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

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