Monthly Archives: March 2015

An open letter to the leaders of all UK political parties

Monday 30th March 2015

Dear Party Leader,

On February 5th 2015, the parliamentary Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) published its report into ‘voter engagement’ in which it recommended a number of electoral reforms that it would like to see implemented during the next parliament.

In this report, the PCRC felt compelled to explicitly recommend that the next government consult before May 2016 specifically on the issue of inclusion of a formal ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option on UK ballot papers for all future national elections. This was as a result of successful lobbying from my organisation NOTA UK and 71.8% of nearly 16,000 responses to a survey question in favour of NOTA.

The PCRC’s cited reasons were a clear increase in public demand for NOTA and the potential positive impact on voter engagement that its inclusion could have. Here is an extract from the section on NOTA from the PCRC’s report:

“Having the option to vote for “none of the above” on the ballot paper is the proposal which has had the largest support among those who have given their views to the surveys we have drawn upon. This change would enable people to participate at elections even if they did not wish to vote for any of the candidates presented. If large numbers of people did choose to cast their vote in this way it would serve as a wakeup call for candidates and parties that they needed to do more to gain the support of the electorate. We recommend that the Government consult on including, on ballot papers for national elections, an option for voters who wish to participate but not vote for any of the candidates presented, and report to the House on this proposal by May 2016.”

In light of this, and with an election coming up that could see your party holding the balance of power, we would very much like to know where you stand on the issue of NOTA and whether or not you intend to honour the PCRC’s recommendation to consult on its inclusion if you find yourself in government after May 7th.

Before replying, please be sure that your response takes into account the following facts:

1: NOTA is a democratic pre-requisiterepresenting as it does the all important ability to formally withhold consent at an election (consent being central to the concept of democracy but only truly measurable if it is possible to withhold consent). In the context of elections, this withholding of consent must be formal as the giving of consent (voting) is formal. Yet it is not currently possible to do this in the UK. Neither abstaining or ballot spoiling equates to formally withholding consent as both acts can be misconstrued and neither in any way affects the result no matter how many people do it. The only way to facilitate the withholding of consent formally at an election, something that is essential in any true democracy, is via an official NOTA option on the ballot paper with formalised consequences for the result if the majority choose it.

This means that the inclusion of NOTA on ballot papers cannot be argued against without arguing against the concept of democracy itself, once the ideas of democracy, consent and NOTA are properly understood.

2: The current position of the Electoral Commission (EC) on NOTA is untenable – as it appears to have not changed in light of the PCRC’s recommendation. In their view:

“…the purpose of an election is to elect one of the nominated candidates to elected office. An election is about making a choice between the nominated candidates and expressly allowing for ‘positive abstention’ defeats that purpose and discourages voters from engaging with the candidates on offer.” (From the EC’s ‘Standing for Election in the UK’ report).

This view does not stand up to scrutiny for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the purpose of an election in a true democracy is not solely to elect one of the nominated candidates to office. It is to facilitate accurate representation in government of the will of the electorate. If no candidate or party on offer fits that bill in the eyes of voters, then they should be able to formally reject all that is on offer. If the majority choose to do so, then a formal rejection will have taken place that will then have to be officially acknowledged and acted upon. This is democracy in action.

Secondly, it is incorrect to define NOTA as ‘positive abstention’. Abstention equates to non-participation. You abstain at a general election by either not registering to vote at all or by registering but not attending the polling station to vote. By contrast, voting NOTA equates to active participation because, unlike abstaining, withholding consent and rejecting all candidates via a formal NOTA option (if implemented properly i.e.: with formalised consequences for the result if NOTA were to ‘win’) could always potentially impact on the result.

By conflating NOTA with the idea of abstention, albeit supposed ‘positive abstention’, the EC is in fact conflating it with the idea of non-participation. This is disingenuous and not a position that we expect them to be able to hold for much longer, especially in light of the PCRC’s recommendation and the growing realisation among the general public that NOTA is in fact a democratic pre-requisite.

With all that in mind, I very much look forward to receiving your response and having the opportunity to gauge how much your party is committed to promoting true democracy in the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
E: stan@nota-uk.org
W: www.nota-uk.org

Advertisements

GAME ON: A response to Andrew Marr

The first shot in our long anticipated battle to define NOTA in the mainstream media has been fired by none other than the BBC’s Andrew Marr writing in the New Statesmen.

And so it begins. A calculated misrepresentation of what a true ‘None of the Above’ option would be, the deliberate association of it with ‘apathy’, ‘instability’ & ‘chaos’ – when in reality, NOTA has nothing to do with any of those things.

The bottom line is this: NOTA is a democratic pre-requisite. It is the ability to withhold consent at an election, consent being central to the concept of democracy but only measurable if it is possible to withhold it. NOTA is therefore an essential check and balance in any true democracy. To argue against it is to argue against democracy itself, once the concepts of democracy and consent are properly understood. For this reason, given that our leaders must always be seen to be pro-democracy (whether they really are or not), NOTA is achievable in the short to mid term – unlike most other touted reforms that are desirable but not central to the concept of democracy and so can be paid lip service to and ignored.

In the context of elections, the withholding of consent must be formal because voting (giving consent) is formal. Neither abstaining or ballot spoiling amount to formally withholding consent, as both can be construed as apathetic or anarchic wrecking options and neither affect the result in any way. An official NOTA option on the ballot paper, with formal consequences for the result if the majority choose it, is the only way to withhold consent formally at an election in a registered, meaningful way.

From there, the next question is: what would happen if NOTA ‘wins’? If implemented properly (unlike faux-NOTA in India and elsewhere), a NOTA ‘win’ must invalidate the result and trigger a new election. Most likely this would occur at constituency level, triggering by-elections. There is already a mechanism in place to deal with an MP dying, whereby a by-election has to be held within three months. Dealing with a NOTA ‘win’ might be as simple as evoking such a mechanism with the incumbent holding the fort in the meantime. In the event that NOTA came out on top nationally, there is no reason why the same principle could not apply.

At NOTA UK, we also have a proposal to avoid voter fatigue that involves lengthening the time period to between six months and a year with the second placed candidate taking office in the meantime purely on a caretaker basis. This would give the caretaker, who will still have polled well, an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the job and it would also gives all other parties a chance to regroup and look at what went wrong. This proposal is just one possible solution to deal with the logistics of NOTA and is open to debate and adaptation. The important thing is that NOTA must be there, no matter what. It is democracy in action.

The purpose of NOTA is that it is not a wrecking option or something designed to cause instability. Nor does it in any way symbolise apathy. It is a way for the vast, currently voiceless army of politically aware but utterly disenfranchised voters to finally be heard. It is an essential check and balance that could trigger an organic cleaning up of politics as parties realise that they now have to appeal to many more voters, potential NOTA voters included (rather than just their core demographics) and actually mean it – or face permanent rejection at the ballot box. The upshot of this ought to be less and less people making use of the option over time as the parties adapt to the new landscape, giving people a reason to vote for them in the first place. Further democratic reform would also be that much more possible in a system with the principle of NOTA at its core.

The days of making do and voting for the ‘lesser of several evils’, that Andrew Marr is trying to suggest is as good as democracy gets in his article, are over. People have had enough. If true democracy is what the people want then that is what they shall have. The first step on that journey is to get an official NOTA option ‘with teeth’ on the ballot paper for all future UK elections.

Find out how you can support the cause and help us bring that about at www.notauk.org

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
24/03/15

Select Committee: CHECK! Next stop: The Electoral Commission (and its peculiar definitions…)

The parliamentary Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC), thanks to successful lobbying from NOTA UK (and 71.8% of almost 16,000 responses to one of its survey questions in favour of NOTA) explicitly recommended in its February 2015 report on ‘voter engagement’ that the next government should hold a public consultation before May 2016 specifically on the issue of inclusion of a formal ‘None of the Above’ option on UK ballot papers for all future national elections.

Their cited reasons were a clear increase in public demand and the potential positive impact on engagement that NOTA could have.

In the past, NOTA has been perceived and portrayed by establishment parties and media as a lazy, negative cop out or a wrecking reform championed by a fringe minority of people. No doubt it will be again. But the PCRC’s recommendation and increasing mainstream coverage of and support for NOTA as a bona fide and necessary electoral reform in and of itself makes this position increasingly untenable for anyone clinging to it.

With that in mind, I will of course be writing to the seven main parties in the coming weeks to find out where they stand on NOTA in light of recent developments (watch this space!).

In the meantime, the next logical step seems to be to put pressure on the Electoral Commission (EC). So not long after the PCRC’s report was published, I contacted them to see where they currently stand on the issue of NOTA. I was eventually directed to pages 85 and 86 of their report on ‘Standing for Election in the UK’. It transpires that oddly, while their discussion of NOTA in the report acknowledges recent developments, the EC’s position has effectively not changed since 2003 and remains against introduction of NOTA on the grounds that, in their view:

“…the purpose of an election is to elect one of the nominated candidates to elected office. An election is about making a choice between the nominated candidates and expressly allowing for ‘positive abstention’ defeats that purpose and discourages voters from engaging with the candidates on offer.”

Clearly, this view does not stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, the purpose of an election in a democracy is not solely to elect nominated candidates to office, it is primarily to facilitate accurate representation in government of the will of the electorate. If no candidate on offer fits that bill in the eyes of voters, then they should be able to formally reject all that is on offer. If a majority were to then choose to do so, a formal rejection would have taken place that would have to be officially acknowledged and acted upon, in the form of a re-run election with different (better…?) candidates. This is democracy in action.

Secondly, it is incorrect to define NOTA as ‘positive abstention’. I have made this mistake in the past myself. But I realise now that to do so is to misrepresent the concept utterly and here’s why.

Abstention is about non-participation. You abstain at a general election by either not registering to vote at all or by registering but not attending the polling station to vote. In votes and polls within certain organisations (the Electoral Reform Society, for example), you can also register your desire to abstain by ticking the relevant box on a ballot paper. But either way, abstaining like this can in no way affect the result of a poll. Even if the majority abstain, the vote is still carried and the candidate or proposal with the most votes wins.

Voting NOTA, clearly, is about active participation. Because, unlike abstaining, withholding consent and rejecting all candidates via a formal NOTA option (if implemented properly i.e.: with formalised consequences for the result if NOTA were to ‘win’) can always potentially impact on the result.

By conflating NOTA with the idea of abstention, albeit supposed ‘positive abstention’, the EC is in fact conflating it with the idea of non-participation. This is disingenuous to say the least – and not a position that I expect them to be able to hold for much longer!

With that in mind, I will be formally requesting that the EC revisit the issue of NOTA and alter their position in light of recent developments. Feel free to do the same via the contact form on their website: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/contact-us

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
18/03/15

‘Election Hacking’: What the Electoral Commission has to say

Followers of NOTA UK’s progress over the last couple of years will know that in the wider NOTA movement the issue is often raised of how best to draw attention to our shared goal of getting a formal None of the Above option on UK ballot papers, as well as the need for NOTA in any true democracy and the level of demand for it. With that in mind, I recently contacted the Electoral Commission to clear up a few questions and hopefully settle a few arguments.

There are a number of strategies that have either been proposed or are being actively pursued by groups and individuals apparently in the name of the NOTA cause. These include:

  • taking ballot papers home en masse
  • abstaining en masse
  • ballot spoiling en masse
  • standing candidates on a single issue NOTA platform

(DISCLAIMER:  While NOTA UK welcomes any action that could draw attention to our cause in a positive way and possibly further it, and while we would not seek to tell anyone else what to do, it does not, as an organisation, actively promote or endorse any of these strategies – for reasons that will hopefully become clear!)

The quotes below are all from an email conversation between myself and George Marshall, Communications and Public Information Officer at The Electoral Commission.

TAKING BALLOT PAPERS HOME EN MASSE

To get the ball rolling, I initially asked George whether taking ballot papers home was legal and if so what would happen if someone tried to do this. Here is his reply:

If a voter is issued with a ballot paper, there is a process set out in the election rules that should be followed. That is, the poll clerk issues the paper, hands it to the voter, the voter marks their paper, the poll clerk observes the voter putting the paper into the ballot box.

If the Presiding Officer (PO) is aware that a voter is leaving the station without putting the paper in the ballot box, the PO would be obliged to ask the voter to put the paper in the ballot box.

If the voter refuses and leaves, then the PO should mark the ballot paper account accordingly. This ensures that at verification there is an audit trail which can explain why there is not the same number of papers in the box as were issued […]

The phrase mark the ballot paper account accordingly’ just means that the Presiding Officer would note on the ballot paper account that a ballot paper had been removed by a voter from the polling station and not placed in the ballot box. The Presiding Officer would adjust the figures on the ballot paper account to show this so that at the count there would be an accurate tally of the number of ballot papers in the ballot box with the number stated on the ballot paper account.”

I then asked what would happen in the event that more people in a constituency took their ballot paper home than actually voted and whether this would have any effect on the result or not, informing him that my understanding is that it would not. His reply:

You are correct – this would not have any effect on the result.

In summary then, it is perfectly legal to attend the polling station with your polling card, collect your ballot paper and take it away instead of voting. This would be counted as a removed ballot, separate and distinct from all spoiled ballots, people who simply didn’t attend the polling station and people not registered to vote. As such, this strategy could arguably be seen as a solid way of manufacturing a way of unambiguously recording voter discontent.

However, regardless of how many people were to do this, it categorically cannot effect the election result in any way. As such, it would in no way simulate or act as a substitute for actual NOTA ‘with teeth’ (i.e.: formalised consequences for the result if it were to ‘win’).

ABSTAINING / SPOILING BALLOT PAPERS EN MASSE

The difference between either of these approaches and actual NOTA ‘with teeth’ is well documented on this site. In a nutshell, abstaining can be dismissed as voter apathy with no further analysis, while ballots spoiled in protest are lumped in with those spoiled in error for counting purposes, rendering the resulting figure meaningless as a measure of voter discontent. As such, neither of these approaches in any way simulates or acts as a substitute for actual NOTA ‘with teeth’. Some people believe, however, that if this were done in numbers it would in some way affect the result.

With that in mind, I asked George if my understanding that a majority of registered electors choosing to either not vote at all or spoil their ballot papers would have no effect on the result was correct. His reply:

“That is correct – this would not affect the result and the candidate with the most votes would still win.”

In summary then, not only does abstaining or spoiling the ballot paper in no way meaningfully register voter discontent, it absolutely cannot affect the result in any way, even if done in large numbers.

STANDING CANDIDATES ON A NOTA PLATFORM

This is also covered extensively elsewhere on this site. Suffice to say that forming a party or standing as an independent on any single issue, regardless of what it is, clearly only constitutes the addition of another ‘one of the above’ to the ballot paper and not a functioning NOTA option, as has been claimed by some. Proponents of adopting this strategy in the name of NOTA tend to fall into two camps:

1: Those who recognise it is as a symbolic gesture only and acknowledge that if elected any candidate standing on a NOTA platform ought really to step down immediately, thus simulating NOTA ‘with teeth’ and triggering a by-election.

2: Those who believe that if elected they would be able to push for NOTA from within Westminster whilst either remaining silent on all other issues or expanding beyond the single issue of NOTA into other political realms.

The problem of the latter approach is self-evident. Any campaign to get NOTA on the ballot box must, by definition, be politically neutral if it is to be taken seriously at all. Political parties with the prospect of being elected invariably attract people with agendas above and beyond the self-limiting remit of any campaign for a bona fide NOTA option.

The former approach, while making more sense, we have always seen as extremely risky and something that should only be considered as a last resort i.e: if we were still struggling to be heard in the run up to the election. If not enough people backed such an approach, the result would be a perceived lack of support for NOTA, potentially taking the campaign backwards. Indeed, this is true of all the ‘election hacking’ strategies outlined above – without the right level of support, each of them has the potential to backfire and undermine the NOTA campaign significantly.

CONCLUSION

As a result of NOTA UK’s lobbying and the general public getting involved in the fight, the parliamentary select committee for Political & Constitutional Reform (PCRC) were compelled to explicitly state in their recent report on increasing voter engagement that the next government should consult before May 2016 solely on the issue of NOTA’s possible inclusion on ballot papers.

This means that the hitherto seemingly impossible task of getting the urgent need and demand for NOTA on the UK government and wider public’s radar has now been achieved. As a result, we are now in the unprecedented position of being able to add our voice to the mainstream debate in the coming weeks and months. We also have a clear window of opportunity to embed the solid arguments for NOTA firmly in the public consciousness and put pressure on the next government to adhere to the PCRC’s recommendation – without having to resort to gimmicks or risky strategies such as those outlined above.

For this reason, there is no need for NOTA UK to endorse or get behind any of the above approaches as we are already very much on track to making NOTA a reality.

That said, supporters of the NOTA cause are of course free to do as they see fit on election day. If you feel that any of these approaches represents a way of expressing your disdain for the current political landscape and your support for NOTA, then you must do what makes sense to you. All we would ask is that any organised groups or campaigns make clear that they are separate and distinct from NOTA UK and that they endeavour to reinforce, rather than detract from, the solid arguments for NOTA that we are making and will continue to make.

That being the case, and all being well, there is absolutely no reason why future generations will not one day be found scratching their heads in amazement at the very idea of ‘None of the Above’ NOT being on the ballot paper.

Onwards & Upwards!

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
02/03/15