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.
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!