There is no “ballot question”


The other day on the At Issue panel the question was “what’s the ballot question,” and wanting to be helpful, I volunteered something or other intended to sound insightful: “strength versus trust,” I think it was. On reflection, I shouldn’t have answered: the question is absurd, and not only that, but profoundly anti-democratic.

The correct answer, of course, is “nobody knows.” That’s the correct answer to most questions about the future, but in this case it’s not just the correct answer, it’s the only one that respects the voters. The choice that each citizen makes in the privacy of the polling booth may potentially involve all sorts of factors: the leader, the front bench, the local candidate, the parties’ stands on any number of issues, the movements of the planets, whatever — and for every voter the relative importance of these to his final choice will be unique. To reduce all this to a single, easily formulated, standard-issue pollster question — who shares my values? who cares about people like me? what’s the price of milk? — is the height of presumption.

I know why the parties do it — that’s the game they’re in: force voters in target demographics down the cattle chute they have prepared for them (“strong leadership! who do you trust!”). I just don’t know why we in the media are so eager to help them out. Or rather, I know why we do it: because we love simple explanations, strong narratives, turning points. And, most of all, we love pretending we’re players, as knowledgeable about the dark arts of politics as the professionals, whose very language we adopt as a sign of our veneration.

To hell with it. There is no ballot question. There are millions.

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There is no “ballot question”

  1. I’ve often wondered if you guys second guess yourselves after the cameras are shut off. I wouldn’t be too quick to lump yourself in with the general media, though – you’ve always brought a healthy skepticism to your coverage. And you’ve never ripped off your mic and tried to strangle Allan Gregg with the cord, which is more than many of us could manage.

    You’re description of “the voter” rings true to me. Choosing where to place the “x” can be an agonizing decision based on many competing, and sometimes conflicting, considerations.

    But I’ve often been surprised at how readily many of my co-workers, friends and family boil down their voting decisions to single issues. These may not be the ones the journalists or parties are speaking to, but my sense is that many voters seize on one lens through which to view the political landscape.

    Maybe Canada is too diverse a collective to have a sufficiently detailed and nuanced approach to federal politics. Maybe hollow sound bites and artificial issues are a response to that.

    Anyway, thank you for a thoughtful post…

  2. Good post Andrew. I think you have it exactly right. Some people might be swayed by the ‘ballot question’ but most of us bring a whole lot of biases, beliefs and astrology thinking to the voting booth. I think most people have already decided who they are going to vote for and ‘ballot questions’ are entirely irrelevant.

    It kinda makes sense to me to vote on a single issue which is personal to each person. Many of us see the parties as tweedledum/tweedledee so it makes sense to pick one issue and vote for whoever is closest to your position. My missus does this all the time – she has political philosophy beliefs but she works with special needs kids and whoever she thinks will be most sympathetic to ‘her’ kids gets her vote.

    It is the beauty of democracy, I get to vote for whoever I want for whatever reason I choose.

  3. Well said Andrew: The one word I have been hearing a lot lately from pundits and journalists is ‘Narrative ‘ it’s actually a good word when used appropriately which more often than not it isn’t, instead it is being used by the pundit to seguay their own perspective into the subject at hand and yet! But you are exactly on when it comes to the ballot question there really is only one – who are you going to vote for? That’s the ballot question now as to to why you voted for a particular person there are as many reasons as there are people voting! Personally I think it gives reporters something to talk about else there is a lot of dead air which is an anathema to media companies.

  4. Another example of why you’re top of the class among Canadian journos, AC. Keep it up!

  5. jwl:

    “It is the beauty of democracy, I get to vote for whoever I want for whatever reason I choose.”

    Well put. It’s a heady, anxiety-inducing thing for those of us paying attention, no? :)

  6. I’m not sure “each voter will weigh a number of different issues when deciding who to vote for” is a bold new insight, but I wouldn’t say Coyne is wrong, either.

  7. Good post, Andrew. For once I totally agree with you. There is not one ballot question but literally millions.

  8. TJ Cook

    Yes, I agree. Governments regulate so much of our lives now it’s important for everyone to vote and make their desires known.

  9. You’re right. Now, if I can draw your attention to another piece of absolute nonsense in that interview (and almost every one I’ve listened to on my iPod in the last week).

    Individual Canadians, the ones who are actually voting, have influence individually over (at most) 1/308 of the composition of the House of Commons. The information that they have is usually a rough idea of how the national vote will be divided up. That information does NOT allow them to know what will happen in each of the other 307 ridings, and often doesn’t even let them know what will happen in their own, and therefore it does not allow them to know how close the Conservatives are to a majority, or what effect their vote will have on the majority/minority result.

    Therefore, individual Canadians cannot vote for a minority or for a majority. And if individual Canadians can’t do it, saying that “Canadians” can (or did, or will) is an anthropomorphic lie.

    It may seem harmless, and helpful in the cause of narrative, which is of course your product. But it is dangerous in that it ascribes to our electoral system a responsiveness to what voters want that is decidedly absent.

  10. The media used to do this when it thought of itself as offering political analysis, putting partisan political claims in a larger context. Thankfully, we’re past that now and all embracing the FOX model of news as entertainment. It’s very empowering for individual Canadians to realise that they are now individually responsibe for doing the analysis. And they can take a break from the stress if they need to by reading Macleans.

  11. I’m not too sure. I’ll agree there’s no single “ballot question” for a reasonably intelligent person who pays attention politics for more than a week before elections. Unfortunately, IMHO:

    A lot of people will vote for their party, no matter what.

    There’s a small number of people without party loyalty who actually follow politics. But let’s face it, there’s very few of us.

    Then there’s a large chunk of people who make their decision at the last minute based on media sound bites, and whichever party controls the sound bites will get the most of these voters down their cattle chute. (I do love that analogy.)

  12. If this campaign gets down and dirty as anticipated, the voter turnout could indeed be low. These attack ads along with the “liar” tag is gonna turm us off. I, for one will probably bow out. I don’t care who gets elected and I will not complain.

  13. Very honest answer!
    Or are you covering your behind.

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