MONTREAL - Mathieu Marcil gets a lot of puzzled looks and smiles when he tells people he's running in the Quebec election for an outfit called the Parti nul — which translates loosely as the "nothing," or "void," party.

"I always get a sort of a smile because they first think it's a joke," Marcil says.

"In a way, the name is kind of funny but as soon as they hear what we're about, they say it's very appropriate. What the people tell me is it seems to be filling a void."

The party says it's trying to make a serious point about voter disengagement in an era of plummeting turnout rates.

It argues that rejected ballots — some of which are spoiled to express dissatisfaction with the choices offered — should be counted to reflect how cheesed off the electorate really is.

"Right now, people who are displeased either have their votes cast away and not accounted for or they simply don't go and vote," Marcil says.

That's something that's been happening more often in recent decades as voters have opted to stay on the sidelines instead of marking a ballot.

Turnout reached an historic low in the last provincial election, with only 57.4 per cent of Quebec's eligible voters bothering to cast a ballot in 2008. It has been steadily dropping since the 1994 provincial election, when voter turnout stood at 81.6 per cent.

The historical trend is similar in Canadian politics. The turnout in the 1979 federal election was 75.7 per cent and it decreased in subsequent votes, bottoming out at 58.8 per cent in 2008 before inching up slightly to 61.1 per cent last year.

Evidence of public cynicism was also on display this week during the Quebec leaders' debates. Some Twitter users commenting on them snickered that the real winners of the televised debates were the people who didn't tune in.

There idea of protest voting is not without symbolism in this election which, after all, came in the aftermath of street demonstrations.

Premier Jean Charest didn't have to call an election until December 2013. Instead, he pulled the plug on his current mandate after several months of student protests — some of them violent — against tuition increases. The premier said the election would give people a chance to pick the kind of society they wanted to live in.

Parti nul is all in favour of voting. It just wants a place on the ballot where people can indicate they're making a protest vote.

A spokeswoman for Quebec's chief returning officer said that any protest vote is simply listed among the total number of spoiled ballots. There is no specific breakdown provided.

"We have no way of knowing why the ballot was spoiled," Caroline Paquin said.

But by ignoring the protest vote, Marcil says, the public is left with an inflated impression of support for political candidates.

Acknowledging protest votes is not a new idea.

A number of jurisdictions and organizations in the world do it, including France and Nevada in the United States.

In 1998, Democrat Harry Reid beat his Republican challenger in Nevada by about 400 votes while the "none" option, indicating support for no candidate, got 8,000 votes.

In France earlier this year, two million protest votes — about 5.8 per cent of the electorate — were cast in the first round of presidential elections, one of the highest levels in French history.

Parti nul was formed in 2009 by Renaud Blais, the party leader, and it doesn't have a platform other than pushing for the recognition of the protest vote.

It has 10 candidates running in the election.

Marcil, who's a lighting designer in his 40s, says most of the candidates are young and are relying on word-of-mouth and social media for the campaign.

"We have no budget."

Marcil said many people mention the satirical Rhinoceros party when they meet him. It has fielded candidates both federally and provincially since the 1970s although it isn't among the parties registered for the 2012 Quebec election.

"What we're trying to achieve differs from the Rhinoceros party because we're not trying to make a joke out of the process or use the process to be funny," he said.

"We're trying to make it more representative of the people's voice."

Andre Blais, a political scientist at Universite de Montreal who studies participation in elections, is skeptical about the value of indicating a protest vote on the ballot.

"It's a judgment call," he said. "I personally think that we have a lot of options. There are 20 parties running. This is a lot of different options on the table."

He hadn't heard about Parti nul's proposal but acknowledged some countries allowed the registering of protest votes by casting a special ballot. He wasn't sure such a system was needed in Quebec, saying there are already a lot of ways to protest, such as spoiling the ballot.

Parti nul is one of about a dozen smaller parties looking for support. Most could be considered single-issue parties such as the environmentalist Green Party or the Bloc pot, which seeks the decriminalization of marijuana.

Others focus on Quebec sovereignty like the Option nationale, which was created amid dissatisfaction with the Parti Quebecois. The remainder address a variety of concerns such as a better shake for the middle class. There's also the Coalition pour la constituante, which shuns political parties and wants to elect independent citizens to sit in a constituent assembly.

Bruce Hicks, a political scientist with Ottawa's Carleton University, says Quebec has a history of small parties but isn't sure how much of an impact they really have.

"I don't know how much they siphon away in that their numbers tend to be low," he said, citing the Marxist-Leninists as an example.

"It ends up being supporters of that very narrow ideology or supporters of the candidate who happen to be friends and family."

He said voter disenchantment, especially with the Charest government, is a prime election issue but no single party has managed to tap into that deep well of discontent.

The student movement, which has battled the Charest government over tuition fee increases, has urged its followers to vote but hasn't endorsed any other party.

Hicks wonders if that lack of direction, as well as the student cause being lumped in with demands stemming from a larger social agenda, might not muddle things for their supporters.

"It's much simpler if they'd kept their message as, 'We're upset about student fees, there's only one party that's going to freeze student fees, vote for that party.' It's not really obvious who the friends of the students are in terms of platforms but it's equally not clear how the students are going to organize people to do anything."

He noted that the students had been most successful at organizing people for events such as demonstrations. But he said years of union politics shows that rank-and-file members don't always vote for those supported by their unions.

Marcil says the Parti nul might be a welcome alternative for frustrated voters — many of whom he met as he went door-to-door in his Outremont riding to collect the 100 signatures needed to make him a valid candidate.

"I encountered a fair amount of people that were really at a loss," he said.

"They didn't know where to cast their votes."

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  • Key Quebec Election Issues

    As Quebec begins a provincial election campaign, with a vote scheduled for Sept. 4, here are some key issues and the stated positions, so far, of the three largest parties: the Liberals, the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition for Quebec's Future.<br><br><em>With files from CP</em>

  • Student Strikes

    Liberals say their $254-a-year, seven-year tuition increases will improve universities while expanded loans and bursaries programs will actually leave the poorest students better off. Liberals have mostly refused to budge in face of protests, although their original proposal was for $325-a-year increases over five years. Their controversial Bill 78 would reopen classes in mid-August for one-third of students still on strike, while setting out severe fines for anyone blocking schools.<br><br>PQ has been more supportive of protesters and would cancel the hikes, propose smaller increases pegged to inflation and hold provincial summit on university funding.<br><br>The Coalition has positioned itself to occupy the middle ground, proposing more modest annual tuition increases of $200 a year over five years. Party originally voted for Bill 78 but now says it created unnecessary tension and wants some provisions suspended.

  • Ethics

    After two years of intense pressure, Charest Liberals called a corruption inquiry that is now probing malfeasance in construction industry and its ties to political parties and organized crime. Before that, they had announced plans to hire more oversight officials at Transport Department; tougher fines for engineering firms; stricter political fundraising laws; new rules for public-works tendering; and new anti-corruption squad that has since made numerous arrests.<br><br>PQ making ethics central plank of platform. It wants tougher legislation preventing companies guilty of tax evasion from winning public contracts. It also proposes new measures to combat voter cynicism including: citizen-initiated referendums, fixed election dates, political donations limited to $100 a year, and the right to vote at age 16.<br><br>The Coalition wants new integrity commissioner to oversee government contracts, and new powers for prosecutors, as part of a "big cleanup." It also promises fixed election dates.

  • Northern Development

    Liberals will tout Plan Nord, a sweeping plan that sets out $80 billion in public and private investments in mining, energy, infrastructure and conservation projects over a quarter-century.<br><br>PQ accuses Liberals of selling off Quebec's natural wealth at cut-rate prices and is calling for a 30 per cent surtax on profits from non-renewable resources.<br><br>The Coalition has also taken aim at the signature plan, alleging windfall will primarily benefit foreign companies and Quebec mining firms cosy with Liberals.

  • Sovereignty

    Liberals have long stood as the major federalist option in Quebec. Party is frequently accused by opponents of being subservient to Ottawa. However, it has clashed publicly with federal government over issues like long-gun registry, omnibus crime bill and changes to health transfers.<br><br>PQ is offering no timetable for third referendum on independence. Instead, party plans to pick fights with Ottawa in seeking more power over immigration, environment, agriculture and revenue collection. PQ hopes such battles will generate support for independence. Eventually, Quebecers themselves could initiate referendum, under plan to allow California-style plebiscites. People would need to collect 850,000 signatures to hold provincial vote on a given topic.<br><br>The Coalition, led by former PQ minister Francois Legault, vows to shelve any referendum on independence for 10 years to focus on building economy. But many federalists remain wary of the once-passionate sovereigntist.