David Rodriguez didn’t vote in the 2015 election because he didn’t feel any of the candidates properly represented him, it wasn’t until he started law school that he realized he could do something about it. Now he’s suing the government, and as Canada is gearing up for the next federal election, he’s trying to rewrite the laws around freedom of expression on your ballot.
The second-year University of Ottawa law student argues that by not allowing Canadians to vote “none of the above” in an election, the government is limiting our ability to express ourselves. He’s asking the feds to justify why. We caught up with Rodriguez to ask how the case is shaping up and how the 26-year-old plans to tackle it.
VICE: How did you get started on all this?
David Rodriguez: In provincial elections you have the option to, what’s called, decline your ballot. This is an official way to reject the candidates presented on the ballot. The provincial ballots do not have a none of the above option, but they do give you this choice. Many people don’t know about it, and the government and the parties don’t really tell anyone about it but it is technically there. Not every province, but particularly you can do it in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. However, not voting can just as easily mean any of the above. Maybe you’re so happy with all of the candidate choices, so you’re OK with any of them.
Can you give me a rundown of the lawsuit?
Not voting is not an effective way to express clearly that you don’t like the choices in this election. I realized this in 2015 and I didn’t vote because of that, I didn’t really like the choices in that election so I didn’t vote. It wasn’t until I got into law school that I really understood the Charter more…that I realized ‘this might actually infringe on our freedom of expression.’ That by essentially setting up a system in which doesn’t give you an option, to decline your ballot… or by having an actual “none of the above” option on the ballot, or simply by reporting the number of votes left blank (if you wanted to know how many people left their ballots blank you wouldn’t be able to find out). So I’m arguing that’s infringing on freedom of expression.
What would you say your overall goal is?
The lawsuit itself doesn’t actually ask the government to put this “none of the above” on the ballot or to even give us the same option that we have at the provincial level. My lawsuit really just asks the government to justify why it doesn’t. We do have some reasonable limits on our freedom of expression. However they haven’t really provided any real justification and I really don’t see what justification there would be… essentially the end goal would be to have Canada’s Election Act declared unconstitutional because it infringes on our freedom of expression and that would therefore force the federal government to rewrite those laws.
How long do you expect this to go on for?
I have really no clue, it could go on for years. If it goes really bad for me, which I really don’t think it will, but it could be done in a few months. If it goes well, it could take more than a year just for the trial to actually complete and then if the government appeals, it would go up to the court of appeal. And then whoever wins there, the other person can appeal potentially up to the Supreme Court. So it could be years and years and years.
Are you down to stick to it that long?
Oh yeah! For sure. Well, because I believe in it and the reasons I have are based on decisions of the Supreme Court themselves. Because I think they would be on my side. If it wasn’t then I would be more hesitant and then maybe I just wouldn’t have thought of it in the first place.
Have you had to put any of your own money down?
Yeah a little bit, it’s actually not too expensive to carry out just the basic procedure. I’ve maybe spent $300 on the application fees, printing fees, transportation here and there. In terms of my time yes, I’ve put in a lot of time just doing research and a lot of just thinking about it really. Reading the law and making sure I understand it properly. One of the reasons I wanted to do this, is I wanted more practical experience working in the law—not just reading about it from books and school. I think people over complicate it and really over estimate how hard it really is.
Do you foresee it becoming more expensive?
I feel pretty good that I understand the law, but before we go into full trial I would like to get a real lawyer to look over my work and get their opinion of course. At some point I might look into getting a GoFundMe going and maybe getting a $5,000 retainer with some firm that has some experience with constitutional law, but at this moment I haven’t started anything.
Other than financial, have you received other support?
Most people I talk to about it, they kind of agree that the option should be there. Even if they personally don’t think they would use it, because some people do perceive themselves properly represented or like who represents them. But even then, they’re like ‘people should have the option.’
How do you respond to people who say young people don’t care about politics?
It is kind of disappointing that I see a lot of my fellow young people don’t seem to care or have a passing interest. It’s not necessarily that they don’t care but they don’t care enough to actually get involved. However I don’t think that’s actually exclusive to young people. I think it’s everyone that doesn’t seem to care enough to actually get involved. Most people think of democracy and they think of just every four years going to a booth and voting. And that’s the way most political parties treat it. Like, even if you asked them between elections what their policies would be, they have a very hard time telling you. And to me that’s kind of unacceptable but, they seem to think that’s the norm I guess and [we] don’t seem to think to have higher expectations.
Is there anything else you’d want to see fixed?
I definitely want to see more overall representation in our election system. I wasn’t a big fan of Harper and I did want to get him out, but I had my doubts about Trudeau and his back-tracking on electoral reform. But that’s what really cemented to me, I need someone to be able to at least to say “I don’t like these options.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
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