justification put forward by Premier Ford is lacking for this reason. No one says that the seminal Ford case compels Premier Ford to do anything but pass a properly formed bill. But in a deliberative, representative democracy, we should expect leaders to justify their use of extraordinary state power, especially as it applies to the override of constitutional rights, themselves adopted by legislative actors. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10, we expect in a representative democracy that our leaders will not appeal to factions (as in a direct democracy) but to the highest ideals of the legal order.

A second point about the notwithstanding clause, especially on constitutional substitution. The effect of Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to open the door to the use of the notwithstanding clause on s.3 of the Charter, the essence of his legal findings. Yet this is doubly prohibited by the Constitution. As I say above, s.3 only applies to Parliament and the legislatures and at any rate cannot be overridden by the notwithstanding clause. Though Justice Belobaba framed his findings under s.2(b), his ultimate conclusion was framed in the right to effective representation that would be infringed by having councilors who cannot respond to voter complaints [57]. He was most concerned with being able “to case a vote that can result in meaningful and effective representation” [59]. This is in substance a finding under s.3. Yet by framing the finding under s.2(b), Justice Belobaba opens the door both to the application of s.3 to municipalities and to the use of the notwithstanding clause against, in essence, a s.3 finding. If we accept that the right to effective representation is infringed, we should worry about the notwithstanding clause’s use here.

Vote ‘em out

I offer these comments tentatively, largely because we are in unchartered waters. At the same time, two final points. First, I disagree with those who say this is a constitutional crisis. Constitutions are meant to be durable, to withstand pressure by those seeking to break constitutional norms, or even the inadvertent pressure of complacence. In some ways (putting aside the constitutional substitution concern) this is a textbook case of the court issuing a ruling and the government responding.

Second, I think the best way to understand Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to conclude that he saw a wrong, fashioned a remedy, and hooked it to a right. On most accounts, though the duty of procedural fairness does not attach to acts of the legislature, there was something unfair about the way in which Bill 5 was introduced and the context of the Premier’s contentious relationship with Toronto Council. Most likely this was an arbitrary decision by the Premier. In the face of this unfairness, Justice Belobaba found a way to get around the problem of s.3 by applying s.2(b) and by stretching the meaning of s.2(b) itself. I do not see this as a proper response to legislative unfairness. The best responses are for PC MPPs to oust Ford, or for the voters to do so.

Not That Kind of Voting

What New Zealand’s Electoral Commission’s attempt to boost turnout gets wrong about voting, and what we can learn from it

There will be a general election in New Zealand this Saturday. As is customary in such circumstances, there is some hand-wringing going on about what turnout is going to be like ― it was almost 78% in 2014, which in Canada, never mind the United States, would be considered sky-high, but is regarded as worryingly low in New Zealand. And the Electoral Commission is doing its part in trying to encourage people to vote, among other things by publishing this sleek video that recently showed up in my Facebook feed (and by using other ads based on the same theme):

The trouble, as I see it ― though I will not claim to speak for Kiwi abstainers ― is that, if you think about it for a second, this video’s true message about voting is precisely the opposite of the one it is intended to convey.

We “vote every day”, we are told: for snoozing or getting up; for dirty or clean underwear (that one, I suppose, is of particular relevance to politics); for whether to be a nice person or a not-so-nice one; and for a whole lot of other things. And it follows, apparently, that we should also vote in the election (or those entitled to do so should, anyway ― I am not, since I’m not yet a permanent resident). In other words, according to Elections New Zealand, voting for a party and a candidate to represent you in Parliament is just like making one of those everyday decisions that you are used to making, well, every day. Except, of course, that it isn’t, and in a number of ways.

Perhaps most obviously, if done with a modicum of seriousness, voting in a election is a good deal harder than deciding whether to hit the snooze button or to get up already. (I’ll call that sort of decision-making “voting”, as opposed to voting.) Voting requires one to acquire substantial amounts of information about the candidates and their platforms, about the world and the ways in which the candidates’ proposals fit or do not fit with what we know about it, and ideally also about how the electoral process itself works. (Another video from the Electoral Commission cheerfully showcases the voters’ utter ignorance about the latter point, as if equanimity were the appropriate response to it.) Relatively few people are well informed voters, and even some, perhaps quite a few, of those who are not at least realize that they have work to do in order to become at least somewhat knowledgeable ― though many will never do that work, for reasons to which I’ll presently return. And quite apart from informational difficulties, voting requires one to ponder incommensurable values (do vote, say, for the candidate with the better tax policy or the one more likely to respect the constitution?). By contrast, one doesn’t need to work very hard to “vote”. “Voters” typically have all the information they need from personal experience, and the values at stake are also less abstract and easier to sort out.

The second crucial difference between voting and “voting” is that the “voters” are the ones who live with the consequences of their decisions, whereas voters are not. If you keep on dirty underwear, you are the one who stinks. If you haven’t had occasion to learn that in the past, there’s a reasonable chance that you will learn now. By contrast, if you vote to keep a lousy politician in office, most (and perhaps  all) of the cost of that vote (however small a fraction of the total cost is attributable to an individual vote) is absorbed by others. You may even profit from your bad decision, either because the politician rewards his or her supporters at the expense of  the community as a whole, or simply because voting in that way gave you a satisfaction that is greater than the costs that vote imposes on you ―  though again the costs to the community as a whole are substantial. Moreover, it is often difficult to trace bad outcomes to bad votes, or good outcomes to good ones. The difficulty is sometimes subjective ― a voter who doesn’t understand a modicum of economics will not be able to tell that relative impoverishment resulted from the protectionist policies he or she supported. But it is often objective. Policy is complex, and it is difficult even for knowledgeable people to link causes with effects with much certainty. As a result, voters do not learn from the consequences of their decisions in the way “voters” do.

In short, voting and “voting” are rather different activities, and just because we do a lot of the latter, and do it reasonably well, it doesn’t follow that we should do the former, or that we can do it with any competence. We “vote” well enough because each “vote” is (usually) a relatively straightforward decision and, even when it is not, we have strong incentives to learn enough, and to be objective enough, to decide well, because we are the one living with the consequences of the decision. These reasons don’t apply to voting, which involves complex decisions and trade-offs, which are difficult enough to manage even for unbiased and well-informed decision-makers ― but we lack the incentives to be either of these two things because we do not in a meaningful way bear the consequences of our votes.

Of course, I have no idea whether the Electoral Commission will be successful at persuading people to go to the polls despite the faulty premises underlying its ad campaign. But if it does, this will, I am afraid, be an additional reason to distrust voters, who let themselves be fooled by what is really a well put-together effort at misdirection. Rather, the message we should take from the ad is the one that Ilya Somin delivers in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter: the more decisions we can make by “voting” rather than voting, the better off we will be. Whoever wins this week’s election should really think about that, rather than fret about turnout rates. Don’t worry though: I won’t be holding my breath.

Selfie Slow-Down

I have already blogged about one American judicial decision on the constitutionality of a “ballot selfie” ban, which has since been upheld on appeal by the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. And I have also written about the history of the secret ballot, which in my view explains why measures to protect ballot secrecy ― including bans on something that might at first glance appear quite innocuous, like a selfie showing for whom a person has voted ― are actually more important than they seem. Another American decision issued last week, this one by the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, provides some additional food for thought on this issue.

Much of the discussion in Judge Sutton’s majority opinion in Crookston v Johnson is procedural. The case came up as an application for a preliminary injunction preventing the enforcement of Michigan’s prohibition on “exposing marked ballots to others”, (1) and Judge Sutton concludes that it is simply too late to grant one now in anticipation of the elections to be held on November 8. The people who will be running the election have already been trained and have received specific guidance on photography at the polling stations. Changing the rules at this point would create unnecessary confusion. So Judge Sutton does not rule on the merits of the case, which will be assessed later, assuming the applicant still cares. (This situation is reminiscent of the Canadian cases about election debates, which are invariably brought on an emergency basis when the debates are set up, and invariably abandoned before a full merits hearing once the election has taken place.)

But Judge Sutton does make some comments that bear on the merits of the dispute, and, although preliminary, these comments strike me as quite sensible and interesting. One observation is that

many Michigan voting stalls … are simply tall desks, placed next to each other, with three short dividers shielding the writing surface from view. In this setting, posing for a ballot selfie could compromise the secrecy of another’s ballot, distract other voters, and force a poll worker to intervene. (4)

My memory of Canadian voting stalls is a bit hazy ― I skipped the last election because I couldn’t tell which of the parties was worst ― but something like that might be true of them too. And indeed, even if it is not in any given case, it is worth thinking about whether our voting arrangements must actually be planned so as to cater to the “needs” of people wishing to snap a selfie.

Another practical point is that allowing ballot selfies could create a “risk of delay” at the polling stations, “as ballot-selfie takers try to capture the marked ballot and face in one frame—all while trying to catch the perfect smile”. (5) In a brief concurrence focusing entirely on the issue of delay, Judge Guy makes the additional point that “with digital photography, if you don’t like the way you look in the first one, you take another and so on ad infinitum.” (7) He wonders, too, whether “the allowance of taking a selfie also include use of the ubiquitous selfie stick”. (7)

And then, there are the issues that I have already discussed here ― whether the absence of evidence of ballot selfies’ harm shows that there is no reason for banning them or, on the contrary, demonstrates the effectiveness of the bans as a prophylactic measure. Judge Sutton clearly thinks that the latter is the case. Moreover, “[t]he links between [voter corruption and intimidation] and the prohibition on ballot exposure are not some historical accident; they are ‘common sense'”. (5, quoting US Supreme Court precedent.) Chief Judge Cole, dissenting, takes the contrary view, as have other American courts that have addressed selfie bans.

For own part, without expressing an opinion as to which of these views is correct as a matter of U.S. law, I have more sympathy for Judge Sutton’s. While I have been dwelling on the importance of evidence in constitutional adjudication for some time now, and critical of restricting rights on the basis of assumptions no later than yesterday, the evidence is actually there, albeit that it is mostly historical. Moreover, a court should be able to pronounce on the issue of delay without waiting for an “experiment” to take place. Common sense can be an unreliable guide to adjudication, but ― absent evidence to the contrary ― courts should be able to rely on it sometimes.

Prohibitions of ballot selfies might seem counter-intuitive or even quaint. In the United States, they run counter to the very strong tradition of virtually untrammelled freedom of expression. While I sometimes wish that Canadians took more inspiration from that tradition than they do (for example when it comes to the criminalization of “hate speech”), this is one instance where a more even-handed weighing of competing interests might be in order. Judges Sutton and Guy provide a useful reminder of what some of these interests are.

No Solution

The reasons people don’t vote suggest a mandatory voting law would be futile

Statistics Canada has released the results of a survey, conducted in conjunction with the November 2015 Labour Force Survey, to inquire into Canadians’ “Reasons for not voting in the federal election, October 19, 2015.” These results are interesting, albeit not quite accurate. To my mind at least, they are further evidence for the proposition that mandatory voting is not the solution to what ails Canadian democracy.

A word, first, about accuracy. Elections Canada put turnout in the last election at 68.49%, though that doesn’t include voters who registered on Election Day. Adding the number of voting day registrations from the Elections Canada “Report on the 42nd general election of October 19, 2015,” I get to a turnout of 70.4% ― though the report itself actually gives a lower figure, 68%. Anyway, these discrepancies don’t matter for my present purposes. What does is that according to Stats Can, 77% of Canadians “reported that they had voted in the 2015 federal election.” So unless the survey’s sample was unrepresentative (which is unlikely though not impossible), anywhere between 7 and 9% of the respondents lied about having voted.

Of course, this suggests that, for these people anyway, voting already is a duty ― albeit one that they might shirk. Which way this cuts in the debate about mandatory voting, I’m not sure. On the one hand, these people don’t need the law to tell them that there is a duty to vote ― they already believe there is one. On the other, the probably need a relatively small nudge to act on their belief, so a mandatory voting law setting a small penalty for not showing up might be effective at getting them involved in the political process.

What about the quarter of the population who actually admit to not voting? Stats Can has a detailed breakdown of their reasons for not voting. Almost a third say they are not interested in politics. Would the threat of a (small) penalty get them to the polls? Quite possibly, though surely not all of them. But what would they do once they get there? The threat of a fine won’t make them develop an interest that they now lack. At best, they will be honest enough to spoil their ballots. At worst, they will cast reluctant, uninformed votes, which will surely not improve our democratic process.

A relatively small number ― only 7% of the non-voters abstained for “political reasons” other than a lack of interest. I suspect that most of these were people who ― like me ― did not find a candidate or party to their liking. If voting were mandatory, most of us would presumably spoil our ballots (or vote “none of the above” if that’s an option). As I’ve observed here, a spoiled ballot doesn’t really add anything to the democratic process either, and even a small number of “none of the above” votes (7% of 23% is just over 1.5% of the electorate) would not be taken as a serious message by the political actors).

Almost half of the self-confessed non-voters invoked what Stats Can terms “everyday life or health reasons” ― being too busy (almost a quarter of the abstainers), being out of town, or being ill. Quite a few of them, especially though surely not only those who were ill, would be excused under a mandatory voting regime, after an inquisition into their circumstances ― which doesn’t strike me as something that the state should be engaging in, but I suppose the defenders of mandatory voting see things differently. Others, those who consider themselves too busy, may well regard a small fine as a cost worth incurring. Even if the fine does tip their utility calculus in favour of voting, it is difficult to imagine that they would be willing to expend the much more substantial amount of time and effort it would take for them to become reasonably informed about the issues. They would show up at the polls and, like those uninterested in politics (to whom, I suspect, they resemble more than they care to admit), cast an uninformed ballot.

Finally, 8% of non-voters said that they stayed home for “electoral-process related reasons” ― such as inability to prove their entitlement to vote, or to get to the polling station, excessively long lines, or lack or information about the process. I find it difficult to believe that the threat of a fine would change anything to situation of these people, most of whom would anyway be excused.

Making voting mandatory will not improve our democracy. It will not make people who cannot be bothered to take the political process serious invest their time in it. While it will doubtless force some ― though not all ― of them to the polls, they will not be good voters, whatever one’s definition of “good” in this context. Nor will mandatory voting make those who simply don’t like the options on offer change their mind. And it will certainly not cure the sick or provide identification or transportation to those voters who lack one or the other. Even assuming for the sake of argument that abstention is a problem, mandatory voting is not a useful solution.

Let Them Vote

I have a new post up at the CBA National Magazine’s blog, arguing that, with one significant qualification, a private member’s bill that would lower the voting age at federal elections to 16 is a good idea and should be enacted. I have already made the case for lowering the voting age, to 16 if not lower still, here and here. So I am happy to see that an MP, Don Davies, has taken up this cause ― and I hope that the government endorses it too, which would make the passage of the bill much more likely.

The one reservation I have about Mr. Davies’ bill as it now stands is that it makes no separate provision for, and indeed no mention of, a minimum age for running for Parliament. As I explain in the National Magazine post, under the Canada Elections Act, almost all eligible voters are allowed to be candidates. But it is not obvious that the minimum age for being an MP and for voting should be the same. At the very least, I think the issue deserves to be debated.

Subject to that, I wish Mr. Davies’ good luck with his bill. Its enactment would make our democracy more inclusive, and thus better.

The Core of the Case against Electoral Reform

Why the concerns of those who want electoral reform do not move me

When I wrote about the constitutionality of electoral reform, I did not want to discuss its merits, beyond saying that I did not believe it had many, or the process by which it should be determine upon, beyond saying I favoured a referendum. While I thought it important to mention my positions in order to avoid my constitutional opinion being interpreted as self-serving, I did not mean to argue for them, not least because I did not think I had any arguments to make that would be very interesting or original. Prompted by some of the comments I received, I have thought about these arguments again, and come to the conclusion that one of them may be of some interest, because it is seldom if ever made.

The two main problems that electoral reform is usually said to address are those of “disproportionality” and “wasted votes.” Disproportionality refers to the discrepancy between the percentage of the votes received by a party and its percentage of seats in Parliament, any such discrepancy being, in the view of those who make this argument, undemocratic. Wasted votes are those that apparently do not serve to elect anyone ― that is, under the first-past-the-post system that we now use, those cast for candidates who do not win the riding in which the votes are cast. Proposed reforms ― ranked ballot and mixed-member proportional representation are the main options, if I understand correctly ― address these issues in different ways and to different degrees, but I take it that those are who support reform are usually motivated by these concerns. (Or at least, those who support reform on grounds of principle rather than partisan interest.) There are other arguments for electoral reform, of course, such as that ranked ballot is supposed to make for kinder, gentler politics (like in Australia, I guess), or increased voter turnout (like in Switzerland, I suppose) but they strike me as speculative at best.

Here’s why concerns about disproportionality and wasted votes do not move me. Imagine a simple election between two candidates ― like the run-off stage in a French presidential election. Say the winner gets 55% of the vote, and the loser gets 45%. But the winner gets the prize, the French presidency for example, 100% of it, and the people who voted for the loser go home and their votes have no apparent effect at all. On the account of our would-be electoral reformers, this election results in substantial disproportionality, and a large fraction of the votes cast in it is wasted. Its democratic character should, therefore, be regarded as very questionable. Except that, of course, nobody actually thinks that. Similarly, nobody thinks it undemocratic that a party with, say, 55% of the seats in Parliament gets to govern 100% of the time while that Parliament exists, and nobody seems to say that the votes of the opposition parties are “wasted.”  The disproportion between 55% of the seats and 100% of the power is actually more significant, both in sheer numbers and, more importantly, in effect, than, say, that between getting 40% of the vote and 55% of Parliamentary seats. Yet it is only the latter that is said to be somehow undemocratic. I just don’t see how that is the case. The complaints of the proponents of electoral reform sound in principle, but they strike me as selective and inconsistent with what they are happy to accept in other situations.

For my part, I am no more bothered by the disproportionality or wasted votes in the elections for Parliament than by the same “problems” that arise within Parliament itself. What concerns me is how to limit the ability of a Parliamentary majority, however constituted, to harm both the opposition in Parliament and the citizenry at large ― including its supporters of course ― while it is in office, and how to prevent that majority from entrenching itself so as to become impossible to remove from office at the next election. Electoral reform is not a solution to these concerns. (Indeed some version of it may ― though this too is a speculative argument ― make the entrenchment problem worse.) It is therefore, in my view, an unnecessary disruption of our politics, and a distraction from the issues on which we should be focusing.

NOTE: Feel free to comment, but I doubt I will respond unless I think your observations respond directly to the point I’m making.