Apathy Makes for Poor Protest: Why Non-Voting is in an Ineffective Way to Signal Discontent

Canadian voter turnout has been on the decline over the past couple of decades. This is often attributed to both falling interest in and discontent with the current state of Canadian politics. Not voting is often considered a form of protest or expression of dissatisfaction with politics. This can be discontent with the candidates and parties running for office or the overall political system, the electoral system through which individuals get elected, or the degree to which politicians are allowed to effectively represent their constituents once elected. Abstaining from voting can certainly be tempting. For those that do not feel a party represents their values or that their vote will have little impact on politics not showing up to the polls can seem like a meaningful way to signal dissatisfaction with politics. The problem with not-voting is that it is not an effective form of political action. It does not provide a clear indication of what voters are dissatisfied with, nor does it give politicians incentives to respond to the opinions of those that are dissatisfied.

The first problem with non-voting as a form of protest lies in its silence. Individuals can be dissatisfied with politics in a number of ways. They may feel unrepresented by the parties or the candidates that they have to vote for, they may feel that there are problems with the way that the electoral system translates votes into seats in the legislature, or they may feel that rules in the legislature limit the degree to which representatives respond to their opinions. The complexity of political systems make vague signals of voter discontent difficult to translate into political change. Politicians that see declining voter turnout may get the message that there is something wrong with the political system, but they have no way of knowing where the problem lies. Politicians have no sense of whether voters might be satisfied by a change to the electoral system, a decrease in party discipline, or the formation of a new political party to try to cover the opinions of non-voters. There is also no clear signal of how many people support particular changes, nor whether large numbers of non-voters are discontent with politics or whether they are simply disengaged with politics. Not knowing how much support is behind different options for political change makes it difficult for politicians to support reforms with any confidence that those reforms will address the concerns of those that are discontent. Protest movements can be effective when they demonstrate widespread popular support for a particular policy or action. Abstaining from voting gives neither a clear signal of the problem that an individual has with politics nor the amount of support behind different options for political change.

A viable alternative for individuals discontent with the political system may be the support of protest or other parties that may not have a strong likelihood of winning government, but that may still have an impact on politics. Increases in votes for small parties, especially single issue parties, provides major parties with a clear indication of where discontent voters stand. A growth in support for the Green party, for example, shows other parties that there is a segment of the population that might be persuaded to vote for them should they adopt stronger environmental policy. The emergence of the Reform and Bloc Quebecois in 1993 signalled a clear discontent with the way that politicians had handled the constitution over the course of the 1980s. Surges in support for particular parties give the mainstream parties some indication of the kinds policies that discontent voters support. Mainstream parties can then respond to these surges by adopting some of the policies of the protest parties.

There are limits to how much parties will respond to protest parties. Even when small parties are included in the options available to voters, voters are still limited to the parties that are running in the election. If there is no party taking a strong stance in favour of proportional representation for example, it is difficult for non-voters to signal a preference in favour of a change in the electoral system. Additionally, for protest votes to be effective, a large number of voters need to back a particular protest party. Small increases in support for small parties are unlikely to have an impact on politics. Finally mainstream parties have to feel that adopting the protest parties will not hurt their ability to hold on to their current supporters, voting for a protest party cannot not change the policies of a mainstream party when the mainstream party believes that its policies are well supported. Nonetheless voting for protest parties sends a much clearer message to parties than not voting at all. It gives politicians at least some indication of whose policies they need to look at if they want to reach out to disaffected voters.

The second problem with abstaining from voting as a form of protest is that it does not give politicians an incentive to respond to the protest. Not all parties benefit from increases in voter turnout.  A party that just won an election is unlikely to want to change the make-up of the voting population, given that that population just got it elected to power. Increasing voter turnout comes with the risk that new voters will support an opposition party. This leaves the parties with the most influence over changes to the political system with the least incentive to listen and respond to the concerns of non-voters. Parties face two sets of incentives when engaging voters. They have an incentive to make sure their supporters vote and an incentive to convince voters on the fence between different parties to support them. Discontent non-voters are rarely counted as supporters of a particular party so they give parties little incentive to reach out to them with mobilization efforts. The fact that they are not voting leaves parties little to gain by speaking to their issues. If an individual is not going to vote, she is not going to hurt the chances of a particular party getting elected. A party has a much stronger incentive to try to win-over the support of a voter who will hurt the party by voting for a competitor. Effective protest forces politicians to respond on issues important to the protesters by giving incentives to politicians to adopt the policies that the favour. Abstaining from voting does the opposite. It allows parties not to worry about the issues of non-voters while they focus their attention on the individuals that do vote, and as a result, have an effect on whether they get to remain in office.

Elections are one of the strongest tools that individuals have to influence political change.  Voting sends important signals to politicians that abstaining cannot. It shows that discontent individuals will play a role in deciding who gets elected to government, and it demonstrates the direction of voter discontent. A surge in support for the Green party will force other parties to look at the Green party platform in order to try to find policies that they can use to steal Green support. Even support for “least bad option” parties gives other parties an incentive to look for issues that can split voters away from their least bad alternative and bring them over to their side. The more likely discontent individuals are to cast ballots, the more likely they are to see the change they seek.


The Beginning not the End: Reflections on the Scottish Independence Referendum from a Canadian Perspective

One of my earliest political memories is sitting with my parents on October 30, 1995 watching Quebecers decide whether or not to leave Canada. As a child at the time I did not realize it, but the 1995 referendum was a result of several attempts and failures to come to a compromise between different understandings of the country in Quebec and the rest of Canada. There is a real temptation with the Scottish referendum to draw comparisons between Scotland and Quebec in 1995, but the more apt comparison is between Scotland and the Quebec referendum in 1980. The 1980 referendum, like the most recent Scottish referendum, saw a decisive victory for the no side but also featured commitments on the part of federalists that a no vote would not be considered an endorsement of the status quo. In 1980 Pierre Trudeau told Quebecers that he would take a no vote as a mandate to open negotiations to renew the constitution and rebuild the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Trudeau was able to give Canada a new constitution, but he was unable to bridge the growing divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and his 1982 constitution would be adopted without the consent of Quebec. The unionist politicians in the United Kingdom face a similar challenge to the Canadian federalist politicians of the 1980s. They have to make good on the promises of devolution made during this past referendum while not alienating the other nations within the UK, particularly England and Wales. Failure to deliver on their promises could leave the United Kingdom fighting another referendum over Scottish separatism in the not-too-distant future.

In comparison with the Quebec referendum, the Scottish vote was closer than it seemed. In 1995 Quebec voters were asked whether “Quebec should become a sovereign state after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995.” With the 1995 question Quebec separatists were able to win the support of 49% of Quebecers. The phrasing of both the 1995 and 1980 questions meant that there is some uncertainty as to how committed yes voters in Quebec were to creating an independent country. Many would have supported full independence, but others would have been voting for a renegotiated relationship with Canada. The same cannot be said for Scotland. The referendum question in Scotland asked “do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country.” There is little ambiguity in the question, one can be reasonably confident in the commitment of the 45% of Scots who voted for yes to create an independent country. When the questions put to Scottish and Quebecois voters are compared, the 4.5% difference in support between what Quebec separatists got in 1995 and what Scottish separatists got this month looks a lot smaller. Scotland may have come a lot closer to the high level of support for separatism that in 1995 threatened to break up Canada than the 10% difference between the yes and the no side suggests. The Scottish separatists are probably a lot closer to a majority yes vote than Quebec separatists were in 1980, and they may even be as close as Quebec separatists were in 1995. This makes the stakes of what comes after the referendum particularly high for UK politicians.

This is significant when one considers that in both Canada and Quebec there was ambiguity in what no voters were supporting. No voters sent a signal rejecting independence, but what they support in its place is not fully clear. Both the 1980 Quebec referendum and the Scottish referendum featured promises on the part of federal (or unionist politicians as they are know in the UK) that a no vote would not mean support for the status quo, but rather would result in some change in the relationship between the region trying to separate and the rest of the country. In neither case were the no-side politicians particularly clear about what that change in relationship would be. Unionist politicians of all parties in the United Kingdom have promised increased devolution of power to Scotland, but they have not been clear on how much devolution there will be. There were likely a significant number of no voters in Scotland who voted no thinking that they would get a large number of new powers for Scotland through devolution, just as there were significant numbers of no voters in 1980 who would have voted no thinking that they would get constitutional change that reflected Quebec’s interests. If the Scottish no voters who support a high level of devolution do not get that devolution, they are likely to become separatist voters in the future.

Trudeau’s delivery on his promise of constitutional renewal failed to meet what many Quebecers felt were the interests of Quebec. Indeed in 1982 Trudeau passed an amended constitution with the support of every provincial except for the Quebec government. The 1982 constitution was not what many Quebecers felt they were promised in 1980. Quebecers would express their discontent with Trudeau in the subsequent 1984 election; the Liberals went from holding 74 of Quebec’s 75 seats to holding only 17 (Trudeau’s retirement meant that it was John Turner who would suffer this electoral drubbing). Brian Mulroney, who took over as Prime Minister in 1984, made two attempts to bring Quebec into the constitution through the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, but both failed to get the necessary cross province support to succeed. The result of federal politicians’ failure to get a constitutional agreement was an re-invigoration of Quebec’s separatist movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. That referendum saw 49.5% of the province vote in favour separation as compared to the 40% in 1980. Likewise, failure to deliver on the promises that the unionist camp has made is likely to leave some no voters disaffected with the unionist camp they supported in the most recent Scottish referendum. Given that only 10% of no voters in Scotland have to switch sides for the yes camp to win, the costs to unionist politicians of leaving even just a few of their voters unsatisfied with whatever devolution package is offered in the coming year could be very high.

Like in Canada, the promises of greater devolution in the United Kingdom raise questions about whether the interests of Scotland can be balanced with the interests of the rest of the United Kingdom. In Canada, Quebec’s demands for greater recognition were paralleled by an understanding, particularly prevalent in Western Canada, that each province deserved equal recognition. The Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords could not find a balance between Quebec’s demand for greater recognition and Western Canada’s hostility to it. The result was the failure to get a workable constitutional agreement that was accepted both by Quebecers and English Canadians. The United Kingdom faces similar problems. Greater devolution of powers to Scotland comes with questions as to whether the same increase in powers will be given to the Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments. It also raise the question of what to do about England, which is current governed by the British parliament, including by MPs from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Already David Cameron has suggested that devolution of power to Scotland will have to be accompanied by a discussion of what that means for the governance of England as well.

Striking a balance between the claims of these different groups presents a challenge for unionist politicians. Scotland already has more powers and revenue then the Welsh parliament, granting more powers to Scotland without also granting more powers to Wales could frustrate Welsh parliamentarians. Too much devolution though could create a backlash amongst British nationalists who may fear, as Canadian federalists often do, that granting too much power to regional governments can threaten national unity. With respect to England there is also no easy solution. The most workable solution may be to create a true federal system in the United Kingdom with equal regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England, though this solution has limited support amongst British politicians. With 84% of the British population living it England, however, federalism on equal terms may be difficult to make work. An English parliament may end up dominating both inter-regional relationships in the UK and may end up overshadowing the British government itself. Even if federalism as a concept is considered workable, there would have to be negotiations over how much power would be devolved to the regions and how much would state with the British parliament. If these negotiations do not produce an arrangement favourable to Scots, there is a reasonable danger of an increase in support for separatism as Scots feel the promises made by unionists have not been fulfilled.

Another solution might be to create a system of “English votes for English laws” or to adopt dual majority system. In the first system only English MPs would vote on laws related to England while in the second laws relating to England would require majority of not only the British parliament but of the English MPs in the British parliament as well. These systems have their own problems. They can make non-English British MPs look like second-class MPs, and can create a disconnect between the executive that implements laws in England and the legislature that passes them. How might a Labour Prime Minister reliant on seats in Scotland and Wales for her majority implement and enforce laws for England passed by a Conservative majority of English MPs? A dual majority vote might create deadlock on legislation if the majority party in Britain is different than the majority party in England. Failure to resolve these issues related to the rest of the UK present hurdles to the devolution promised by unionist politicians. The interests of other regions, particularly England and Wales may make it difficult for unionist politicians to meet the demands of Scottish voters who voted no expecting greater powers for Scotland.

Then separatist Premier of Quebec Rene Levesque began his concession speech by saying that he understood the message of Quebec voters to be “a la prochaine fois” in English “until next time.” The failure to reach a constitutional agreement in Canada that could unite Quebecers and the rest of Canada meant that when the “next time” came in 1995 the separatist side came within one percent of a majority vote for separatism. What happens in the United Kingdom after the referendum on Scottish independence will determine whether the United Kingdom faces a second, and perhaps a closer, referendum on Scottish referendum in the next couple of decades.