Monthly Archives: August 2014

NOTA UK’s policy proposal to be debated by ERS at their AGM

As part of our ongoing concerted efforts to install actual democracy in the UK, NOTA UK recently submitted a policy proposal to be debated by the Electoral Reform Society at its AGM on 13th September 2014. It has been accepted for debate – but, unsurprisingly, the stubborn and extremely set in its ways ERS leadership has recommended that its members reject the proposal. Below is NOTA UK founder Jamie Stanley’s email to ERS chief executive Katie Ghose dissecting their official position point by point:

“Dear Katie,

Please find below NOTA UK’s point by point dissection of the ERS response to our policy proposal:

“ERS believes in promoting positive reforms that are ‘pro-politics’ and aimed at modernising our democracy.”

Then it should be supporting NOTA UK’s campaign to get a ‘None of the Above’ option on the UK ballot paper, as that is exactly what it is.

“We believe that NOTA does not sufficiently address the bigger underlying problems and that the adoption of STV and other serious reforms are a more profound means of improving our democracy.”

The biggest underlying problem with our ‘democracy’ is that it is not remotely representative. Not least of all, because it does not include a mechanism to allow voters to withhold consent in a meaningful way. Consent is central to the concept of democracy – if you cannot withhold it, consent is immaterial. Abstaining does not constitute withholding consent, it is simply not participating and can be dismissed as ‘voter apathy’ with no further analysis. Spoiling the ballot is not withholding consent either as all spoilt votes are lumped in with those spoilt in error, the corresponding figure is therefore meaningless as a measure of voter discontent. The only way to meaningfully and formally withhold consent is via a formal NOTA option on the ballot paper. As such, it is a democratic pre-requisite. It would therefore be achievable if enough people understood this and were calling for it – because to continue to argue against NOTA in that context would be to argue against democracy itself. By contrast, all the reforms you are campaigning for are simply desirable improvements, not an essential device that is central to the concept of democracy, as NOTA is. This is why NOTA should be the logical start point for any and all electoral reformists. It is achievable in the short to mid term, with the right level of support and campaigning, and could therefore open the door to the further reforms that the ERS seeks – once in place.

“We believe that the real and wide-ranging choices for voters offered by STV should help to re-engage voters with a stronger sense that voting is worthwhile, rather than a desire to absent themselves from the process by ticking a ‘None of the Above’ box.”

Ticking a NOTA box doesn’t ‘absent’ oneself from the process. You’re thinking of not voting at all or spoiling the ballot (see above). Registering a vote for NOTA would simultaneously signal your active decision to participate in the process AND your formal rejection of all the candidates on offer. In other words, it represents official, recognised withholding of consent.

“Voters do already have the option of submitting a blank or ‘spoiled’ ballot paper which are also counted and recorded – though we recognise this is not precisely the same and perhaps does not offer the same means of expressing dissatisfaction.”

Spoiling the ballot is not remotely comparable to NOTA, as explained above. In no way does spoiling the ballot or not voting at all constitute formally withholding consent, something that it is essential to be able to do in any true democracy.

“To date ERS hasn’t taken a stance for or against NOTA, preferring to focus on a range of other reforms.”

That’s not true. You explicitly stated to me at an ERS fundraising dinner in 2013 that the Society considers NOTA to be a negative reform and therefore does not support it – despite the fact that, clearly, many of its members understand how and why it is inherently positive and do support it.

“NOTA appears to give a clear measure of political disillusionment but no real answer as to what to do about that disillusionment.”

Also not true. Our policy proposal includes a clear method for dealing with the logistics of a NOTA ‘win’. Specifically, a re-run general election and/or constituency specific by-elections, held no less than 6 months after the initial election and no more than 12 months after (time periods up for debate), with the 2nd placed live candidate or party taking office on a pro tem basis in the meantime. This would ensure political stability while the logistics of the re-run / by-elections are put in place and avoid the possibility of voter fatigue stemming from instant re-runs. A NOTA option with no ramifications for the result if it gets the most votes (the only token form of NOTA currently practised elsewhere in the world) is worse than having no NOTA option at all. That is why we are campaigning for real NOTA ‘with teeth’, as outlined above. Giving the electorate the option to reject all that is on offer and trigger re-run / by-elections could have a profound knock on effect for the political system as a whole. Far from leading to endless re-runs, we believe an organic cleaning up of politics would occur as candidates and parties realise that they have to work harder for more people’s votes, including would be NOTA voters, and stay true to their word if they want to avoid blanket rejection at the ballot box in the future. The result would be more participation, not less, and less disillusionment all round.

“We would rather focus on practical solutions that would profoundly change politics for the better and tackle disillusionment rather than simply highlight it.”

As explained above, NOTA, if implemented properly ‘with teeth’, is just such a practical solution. If a reform such as NOTA, that has the potential to shake up politics and political parties for the better if properly implemented, is not directly tackling the problem of voter disillusionment, then I don’t know what is!

“Council recommends REJECT, but acknowledges the important concerns and ideas raised while noting that this motion is not in keeping with current Society strategy and campaigns.”

I’m afraid the Society’s current strategy and campaigning amounts to little more than pissing in the wind and lobbying turkeys to vote for Christmas. The current system works just fine for the establishment, they have no reason whatsoever to take any notice of the ERS calls for the reforms it seeks. By contrast, as explained above, NOTA is achievable as it is a democratic pre-requisite that, once properly understood, cannot be argued against without arguing against democracy itself. With enough vocal support from the general public, it could therefore become an inevitable government concession in the short to mid term. As such, it is the logical starting point from which all other reform could follow.

“We welcome the debate on this question at the AGM and recommend that Council further consider this issue following that debate.”

Good. Because this really is the elephant in the room. In our view, ERS acceptance of the need for NOTA and commitment to achieving it as the logical starting point for any and all further reform is long overdue. We look forward to seeing you all at the AGM.

Yours sincerely,
Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
https://nota-uk.org/

Response to Government Position on NOTA

Eileen Vagg at the Cabinet Office recently responded to our request for her to elaborate on the government’s position on NOTA. Here is my reply which contains all the points she raised in order, nothing omitted:

Dear Eileen,

Thank you for your correspondence. Allow me to go through it point by point.

1: “The Government considers that, when participating in a ballot, the position should be that the elector makes a positive choice of a representative rather than a negative one. It does not agree, therefore, that the introduction of a provision such as the one you suggest would be a positive step.”

This is not an argument, it is a logical fallacy. Specifically it is a ‘circular argument’. Essentially this: “The government believes electors should make a positive choice, therefore it doesn’t believe NOTA is a positive step.” Aside from containing a baseless, unspoken assumption that NOTA is negative, this offers zero reasoning for your repeated claim that engaging in the positive abstention of voting NOTA is a negative act. If you offer no logical reasoning to back up such a claim, it simply cannot ever stand up to scrutiny. The fact that you would attempt to dismiss such an important issue using such a clumsy logical fallacy suggests to me that perhaps you actually do realise that our assertions about NOTA representing the ability to withhold consent, which is itself central to the concept of democracy, are correct and that it therefore would be an inherently positive, democratising step to include it on the ballot paper – but that you would rather not have to deal with such a massive, game changing issue so close to an election.

2: “The Government believes it should be for candidates and the political parties to actively engage the electorate so they can make a positive choice of representation.”

So do we. Why do you think having NOTA would prevent this? On the contrary, if the electorate had the option to reject all candidates and parties on offer, then clearly there would be even more incentive for them to try to engage the electorate. One more positive reason why we should have NOTA.

3: “Neither the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) nor the United Nations’ ‘Universal Declaration on Human Rights’ (UDHR) requires states to adopt a particular electoral system.”

We never said it did. What we said is that these internationally recognised documents basically state that in a true democracy, elections must allow for the consent of the electorate to be sought and won before a government can be formed. As stated previously, consent is immaterial if it is not possible to withhold consent. Abstaining is not the same as formally withholding consent, it is simply not participating and can be dismissed as voter apathy with no further analysis. Spoiling the ballot is not the same either as all spoilt ballots are lumped in with those spoilt in error. Any spoilt vote count is therefore meaningless and does not provide an accurate measure of voter discontent. The only way to formally withhold consent at an election is by having an official NOTA option on the ballot paper with formalised consequences for the result if the majority choose it. In other words, without NOTA, the truly representative democracy that both the ICCPR and the UDHR call for is not possible. Ergo, these documents could be shown to indicate that NOTA is, arguably, a legal requirement in any truly representative democracy.

3: “The secrecy of the ballot allows the free expression of the elector.”

Indeed, but this is not irrelevant. The issue is not one of secrecy, it is one of consent and the ability to meaningfully withhold it, currently denied us.

4: “Your suggestion that an election is re-run where more than 50% of electors choose a NOTA option would lead to difficulties, not least of which is a lack of representation for constituents.”

What difficulties? The only difficulty it would lead to is that it would make it much harder for the current political elite to dominate the UK political system ad infinitum. For the already completely unrepresented majority in the UK, that is not a difficulty, it is progress. The one difficulty you have cited already exists, clearly. If anything, having NOTA would ultimately lead to better representation of constituents due to the knock on effect of having it (alluded to in point 2 above).

5: “The suggestion that there could be a temporary representation followed by a further election would not be straightforward and would raise a number of issues.”

But presumably issues not significant enough to actually warrant listing them. The only issue I see it raising is that it would level the playing field and cause the current political elite to have less dominance, a good thing for true democracy. Without a proposal to deal with the logistics, a NOTA win would indeed ‘not be straightforward’. That is precisely why we have put forward just such a proposal to make it as straight forward as possible. I note that you have not acknowledged this proposal at all in your response.

6: “The Government has no plans to bring forward legislation to introduce such an option on the ballot paper, but will keep under review the ways in which the democratic process may be enhanced.”

Well, we’ve just outlined a way in which the democratic process in the UK may be significantly enhanced and you have rejected it totally on entirely spurious grounds. So presumably, ‘reviewing’ is as far as the government is prepared to go on this issue. Also known as ‘paying lip service’.

Thank you anyway for your reply. We at least now know the extent of your commitment to improving our democracy. We will continue to make the solid, indisputable case for NOTA out in the real world with a view to eventually making it an election issue that can no longer be dismissed and swept under the carpet as you have tried to do with your response.

Yours sincerely,
Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
http://www.nota-uk.org

Feel free to send further POLITE responses to Eileen Vagg at elections@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk