How the 'Decline Your Vote' campaign impacted the Ontario election
Published Monday, June 23, 2014 7:24PM EDT
Voters arrive at a polling station in Toronto to cast their vote for the Ontario provincial election on Thursday, June 12, 2014. (Darren Calabrese / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Elections Ontario reports 31,399 Ontarians declined their votes this year -- the highest number since 1975. But the number of declined votes was only a few hundred in most ridings, and not enough to sway a significant chunk of the voting population away from any one party.
The rise in declined votes -- a 1,345-per-cent increase from the 2011 election -- partly stems from a non-partisan campaign that targeted 10 ridings in the June 12 provincial election.
Elections Ontario counts declined votes separately from unmarked or spoiled ballots. It’s a clear signal that someone has refused to cast a ballot for any party.
According to unofficial poll results, most ridings saw the number of declined votes rise to equal, or occasionally surpass, rejected and unmarked ballots. Elections Ontario counted a total of 12,059 unmarked ballots and rejected 22,687 ballots based on improper markings.
The only riding where a loss of votes might have made a difference was Thornhill, where Progressive Conservative candidate Gila Martow beat Liberal Sandra Yeung Racco by a razor-thin margin of 85 votes. The riding was originally announced as a Liberal win, but results were reversed a few days later during the official vote count. A recount is currently underway, but according to the unofficial results, 215 Thornhill voters rejected their ballots -- up from only five declined ballots in the Thornhill byelection earlier this year.
Spearheaded by activist and former PC party advisor Paul Synnott, the "Decline Your Vote" campaign encouraged Ontarians to decline their ballots at the voting booth. Synnott said the campaign's reach on social media far exceeded his expectations.
"Even though it didn't affect the election overall, there are still some eye-popping increases that have to make people question some things," Synnott told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Monday.
"Instead of not voting at all or spoiling your ballot, consider declining your vote," his campaign's website says. "You're sending a message to all political parties that you're not happy with what they have to offer or how they're conducting themselves."
"Decline Your Vote" targeted 10 provincial ridings with a pamphlet and sign campaign, also spreading the word about the no-vote option through social media. The 10 targeted ridings were: Brant, Etobicoke Centre, Kitchener-Waterloo, London-West, Mississauga-Erindale, Oak Ridges-Markham, Ottawa South, St. Catharines, Windsor-West and Thunder Bay-Atikokan.
Eight of the 10 targeted ridings were held by Liberal MPPs and two were held by New Democrat MPPs, prior to the 2014 vote. Only one seat changed hands after the election, as Liberal incumbent Teresa Piruzza -- in Synnott's home riding of Windsor West -- surrendered her seat to NDP candidate Lisa Gretzky, falling by approximately 1,000 votes. Windsor West reported 186 declined votes, up from 24 in the previous election.
Synnott said he deliberately chose 10 ridings where early polls predicted tight election races. He hoped votes lost to the declined category would force politicians to take notice, he said. "I thought that would be a place where the vote could get politicians to pay attention."
The number of declined votes shot up dramatically from previous elections, according to unofficial poll results. Oak Ridges-Markham saw the greatest increase in declined votes among targeted ridings. In 2011, 42 voters decline their ballots. That number rose to 441 this year – a 950 per cent increase.
Rejected and unmarked ballots increased in all but one riding, showing that voters did not necessarily switch from leaving the ballot unmarked to declining it altogether.
All 10 targeted ridings also saw a marked increase in voter turnout. That's in agreement with numbers from Elections Ontario, which reported a 52.1 per cent voter turnout – up from 48.1 per cent in the 2011 provincial election.
"I'm not saying it's because of 'Decline Your Vote,' but I think we had a very small part in it," Synnott said.
The "Decline Your Vote" Facebook page was most popular among the two weakest voting demographics, Synnott said. People in the 18-34 and 35-54 age ranges made up 80 per cent of the campaign's Facebook fans. "Those are the two biggest (demographics), in declining order, that vote the least," Synnott said. "I think we touched a cord there."
Synnott said he plans to run his campaign again in the next provincial election, but the movement can't translate to the federal level because only Ontario and Alberta allow voters to decline their ballots.
Synnott said he'd like the Canadian government to introduce the decline option at the federal level.
The "Decline Your Vote" campaign has faced accusations of voter suppression, particularly from users on Reddit and in the blogosphere. Despite those accusations, Synnott said he hopes his campaign helped increase voter turnout.
"This actually engages with people and encourages them to go to the polls no matter what," he said.
Synnott has a history of involvement with the provincial PCs, but he hasn't been involved with the party since 2009, he said.
"Is it only an evil vote suppression thing because I have Conservative ties?" he asked. "Would it have been different if I'd been discovered to have Liberal or NDP ties?"
Synnott said he doesn't hide his political past, including his links to the now-defunct Polisource, a company he founded to provide Conservative campaign advice.
"My profile and everything online is very open, and that was a conscious choice I made a long time ago," he said.
Synnott left the PC party shortly after Tim Hudak took over its leadership, he said.
Synnott funded "Decline Your Vote" with a few hundred dollars from his own pocket, he said. He only had one outside donation, a $77 gift from a friend, he said.