Last Thursday, the Out Da Box movement introduced itself to The Bahamas. Ian Strachan, Alicia Wallace and I began the discussion about spoiling the ballot as an option in the upcoming general election on Guardian Talk Radio, and (to my considerable surprise, but not to the others’) the discussion took off. What madness were we suggesting? Spoil the ballot? Why on God’s green earth, at this critical juncture in history, would anyone ever think of doing something so stupid?
And the discussion continued far beyond the morning show. It was taken up again at noon by the Revolution, and then at 5 on Freedom March, and it seemed to continue again into Friday, with more radio discussion on the weekend as well. Almost all of the discussion disagreed vehemently with the position that we’ve taken: that if, like us, you don’t feel you have anyone to vote for, register anyway and spoil your ballot.
The “stupidity” of the idea centred around two main points:
- the concept that anyone in their right mind would, or should, go to the polls and stand in line in the hot sun, wasting their time and energy and patience, to go into the voting booth just to choose no candidate at all; and
- the idea that doing this would change anything about the outcome. If 90% of the electorate spoiled their ballot, the next government would be elected by the 10% who did not, and the politicians would not care one whit about the rest.
The general refrain: this will achieve nothing, so why even suggest it?
Method in the Madness
What much of the discussion seems to have missed about the movement is that its focus is not on effecting quick, immediate change in political rulership. Rather, it is on building citizen power.
For too long, we have accepted the idea that “democracy” consists of going to the polls every five years–or, more recently, whenever a referendum is called–to cast a vote on a pre-selected slate of candidates or a pre-determined set of options. The result has been that we’ve developed the habit of treating election seasons rather like football playoffs–people have their teams, they wear their paraphernalia, they trash talk about the other guys. Like football playoffs too, we have evolved a binary way of looking at political options: it’s an either/or scenario. And it’s a spectator sport for the most part. We may study the plays and talk about them, but we do not contribute to them. The game is plotted out in the locker room, behind closed doors, between coaches and players. As with football, we seem to accept that this is the way things are done. All we do is cheer them on when we see how well they work, or groan when they don’t.
But democracy is not like football. Government FOR the people BY the people means, very simply, that the citizens of any democracy are in fact its governors. At the moment, we operate in a representative democracy, which means that at specific moments in time, citizens vote for the people they will send to represent them in the legislature. That’s why the gallery is in the House of Assembly. These representatives are ideally supposed to be the voice of the citizens–the governors–when the time comes to make laws, and also one of the checks to the power of the executive, many of whose decisions should be reported to or ratified by the House of Assembly.
The result of treating elections like football playoffs, though, means that we tend to assume that what happens in the House of Assembly is the politicians’ business. We often miss the point that the politicians work for us. For a long time, we have given them too little oversight, too little direction, and they have developed a culture of entitlement, a culture of disrespect for the citizenry that is only now beginning to be checked with the advent of social media.
The Out Da Box movement seeks, quite simply, to change the thinking of the citizenry. To shift the discussion away from trash talk to what it means to operate in a democracy. To recognize that a citizen’s vote is the one bit of direct power that citizen has, albeit very small.
We believe that there is power in withholding that vote, because democracy depends on the consent of the ruled. We recognize that withholding our consent will not change the immediate outcome of the election. We know that it may be ignored or discounted by the people who do get elected. We know that the government that is formed after the 2017 election will probably forget that they do not have the mandate to make decisions on behalf of the citizenry that they have come to expect.
But showing up to withdraw our consent is the beginning of a new way of being governed. It will take more than engaging in the spectator sport that our democracy has become, but it will be worth it in the end. By showing up to spoil our ballots, to withdraw our consent to be governed, we, the citizens, will be pledging with that one small act that we will show up again and again, collectively. We will do the work it takes, as the true government of our democracy, to contribute to our legislative activity. And we will learn and exercise skills that our representatives seem to lack or to have forgotten: reasoning skills, the skills of dialogue, respect for dissent and dissenters, and the skill of constructive negotiation.
Out Da Box believes that the very first step to that collective action can be spoiling the ballot–withdrawing our consent to be inadequately ruled–together.
Stupid is as Stupid Does
So back to the educated foolishness, the stupidity of the act of spoiling the ballot.
- Why register, go to the polls, stand in the hot sun and waste time, energy and patience, just to spoil the ballot? Because WE are the government. The people we elect work for US. The fact that they hold their allegiance to their parties–their teams–above their responsibility to be the voice of the citizenry is unacceptable to us.
- What will spoiling the ballot achieve? It is an act that citizens can take together to lay the foundation for a more participatory democracy that we have today.The fact that we take the time to withdraw our consent is a demonstration that we are going to show up for other, more visible exercises that reinforce the citizens’ power.
So the foolishness of this movement boils down to one primary idea. Citizens acting together to withdraw their consent to be ruled will lay the foundation for a better, more participatory, future.