NOTA not so benehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/nota-not-so-bene/

NOTA not so bene

‘None of the above’ is a neutral option unlikely to change the character of democratic politics

By Alistair McMillan

‘None of the above’ is a neutral option unlikely to change the character of democratic politics.

Choosing not to make a choice has been accepted as a democratic right. The Supreme Court decision to introduce a “None of the Above” (NOTA) option enables people to vote in a way that will have no effect on the outcome. But will it have a fundamental effect on the accountability and representativeness of the electoral system?

The SC decision is an extension of a technical clause in the Representation of People Act which allows for the recording of spoilt or unused ballot papers. The use of Electronic Voting Machines has not previously allowed for any choice other than a valid vote,and so the provision of the NOTA button re-institutes what was recognised as a legitimate option. As such,it provides a recognition that people might want to take part in the electoral process,but not necessarily cast a vote for any of the candidates on offer.

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Dramatic claims about the advantages of a NOTA option have been made. In his judgment,Chief Justice P. Sathasivam said that “in a vibrant democracy,the voter must be given an opportunity to choose none of the above (NOTA) button,which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate”. He stated that the significance of such a provision was “massive”,and would “foster the purity of the electoral process”.

There is something surreal about debating the right to cast a vote for no candidate. Representative democracy is based on the principle that the electorate make a collective decision,and that the public choose wisely amongst the available options. The idea that the provision of a neutral option will significantly enhance the democratic process seems unlikely.

The claim that NOTA will purify the political process seems based on an assumption that it will threaten a corrupt cartel of political parties,who can put up criminal and corrupt candidates in the knowledge that their rivals are bound to do the same. The Aam Aadmi Party’s right to reject proposal is based on the view that voters are forced to “waste our vote on someone we know is unfit for the job”. However,most elections have many candidates,and the common complaint has been that it was too easy to stand for election,with voters overwhelmed with choice.

The right to reject option provides for a more powerful negative option. In cases where NOTA is a more popular option than any candidate in that constituency,the election would have to be contested again. This “vote of no confidence” in the candidates on offer is a radical proposal,but raises the prospect of political deadlock and a vacuum in the representative process. Far more constructive is the decision of Arvind Kejriwal to join the democratic fray,and through AAP seek to provide a substantive alternative to voters. Rather than a neutral protest,this is an opportunity to broaden the choices available to the electorate,and test the strength of discontent with established parties in the arena of electoral competition.

A broader consideration is that NOTA will act as an indicator of democratic legitimacy. In the past,in one-party states such as Poland and the Soviet Union,the NOTA option provided a signal that there was widespread dissatisfaction with the political options on offer. In states where an election boycott has been a recourse,the NOTA button provides a way to actively cast a protest against the political process. Yet it is unlikely that this will be a common response — the advantages of campaigning for a NOTA vote can’t really be expected to be much more effective than a simple boycott.

There may also be unexpected negative consequences. Following the Watergate scandal in the US,Nevada introduced a “none of these candidates” option in 1975. Available for elections for the presidency and Congress,the share of votes for it tends to be low (less than 1 per cent in recent presidential contests). However,it can occasionally be seen to tip the balance between one candidate winning and another. In the 2010 Senate race,when the incumbent Democrat Harry Reid was challenged by a Republican Tea Party candidate,Sharron Angle,the Democrats won after a negative campaign some claimed was designed to drive Republican-leaning voters into the “none of these candidates” camp. The Republicans sought to challenge the provision so it would not appear on the ballot for the 2012 presidential election,but the challenge was thrown out of court. But it is clear that the “neutral” option can have partisan consequences,and may lead to the adoption of dirty campaign tactics.

In 2012,in England and Wales,there was widespread discontent about the introduction of elections for police and crime commissioners. The government claimed this would improve accountability of the police,but there was a great deal of opposition,and many advocated spoiling ballot papers as a protest. In the event,some 3 per cent of ballots were spoilt,but this had little impact on perceptions of the legitimacy of the system. Much more significant was the 85 per cent of the electorate who did not turn out to vote. Only where there is a widespread and organised campaign against a rigged contest is the NOTA option likely to be popular,and the expectation would be that this would be a rare occurrence in Indian politics.

L.K. Advani has pointed out that the NOTA option is often a feature of systems using compulsory voting,and suggested that this should be considered for India. The benefits and effects of compulsory voting are debatable,with broader participation balanced against the introduction of compulsion and penalties for non-voters. And the reason why NOTA provisions are important in compulsory voting systems reflects this ambiguity. It became apparent that many voters were not making a real choice,but simply taking the easiest options to complete the ballot. So-called “donkey voters” tended to vote for the candidate at the top of the ballot,regardless of the candidate or party. Countries with compulsory voting have had to introduce the option of “none of the above” and randomisation of ballot ordering so as to counter the skewed results caused by donkey voters.

The NOTA option is fine,but it is a neutral option that is unlikely to change the character of democratic politics. In exceptional cases,it may be used to highlight democratic dissatisfaction with the choices on offer — for instance,where the options are restricted and candidates are controversial. However,electoral politics will not be purified using a NOTA button. That will take much more constructive engagement from voters,parties and the political establishment.

The writer teaches at the University of Sheffield,UK and is author of ‘Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India’