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The power of negative voting

'None of the above' could introduce new ways of gaming ballot and bring about surprising outcomes.

Written by Mini Kapoor |
September 28, 2013 3:41:16 am

‘None of the above’ could introduce new ways of gaming the ballot and bring about surprising outcomes.

Distilling the truest,fairest message from the ballot paper has been a work in progress since the beginning of electoral democracy,and the Supreme Court’s landmark order on installing a “none of the above” option on the ballot — or,more precisely,a button on the electronic voting machine — has recast India’s quest for an outcome truly representative of the voters’ collective will.

The argument that sustains the right to reject option is that a mechanism needs to exist that prevents voters from being captive to bad choices,that is,being forced to choose the least worst of candidates in the fray. It would put political parties on notice that they cannot take the voter for granted,and consequently to search wider and with more sincerity to put up worthy — real “clean” — candidates. In its complete form — and it is uncertain whether this would be adopted in India — the right to reject nullifies the election if enough voters spurn all the candidates in the fray.

The Election Commission has been pointing out for some time that the right to reject is available to the voter. Under Rule 49 of the Conduct of Election Rules,a voter can explicitly record her choice not to vote for any of the candidates — but the procedure does not protect her anonymity. Practically speaking,without the secrecy that a fair ballot demands,that is neither here nor there. Therefore,putting the “none of the above” option on the ballot could be a game-changer. Indeed,it could introduce new ways of gaming the ballot. Whether this would work to the overall collective good or not is a separate question,but it would be instructive to look around the world and see how gaming the ballot works in different measures to make the vote somehow more representative than a simple first-past-the-post result that can have a candidate elected on less that a third of the votes cast.

Our first-past-the-post system has so far operated on a positive vote. There is tactical voting even now,with voters sometimes working not to elect a candidate but to defeat another,but whatever vote is cast eventually accrues to the benefit of the candidate chosen.

What may the right to reject do? It should bring to the polling booth the voter apathetic to the presumably cynical choice put before her. And certainly,voter participation is an unambiguously good objective. But may we be mistaking voter apathy to be the result of bad candidate options alone? Could it,in fact,so be that being given the option to not weigh the relative merits and shortcomings of candidates may allow for greater alienation from the political process? Going a step further,were the right-to-reject reform to include an invalidation of the ballot if a certain percentage of voters opted for it,could it not itself become a tactical tool? And finally,in our multi-party democracy,could the “none of the above” option take away votes from the third and fourth choices that deepen political participation?

The point is not to deny the voter the right to reject all candidates — and putting “none of the above” as a choice is perhaps nuancing the right to not vote that we anyway have. But,given how the option could in certain circumstances now become a tool in tactical voting,there needs to be a wider debate on its many consequences,intended or unintended. We,as voters,need to educate ourselves on how a tool to measure our discontent may allow us to be mobilised for the election of a candidate we may otherwise have been predisposed to vote against by opting for another.

To take a far-off example of how gaming the ballot in anything but a pure first-past-the-post system can change the intended outcome,though in this case the better candidate benefited,look at Iran. In the presidential election this summer,the biggest surprise was that the most moderate candidate,Hassan Rouhani,won more than 50 per cent of the vote right off,obviating the need for a run-off. It has subsequently been estimated that a substantial chunk of the vote he obtained had been from voters whose first choice had been another (the mayor of Tehran). Convinced that there would be a run-off,they had attempted to configure the final choice to their desired end. They tried too hard.

With the none-of-the-above option now arriving on the ballot,it is a good time to examine more closely the mechanics of expressing our will at election time. It’s time to take a deep breath.

The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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