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Why should every vote count?

in Going Deeper by

The PC leadership would have been a tragedy had it not turned into a farce.

Following a round of partially open votes (open in the sense that anyone can, in theory, join the Progressive Conservative Party, but you’ll forgive me if that’s not my scene), districts sent delegates to St. John’s. Since no candidate had a majority of delegates coming out of the district votes, the actual decision would have to be made by the delegates of the convention. So 678 tired people at a hotel in St. John’s decided who would be Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Barely.

In New Brunswick, the provincial election was conducted using the fanciest new voting machines. Many people were skeptical of these, but at least they’re better than the American Diebold machines used in the 2004 election that had no paper output to allow for a full recount. There were delays in the count, but according to the Chief Electoral Officer, these were due to a software malfunction, not the machines themselves. There is no genuine evidence of voter fraud, but given the closeness of many races, the losing Tories are calling for a recount by hand. Who can blame them?

Voting an integral part of democracy

Voting is central to our democracy now—as the furor over New Brunswick’s voting shows—and so Premier Davis cannot be said to be “duly elected” until he is voted on by all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was not always this way. The earliest democracies were not necessarily conducted by vote, but by lot. Citizens in Ancient Greece were elected to serve on juries and to their legislature by lot. Everyone’s name went in the pot and names were pulled until the required number was met.

When democracy returned, in the 14th century, in the English Parliament, it was far from what we would call democratic. Only a few people got to vote. All of them were men, all of them were white and Christian (there was no such thing as Protestant yet), and all of them were among the lower tiers of the nobility or the upper tiers of the growing merchant and professional classes.

John Locke, the father of modern liberal democracy, emphasized the legitimizing force of voting, and so held that the franchise should be somewhat expanded. But even Locke maintained that a property requirement for voting was not only justified but required. Since government was established to secure life, liberty, and personal property, making sure that the poor, labouring masses did not get to vote was key.

So when the founding fathers of the United States of America wanted to establish a republic along Lockean lines, they not only used a property requirement for voting but also excluded any unfree persons—largely black slaves—from counting as full citizens. Black men were only included in the 1860s, following the civil war. Women would have to wait another two generations.

Ownership of, or alienation from?

The history of our democracy, then, is a history of expanding franchises and greater inclusion. This growth led the great economist and public servant John Kenneth Galbraith to claim that voting is the process by which citizens are inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs.

To my view, he’s understating the case. It’s not just important that it feel like it’s theirs; it’s important that the feeling of ownership is justified. A feeling is justified when it is a rational response to a situation. If someone wrongs you, then, depending on the severity of the wrong, you’re justified in feeling anger or resentment. If you don’t feel grateful for the valuable help of another, then you’re missing something.

Inoculation is when you’re given a little bit of something to make sure you don’t get a worse case. In this case, he’s saying that voting is what prevents voters from feeling alienated from their government.

What the difference between New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador illustrates is that there are times when we should feel alienated from our government. In Newfoundland and Labrador, right now, that feeling would be justified because we didn’t vote for our premier. In New Brunswick, once all the votes are properly counted, they will have. The feeling of control is deserved there, and undeserved here, because they voted and we did not.

I don’t mind losing elections. I’ve gotten used to it over the years. But I do mind having decisions made by a committee of Tories and not by the committee of the whole. When someone wins the premiership despite my voting for someone else, I still feel that his or her government is legitimate. Until then, I won’t feel that, because, until then, it isn’t legitimate.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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