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:
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.