Tuesday, November 4, 2014

E is for Elections (and Referendums)

Cell phone photo taken in front of the Church of Our Lady
and the Guelph Civic Museum, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
in the run-up to the June 2014 provincial election.
Front: Conservative (blue), New Democrat (orange and blue)
Back: Green (green), Liberal (red and white).
Photograph ©Kristin O. Lord 2014

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, the western islands, the border regions, and many other places: up to and during September 18, the people of Scotland lined up to vote on their future. As an American currently living in Canada, whose two-year sojourn in the United Kingdom was spent primarily in southern England, I watched the events at a distance of both time and space. People who knew that I had lived on that side of “the Pond” occasionally asked me what I thought. Unless my interlocutor was a family member or a close friend, I replied that I would discuss the matter after the polls closed and that my opinion was not an informed one. The decision was the Scots’ own business. Not that I didn’t have an opinion, of course. That would be unthinkable.

My viewpoint might be summarized by comparison to the way I felt about purchasing the new book The Morning After: the 1995 Quebec Referndum and the Day that Almost Was, written by the Quebec journalist Chantal Hébert with Jean Lapierre, which was brought out to high publicity in Canada just before the Scottish referendum. Hébert’s book is the result of interviews with politicians and other public figures on all sides of the referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1995 and focuses, as the title suggests, on what might have happened if the “Yes” vote had succeeded. (The referendum was staged on a “50 per cent plus one” for victory for either side; the “No” side narrowly prevailed at 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent.) I began the book with great anticipation, having opinions that could at best be described as conflicted. As a Vermonter who grew up just south of the Quebec border and who has cousins and friends among the descendants of the Quebec francophone diaspora, I had a basic understanding of the grievances. Quebec was  also—and to a great extent remains— my favorite part of Canada. On the other hand, as an adult who worked in western Canada between 1989 and 1991, I had become annoyed at acquaintances and colleagues in that part of the country who had never visited la belle province, had no desire to do so despite having sufficient time and resources, seem to give little thought for the million or so Canadian Francophones outside of Quebec (a shortsightedness shared, to be fair, by those with many other viewpoints), and saw the lack of geographical contiguity among the Anglophone or bilingual provinces as the only significant consequence of a potential Quebec separation.

To cut closer to home, however, I remembered how my husband and I had sat in our house in Ontario awaiting the results, nervous in the knowledge that the mortgage on the home we had owned for about six months was due for renewal the very next day. If we renewed our mortgage on a six-month fluctuating rate as we had originally planned, we would do well if the “No” forces were to prevail, as mortgage rates were gradually declining internationally at that time. If, however, the “Yes” forces prevailed, we were advised to lock in what we had for several years in order to ride out the turbulence. Our bank manager at the time, a bilingual native of the Montreal area, was savvy enough not to say what he or his family thought about the referendum. He set us up with the floating rate and then gave us a complicated set of prompts to follow on the phone if we needed to lock the rate in. Finally, he tried to reassure us: “I think cooler heads will prevail.”

It might seem petty for one household to be thinking of mortgage rates when the future of the nation was at stake, but compromising the ability of millions of people to pay their debts in a period of uncertainty would not be petty in the least. (I will leave aside the question of whether trying to guess how rates might go and acting accordingly is a violation of Friends’ testimony against gambling.) The issue for the Quebeckers was whether the immediate risks were worth the benefit; all the rest of the country could to was wait and hope that the power brokers on all sides knew what they were doing. 

The vaguely worded nature of the Quebec referendum question (in English, “Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on 12 June 1995?") did not give grounds for comfort. If Hébert’s meticulous research and interviews are correct —and I see no reason to believe that they are not— then the overall level of preparation inside Quebec was no better than the quality of the question. Neither the voters nor sovereignist leaders had an adequate blueprint for what a “Yes” vote would entail.

Since then, the government of Canada has tried to specify how any future Quebec referendum would have to be worded  and what level of support would be needed (the criteria in the resulting Clarity Act have reasonable clarity, so to speak, on the process and the wording of the question, but the majority needed has not been specified. At the moment, support for Quebec sovereignty is low; indeed, the mere whiff of a possible referendum was the single biggest factor in the Parti Québecois losing last year’s provincial election.

I naturally brought my feelings about Quebec to bear when I started to read up on what was going on in Scotland. Like many in this neck of the woods, I was uncertain as to whether the advice given by Canadians on each side of the Quebec sovereignty issue would be good, and whether it would be heeded if it was.

To be sure, those involved in the Scottish referendum question had learned from the ambiguities of the Canadian experience by setting up a simple question to be decided by a simple majority. But as events unfolded, I was not merely waiting for whether the Scottish “No” supporters would have the same belated response to the crisis on their side as did former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his associates. Despite receiving advice from their Canadian counterparts, they did, in fact, nearly fall into the same trap until Gordon Brown took the stage. Nor, for that matter, was I fundamentally interested in the minutiae of the legal or even the practical positions of the Scottish nationalists, as fascinating as I found them.

As crucial as these events were for the outcome, I ultimately wanted to see how the Scots handled the democratic aspects of the referendum and what we in other English-speaking countries could learn from them. I did not have to wait long to see our lesson in democratic process —a lesson many of us sorely need to learn. The Scots took pride in registering everyone, including teenagers aged sixteen and seventeen, and encouraging maximum participation. We Americans in particular could benefit from that. Secondly, although there were some problems with civility, by and large outsiders heard about exemplary behavior among the Scots. As a prime example, both the winning and the losing leaders held their remarks until they had had some time to sleep. There was no Jacques Parizeau, one of the Quebec sovereignist leaders from 1995, claiming that “we lost to money and the ethnic vote.”

Best of all, at least from this perch on the other side of “the pond,” have been the attempts by cultural and religious leaders in Scotland to keep the differences that had been brought out into the open from festering. Religious leaders, including Friends, have taken a major role. Time will tell whether these attempts in Scotland will be successful, but the history of both Quebec and Ontario over the past nineteen years might have been quite different had there been a major cohort of leaders (political, social, or economic) in the late 1990’s whose main goal was reconciliation. More than a decade passed before Jack Layton, a Canadian social democratic politician with roots in both Ontario and Quebec, was able to bring to the electorate a vision that could appeal emotionally and intellectually to a significant range of voters in all parts of the country. Layton sadly died of cancer not long after his greatest electoral success in the spring of 2011, but he left a legacy of respect on the part of many Canadians for each other, regardless of how they felt about the policies of his party.

Speaking as a Quaker, I am convinced that the greatest gift we as Friends can have in the electoral process is one of seeing that of God in one’s political opponent. William Penn, a consummate politician as well as a competent theologian, famously claimed that “love is the hardest lesson in Christianity.” It is an equally hard lesson in the secular political sphere, as many voters in Toronto were able to attest when they saw Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s controversial tenure in office come to a tragic conclusion after his diagnosis with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. (Rob Ford’s brother Doug ran for mayor in his place and came second in last week’s election; Rob Ford himself was reelected to city council and will take office if his health permits.)

It may be detrimental to the political process for Friends to proclaimthat our business practices are “beyond democracy;” they are, at least in some respects, but Quaker business meetings do not involve millions of people making a decision at the same time. In particular, we need to remind ourselves —and that includes yours truly— that the Religious Society of Friends is a Religious Society that has members and attenders from many political parties, and from none. This is true in all countries in which I have known Friends and attenders. There are Friends whom I have known for years whose voting preferences are unknown to me. In the United States, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a non-partisan Quaker lobbying organization, has performed a particular service in this area with its annual Edward F. Snyder Peace Award. Winners have come from both political parties (in fact, one winner, Senator James Jeffords, later became an independent) and have won the prize for a wide variety of reasons. The winners have not always acted consistently with Friends’ concerns in other areas, but FCNL has wisely emphasized the courageous decisions taken when they have.

Some queries for those contemplating Friends and the political process of democracy (written on the morning of the 2014 US midterm elections, they day after my own absentee ballot was safely ensconced in the ballot box in my home town in Vermont):

1. Do you cherish all people who run for public office as children of God? If you are fortunate to live in countries in which politicians from major parties are not Nazis, fascists, Maoists, Stalinists, and others of similar descriptions, can you refrain from inappropriate language and comparisons and encourage others to do likewise? Do you show gratitude for the public service of others, even if we disagree with them?

2. Do you take the time to become informed in the political process at all relevant levels of government, and to vote if you are eligible to do so? Are you able to articulate our own positions thoughtfully? Do you consider the effects that your vote may have on others, especially those whose life circumstances differ from your own, and on the environment and economy of both the relevant jurisdiction(s) and the world at large? Do you help others exercise their right to vote? Can you consider appropriate ways to support candidates or parties if the circumstances arise? Do you take the risks of voter disenfranchisement seriously and work to prevent them, particularly when these risks are the result of a history or patterns of discrimination?

3. What can you do to encourage qualified citizens from all walks of life to run for public office? Do you see the gifts of the quiet, methodical “servant leader” or “retail politician” who is able to achieve lasting results by building coalitions in the same light as the charismatic speaker with more obvious political talents? Both types of leaders are needed, as are the individuals who do not feel qualified to run for office themselves but who develop ideas and run the infrastructure of campaigns.

4. Are you realistic about  the fact that even politicians and parties whose policies are generally compatible with your own, will not agree with you all of the time? How much do you feel that you have to agree with a politician or a party in order to cast your vote in that direction? In particular, to what extent can or should you expect political figures and parties in a secular context to support Friends’ concerns about peace, gender issues, social and economic equality, and the environment? Can you respect the viewpoints of family and friends, including others in our own Religious Society, who come to different conclusions on these points?

5. Are you able, whether as individuals or a Religious Society, to deal with both the strengths and weaknesses of coalition building?

6. Do you do what you can to reduce the excessive influence of money (whether individual or from corporations), connections, and family dynasties on the political process? In what ways do you work to ensure that people running for office all have a fair opportunity to be heard, regardless of family background, ethnicity, access to advanced education, gender, age, or orientation?

7. Do you have a good layperson’s understanding of how your government works? If the choice were up to you, would you as a Friend make any changes to the type of representative bodies and how they are elected? In what ways would any changes benefit the full range of members of society? What unintended consequences might there be if changes were made?

8. If your preferred party or political leaders lose an election, can you reach out appropriately to the winners? What if the situation is reversed? Do you treat the decisions and decision-making processes of other voters with respect, regardless of your own views?

Photo taken (but never posted) in contemplation of a request in the New York Times
for voters to show their polling places for the 2008 US Presidential primaries.
A number of American expatriate voters uploaded photos of mailboxes and homes from around the world.
Here I set up my dining room table as a polling place.
In Vermont absentee ballots are often now sent out electronically
(although they must be returned in hard copy).
photograph ©Kristin O. Lord 2008


  1. Thanks Kristin. I don't discuss politics, OK - I try really hard not to discuss politics. A Facebook friend (from Canada actually) noted that a year or so ago - when Obama was up for re-election. He and his friends talked about this US election, I stayed out of it as long as I could (reminds me of George Fox & William Penn with the sword) but finally I asked 'Why do Canadians care so much about who wins the Presidential election here in the US?' And he and others replied. Then I was asked a lot of tough questions that I wasn't prepared/didn't want to answer. He then noted that he noticed that I didn't have one political post/comment on my Facebook page, and questioned me on that. I simply replied that growing up my parents never discussed politics and I don't either, at least not that publically. I guess he didn't like that, as he unfriended me and I haven't seen a post from him since. I still don't 'Like' or comment on political postings - at least not on the ones that are about specific individuals or topics.

    I have voted in every election since I've come of age to do so. I think for myself and don't let others sway me . . . although, when the County Sheriff's position is up and there is a real contest going on there - I will ask my husband which one I should vote for (he works in the Prosecutors Office and knows most if not all of the candidates. My parents cancelled each others votes out - one a Republican and the other Democrat, and I don't recall which was witch. When I picked which Party I would claim to be a part of . . . I based it on who was/had been President of the US - and there was only one President from the other Party (during my lifetime at that point) that I would have voted for . . . but I was way too young to vote for him when he ran. He was also the first of two US Presidents that I ever had the opportunity to meet in person! Thanks Friend - this was another good & timely post.

    1. I am sitting here waiting for the returns to roll in this evening. Because of the length of my reply, it will be sent by email.