Federal Election 2011

What's In A Vote?

Whatever method we use to count votes, we still need to ask a more basic question - what is a vote, and what does it mean?

By Undustrial
Published May 14, 2011

Last week's election swept Harper's Conservative government into power as a majority with just under 40% of the popular vote. Though they achieved only 2.3% more of the popular vote than in 2008, it was strategically placed and won them 24 more seats, tipping the scales in Parliament to allow them years of uncontested bill passage. As always, this has lead to questions about our First-Past-the-Post electoral system, but would another system such as IRV or MMP really bring the responsiveness, engagement or effectiveness we seek?

Whatever method we use to count votes, we still need to ask a more basic question - what is a vote, and what does it mean? Fundamentally, a vote is a data point. Our electoral system and parliament process that data, which serves as the method by which we, the public, can influence their actions.

Viewing votes and voting in this way, we begin to see how little actual information they convey. Voting for one of a handful of candidates is about a byte of data per person. This carefully chosen byte is the one form of binding influence we have over the government - and is meant to convey our wishes as far as which representative we get, their philosophy and which side of major issues we fall upon.

This input is considered valid for around four years. What professional number cruncher, from computers to statistics to economics would take these kind of assumptions uncritically? At best, an election provides a snapshot of public opinion, not too different from a single statistic or digital photograph.

Who? What? When?

The first and most glaring problem with our electoral system is the questions it asks. We focus nearly entirely on who and not what, how or why? By using representatives as a proxy for all the actual issues involved, we conflate them all into a single choice. Are we voting for a person, party, philosophy, prime minister, or any of a hundred policies?

The inability to differentiate between the many conflicting desires expressed with a vote leaves most of it up to speculation, with the elected member making the final call. When their actions don't correlate with the wishes of their electors, this is because they don't have to. Once in power, "representatives" are given a free hand to break any promises they've made or ignore large chunks of their riding at will.

There is no binding requirement to respect the electorate's wishes, and only the threat of electing someone else years down the road if we're unhappy.

Voting for individuals is a very poor technical substitute for actual issue-based input. For starters, by requiring that we choose one of three, five or a dozen candidates, we create a situation where only a very small "majority" is needed to "win". This often means that the more popular position (which fielded more candidates) often loses in favour of a vocal and well-organized minority. It also relies on those individuals to be trustworthy and effective - which clearly they often are not. And finally, it assumes that we all break down into easily quantified ideological categories, and often takes our support of any part of one as an indication of total support for their policies.

Between elections there's virtually no binding data collection. There are opinion polls, public consultations, meetings with representatives and other forms of input, but none carry any legal weight. As anyone who's been involved in challenging the government knows, these inputs are all easy enough to ignore, even when massively popular. And while other means of influencing government exist - such as involvement in parties or grassroots organizations, it must also be noted that many of these influences aren't terribly democratic. Power concentrations in business and the media, as well as the un-elected parts of our government have demonstrated a very clear ability to get what they want from our government.

The measure of a democracy, in many ways, is what happens when the wishes of those tasked with carrying out the will of the people come into conflict with the people themselves. Perhaps the best example of this is Municipal Amalgamation. Facing overwhelming public opposition (3:1 in Toronto's vote), the Harris Government simply went ahead anyway, greatly reducing local representation for many Ontario municipalities.

Simply put - we have a "democratic" system which greatly reduces actual democratic inputs. And one which is very resistant to change.

What we need, fundamentally, is more data, more often. This data needs to be far more detailed, and it needs to have binding influence on decision-making. It needs to be able to differentiate between our views of the personal performance of representatives and our views on policy matters. It also needs to provide a far better picture of people's wishes regarding individual issues (health care, carbon taxes, tuition etc) beyond their general philosophy and party affiliation. It needs to be able to track our satisfaction with the system itself. And it needs to do all of this regularly, perhaps even in real time.

There are technological ways we could do this - largely unexplored in an age where we can trade a million dollars worth of stocks from a cell phone. Using a system like modern encryption, private keys could be used to access an account on public servers updating your wishes by issue - anonymous and secure. It doesn't need to involve technology, though. Town hall meetings, neighbourhood assemblies, public forums and village councils and other age-old traditions allow us far less mediated means of public discussion. Many groups are already doing this, and many more could. I for one, would love to see a "Speakers Corner" downtown, with soap-box and all. While discussion is only a first step, whatever the venue, it is the crucial step.

There's no easy set of answers, nor any one-size-fits-all solution. Democracy is a dialogue, and it must involve all of us. What do you think? What questions would you like answered? And most fundamentally, how do you feel this land we call Canada should operate?

Undustrial is a writer, tinkerer, activist and father who lives in Hamilton's North End. He chooses to remain pseudonymous as he frequently works with much of Hamilton's Development industry.

22 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Freedom Seeker (anonymous) | Posted May 15, 2011 at 02:50:03

Whatever else may be going on I would argue that when someone votes in an election in Canada today they are performing an evil act.

Evil: That which is manifestly unjust; profoundly immoral, ethically indefensible.

Why? Because the act of voting is voluntary, that is it is not forced upon the voter; by voting one becomes an accessory to the process of Government, and that process is evil. To be an accessory to evil is do do evil oneself.

An example:
Lets say you freely agree to drive the “get away” car in a bank robbery. It's agreed that your friend Joe will go into the bank and steal the money, you will wait in the car with the engine running. Things don't go as planned and Joe winds up shooting and killing a bank teller. You are an accessory to murder. Even though you never held the gun you directly and knowingly participated in the chain of events that led to the murder of the bank teller and thus share the moral responsibility for it.

With me so far? If the process of Government is ethically indefensible then to vote is ethically indefensible...

How can I say that Government is ethically indefensible?
Premises:
1: There are such things as ethical standards and we can come to common agreement on at least some of them.
2: A social institution (in this case government) can be said to be “ethically indefensible” if it repeatedly, egregiously, violates these standards.
3: One of the attributes of an ethical standard, which distinguishes it from a mere personal preference, is that it is universally applicable. I.e. that it can be applied to all people under consideration.
4: One such standard is that: It is unethical for one person to freely initiate the use of physical violence against another person without their consent.
I'll call this this “The non-violence principal”, and it's unethical opposite: the free (unforced) initiation of the use of physical violence against another person without their consent, “The violence principal”.
5: Canadian governments at all levels; municipal, provincial, and federal repeatedly practice The violence principal, so doing lies at the centre of their activities.
Conclusion:
From (5) it follows that Canadian governments at all levels are ethically indefensible.

Some illustrative examples of the premises:
3) “The use of Mayonnaise as a condiment for French fries is wrong” is a personal preference. It's my feeling but I don't think an argument can be advanced that everyone should be governed by it. “Murder is wrong” on the other hand is a principal that it can be applied to everyone.

4) Bob asks Alice to have sex with him. Alice refuses. Bob responds by knocking her to the ground and begins tearing off her clothes. In the struggle Alice drives her thumb into Bob's eye socket, fracturing the base of his skull. Bob subsequently dies of a brain hemorrhage. In this situation Bob's actions violated the The non-violence principal, Alice's did not. In both cases the violence that each party inflicted on the other was non-consensual, but Bob initiated the attack. The non-violence principal does not preclude self defence.

5) Speaking directly to the question of Government and the non-violence principal: Lets consider the components of Government. There is the Parliament, or Council in the case of municipal government. It's members central function is to enact laws and regulations. None of these are mere “suggestions”. Disobedience of any of them carries an explicit provision for some penalty, even if the disobedient individual in no way consented to be bound by their decisions. Absent voluntary submission such penalties will inevitably be inflicted by force, through the actions of the police, prison guards, soldiers, and other agents of the states security / enforcement apparatus. There need be no question of self defence on the part of these actors, passive peaceful refusal on the part of the disobedient party will not keep the gun out of the room. It's hard for me to imagine a more dramatic expression of the indefensible “Violence principal” than is seen in the action of Government.

I don't want to make this post a book, and have no idea if folks here are interested in this position in any way, so I'll leave it there for now...

Permalink | Context

By Brandon (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 09:04:07 in reply to Comment 63538

4: One such standard is that: It is unethical for one person to freely initiate the use of physical violence against another person without their consent. I'll call this this “The non-violence principal”, and it's unethical opposite: the free (unforced) initiation of the use of physical violence against another person without their consent, “The violence principal”.

This is a pleasant idea, but if it were true, then we'd have no assault cases, would we?

Some people truly have no problem with the concept of "Might makes right", which is why we have laws and people to enforce them in the first place.

Permalink | Context

By Freedom Seeker (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:35:26 in reply to Comment 63564

Brandon said: "This is a pleasant idea, but if it were true, then we'd have no assault cases, would we?"

???? The fact that people commit assaults does not refute my assertion that assaulting someone else is unethical, it's simply evidence that some people sometimes act in unethical ways. This may be because they are not aware that they are acting unethically; they are not in possession of a personal ethical framework, or perhaps because they are aware that their actions are unethical but choose to commit them anyway for some other reason.

At any rate the fact that someone is acting in an unethical way is, I would submit, not sufficient justification for someone else to act unethically.

An example of ethical approaches to problem solving:
Lets imagine that we notice that there are a certain number of people willing to engage in "mugging", assaulting people to steal the money that they are carrying on their person.

A violence based (unethical) approach to addressing this problem would be to institute the penalty of arrest by the police followed by harsh prison sentences for muggers, in the hope of frightening them away from committing the mugging in the first place, or at least preventing them from committing additional muggings while they are imprisoned.

One possible non-violent alternative would be to replace cash with debit cards. When these are stolen a phone call to bank to cancel them renders them useless pieces of plastic, of no value to the mugger. Knowing that this is what is likely to happen following a mugging the would be mugger is much less likely to commit the assault in the first place. Just because someone is willing to be violent does not make the irrational.

Permalink | Context

By JonC (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 18:15:54 in reply to Comment 63564

It also implies that physical violence operates in a vacuum. I'm a pacifist, but only because I'm lucky enough to not have to make that choice.

Permalink | Context

By jonathan (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 01:19:08 in reply to Comment 63538

1: There are such things as ethical standards and we can come to common agreement on at least some of them.

...and herein lies the problem with your particular discourse.

The laws that the Government has put into place are intended to follow the ethical standards on which we have come to common agreement. By that fact alone, any disagreement with said laws, whether passive or active, puts the perpetrator in the position of 'Bob' in your example above. Said person is going against what is accepted as ethical, and the appropriate response must be applied.

The claim that one must agree to the laws in place is irrelevant; if one is human, one must follow the ethical standards of the society to which one is born.

(in before he says 'G20')

Permalink | Context

By Freedom Seeker (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 15:11:12 in reply to Comment 63556

jonathan said: ..."any disagreement with said laws, whether passive or active, puts the perpetrator in the position of 'Bob' in your example above."

I want to make sure I understand your position jonathan. Lets consider the case of the Residential Schools Act. Is it your position that a parent who knew what went on at many residential schools and, as a result, tried to hide their child (which was certainly a violation under the legislation) from the R.C.M.P. and the Indian agent when they came to take them away from their homes would be committing an act with the same ethical implications as a rapist?

Permalink | Context

By jonathan (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 17:33:03 in reply to Comment 63576

Only in that both are committing acts going against the ethical standards that we, as a society, have agreed upon.

And again, I point out that it is the role of the government to institute laws which reflect said ethical standards.

I am saying nothing more than that.

I will, however, take issue with another point above.

4: One such standard is that: It is unethical for one person to freely initiate the use of physical violence against another person without their consent. I'll call this this “The non-violence principal”, and it's unethical opposite: the free (unforced) initiation of the use of physical violence against another person without their consent, “The violence principal”.

5: Canadian governments at all levels; municipal, provincial, and federal repeatedly practice The violence principal, so doing lies at the centre of their activities.

The issue here is the word, 'freely'. If, by this, you mean, 'of one's own free will', then you've unfairly applied it to the position of the government, as those in power are bound by the laws which, again I point out, we as a society have agreed upon.

Can we get it wrong? Of course. That does not, however, force the government into the position of being 'evil'. In truth, it is WE who are 'evil', as we are the ones whom ultimately form the government.

Comment edited by jonathan on 2011-05-16 17:33:25

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2011 at 06:17:12

Great post. Some great opportunities for discourse and dialogue.

What we need, fundamentally, is more data, more often.

Uh, no.

More information, more knowledge isn't the answer. Not if the electorate isn't inclined to participate. (And I'm not talking about actually voting.) Sure, it'll help, help provide more opportunities to focus attention on certain issues. But all this will actually accomplish is to accentuate the input of people who are either already 'involved' or on the cusp of getting involved.

Granted, my interest is local politics. But as I've said previously, you effect a paradigm change in local governance, and the groundswell to provincial and federal 'politics' would be stunning.

No amount of technology, no infusion of a new party, no appearance of a fresh batch of politicians will bring us the governance we really need to see in place. The only thing that will bring about that change is a change in how people see their role in the governance process. (I'll give you two hints: it's practically the opposite of 'vote every four years and then kick back', and has more in common with how people address what they innately want to be doing in their lives.)

Which is, admittedly, a much, much more compelling challenge.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2011 at 08:44:50

I feel ya dawg. But I think in your quest to express your frustration with an election result you can't stomach, you've over complicated things. We can barely get 60% plus to the polls now. By actually looking for MORE input from voters we run the risk of voter malaise and burn out.

The system we have is based on trust, instinct, ideology and the physical act of actually making your mark on a ballot. Thats pretty much it. You trust that the people you vote for will to the best of their ability fulfill their commitment to serve the way they said they would. To a degree you have to analyze what the candidates say and trust your instincts as to who among them will follow through. Your personal political beliefs of course hold sway over much of this. Then you have to get off your ass and actually vote.

The system is not perfect. For some of the reasons you have highlighted. It still beats the alternative.

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

Winston Churchill

Comment edited by Shempatolla on 2011-05-15 08:46:02

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2011 at 09:27:45

A free and open voting system is a hallmark of democracy but is not to be equated with democracy. A democratic society has many preconditions and many other important foundations.

Our society is (relatively) just, (relatively) fair, (relatively) safe and (relatively) open. But that's not simply because we have voted for policies or people who support platforms of policies. We have traditions of education, mutual aid, charity, consultative assemblies and corporate action which predate the universal franchise by centuries. We expect to do things for and with one another.

Our electoral democracy is built on a heavy foundation of social interaction, mutual expectation and voluntary service: we expect to rely on our communities and not just our families, to work together for the commonweal, to sacrifice what is ours alone for what is ours together. Our democracy is not just about voting: it's about paying for public parks and universal education; coaching soccer and leading Girl Guide packs; 4H clubs and church organ funds; neighbourhood committees and parents volunteering at school.

If you look at our voting system and fail to see democracy, then it's partly because you're looking at the driver's seat and wondering why you don't see the engine.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2011 at 21:19:39

Using a system like modern encryption, private keys could be used to access an account on public servers updating your wishes by issue - anonymous and secure.

I also, used to think such an idea would be doable but after the Bush Gore fiasco and a consideration of how the system is being torn apart bit by bit, I no longer trust voting machines or any other technology. What is missing is pieces of paper and more importantly, scrutineers.

While it might seem that if it's good enough for money, its good enough for voting, the mechanism is different. If its accountable, like your bank account, then its not anonymous. If it's truly anonymous, then almost by definition, it's not accountable. Who can ever safeguard inscrutable machine codes, especially in this day of hacking even secure sites, although external hackers are probably not the primary threat.

Not only must we ensure voting remains on paper overseen by people, but we must back away from similar electronic replacements of paper such as land & mortgage titles. Our reliance on title insurance given by a limited corporation is an absurdity like Buffet's weapons of mass financial destruction. We must get ourselves out of this dangerous virtual twilight zone.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 09:18:24

"What we need, fundamentally, is more data, more often. This data needs to be far more detailed, and it needs to have binding influence on decision-making."

This assertion worries me too, a little. Not that I disagree with the idea in principle, I just am not sure where we can gather valid, reliable, high quality data that is robust enough to defend as binding on decision-making. Statcan used to fill this role as trusted collector of information, but it is being eroded.

The current government's assault on the systematic collection of high-quality data is the first step in undermining reason-based decision-making and replacing it with one based on gut-feelings and opinion. These feelings are then bolstered by data purchased from a stable of hired guns at public polling firms who know how to ask the right questions to get answers governments want to hear.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted May 16, 2011 at 09:28:44

What's in a vote is a simple enough question and deserves a simple ehough answer: Approval and Acceptance

I approve of that which I vote for when I exclaim my freedom of choice and I accept all the consequences of that vain noise; This is especially true when I vote with my wallet and I exercise my money's drained voice.

I vote by installments, I show support for what I entrust with my minuscule dollars and sense. I purchase Canadian products whenever possible even if they cost a little more and I shop ultra-local seeking out their most precious store. Among these many daily investments are my family, friends and fellow Hamiltonian's and we all rely on a really prosperous compendium, compellingly coined here in Hamilton.

I will lift my support for community, charity or championship hockey and I still tip the waitress even when she's cocky. Which reminds me, tipping is customary just like voting is our duty even if we don't lik those in the service of our booty.

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2011-05-16 10:17:56

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 16, 2011 at 12:46:56

I definitely wouldn't ever try to confine democracy to elections. Participating in grassroots/civil society groups, "voting with your wallet" and other options have a much larger effect on the world around us than voting in an election. What makes voting special isn't that it influences society to a large degree, but that it's our only real way to exert binding influence upon the state. And the state holds a very large amount of influence upon all of us.

Democracy isn't just about feeling good about ourselves - it's a fairly essential part of information transmission within a group/organization. Those who participate get a far better idea of what's going on (rules, procedures, laws etc), and the system itself gets meaningful feedback. In the absence of it, convoluted alternative means to accomplish these goals must be invented ("management", "marketing" etc) which tend to cost a lot more and be a lot less effective. And when people don't feel they're being taken seriously (especially when they're trying to help), they return the favour and stop taking the organization seriously. Marginalization breeds disengagement.

A widespread increase in political engagement in the country isn't going to happen until people don't feel that it's a lost cause. And the current structure of our government, parliament and elections aren't helping. Waiting until people are more engaged to fix the system is kinda like refusing to spray a fire with a hose until it stops burning.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted May 16, 2011 at 21:17:41

Data points? Binding influence on decision making? Are you guys for real? You must be professional students or spend too much time staring at computer screens and reading text books about algorithms and point graphs.
The average voter would not have a clue what you are talking about nor would they give a flying feck.

What John and Jane Q Public want to hear about is who is going to best represent their interest and how.

If I vote for party A, B or C are they going to do what they say?

Will they make it easier for me to make a living and pay my mortgage?

Will they be responsible with the tax money I send to Ottawa?

Will they represent our country properly on the international stage?

Will they manage the economy?

It's not that complicated.

Permalink | Context

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 17, 2011 at 00:37:23 in reply to Comment 63593

Talk of data processing is common on here, and it seemed the best analogy. Were this a fishing forum, I would have attempted to make the point using fish.

The fundamental problem is that you can't break people's opinions down into a few votes every few years. It just doesn't convey enough information to be a meaningful form of input. And it grants far too much power to be accepted without question.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:06:38

No argument. But what you are talking about doesn't translate to anything meaningful on Main St. It makes for great academic banter but that's about it.

Try and hold a town hall on this and see what happens.

Permalink | Context

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:52:38 in reply to Comment 63608

And I, too, agree. Academic banter doesn't win any points with most people, and that's why it's important to be able to speak without polysyllabic jargon. The measure of someone who speaks in jargon, in my experience, is their ability to convey the same ideas without that jargon.

I've been to more public meetings than I can count. As a rule, they're painful. It takes time, patience, and lot of humility. Functioning democratically is a skill, and it needs to be learned and practised. One town hall meeting would likely be loud and unproductive. But after a few, people would begin to get their bearings (participants and organizers).

Most people aren't used to their input being valued. Nor are most people used to having to take others viewpoints into account. We're used to taking orders, and that takes time to change. But what better reason is there to start sooner rather than later?

Permalink | Context

By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted May 17, 2011 at 18:41:48 in reply to Comment 63610

...I can count. As a rule...

My councilor holds maybe two of these town-hall-like community meetings per term. Is this frequency sufficient for someone to "get their bearings" Undustrial? Will our democratically functioning skills be fully learned?

I ain't worried about getting my bearings or even keeping them greased loose when they're more apt to become seized from their blatant disuse.

Permalink | Context

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 18, 2011 at 13:12:32 in reply to Comment 63624

My councilor holds maybe two of these town-hall-like community meetings per term.

First problem - it's held by the councillor. Second problem, it's held less than once a year.

As noted by Low Income below, these kinds of events are too often held with the agenda already written. They're not really interested in what people have to say (that's a messy business), but they need it for PR purposes. So they hold a big meeting and everyone walks away frustrated.

The point has to be giving people a voice, and that has to be the prime motivation of the organization and organizers. Anything else and people tend to catch on pretty quick.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By low income (anonymous) | Posted May 17, 2011 at 16:16:12

Townhalls or public forums: Given not to long ago I attended a forum on housing. There wre quite a few people who represented low income voices. ONe message that came from those voices was that there iw no political will to change to current situation about housing.

What burnmed me was the consultant, who ws hired by the city, who stated, no way would that person that kind of info into his report, thus telling us, the agenda had already been set.

To the taxpayers out there, I guess they have to ask themselves, why are we paying for outside consultants dollars for reports, when our elected officials and city staff already have their agena set, thus ignoring the voices form low income, rendering them effectively silent!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By by low income (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2011 at 15:43:14

Thank you undustrial

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds