As the 2015 UK general election approaches, talk of electoral reform and interest in NOTA UK’s campaign to get a formal None Of The Above (NOTA) option added to UK ballot papers grows. As well as an increase in support, this is inevitably accompanied by plenty of resistance and a general misunderstanding of what we are trying to achieve and why.
So I’m writing this as a direct call to all those seeking to reform UK democracy and make it fit for purpose at this time. In particular, I am keen for the arguments put forward here to be heard and understood by the Electoral Reform Society, campaign group Common Decency and high profile, pro-democracy individuals such as TV presenter Rick Edwards, columnist Polly Toynbee and writer Armando Iannucci.
The most common misconception and argument against having NOTA on ballot papers is the incorrect belief that it is already possible to formally reject all candidates in our system so why bother having it. This is often, but not always, accompanied by an inaccurate evaluation of the efficacy of being able to do so in the first place.
Making use of a formal NOTA option would categorically NOT be the same as abstaining or ballot spoiling. Abstaining is dismissed as voter apathy with no further analysis and cannot affect the result in any way, even if the majority do it. The same is true of ballot spoiling as they are never counted as spoiled in protest, only ever as spoiled in error or ‘intention uncertain’, so again, even if the majority do this it has zero effect. (More on that here: https://nota-uk.org/2015/03/02/election-hacking-what-the-electoral-commission-has-to-say/ )
Neither of these things make any difference because they are not recorded as a formal rejection, or the formal withholding of consent. Democracy is all about consent. When you vote you are consenting to be governed by whoever wins, even if your choice doesn’t win. But the giving of consent is only meaningful and measurable if it is possible to withhold consent. In the context of elections, consenting (voting) is a formal act. Therefore the withholding of consent MUST be formal also. Yet it is currently impossible to do this in the UK, for the reasons stated.
Utilising an official NOTA option, in stark contrast to pointless abstaining or ballot spoiling, would represent an unambiguous, formal withholding of consent and a rejection of all the candidates and/or the system as a whole. It is therefore meaningful. Crucially, as stated above, it is 100% essential to be able to do this in any true democracy.
If the majority were to choose NOTA, whether nationally or in specific constituencies, that would render the result null and void, triggering by-elections and/or a national re-run election as applicable. That is democracy in action. (We have a proposal to deal with the logistics of this, see here: https://nota-uk.org/2014/12/11/top-nota-faq-what-happens-if-nota-wins )
The point, though, is that the very presence of this mechanism would force all parties to lift their game and appeal to more voters, potential NOTA voters included, or risk the embarrassment of having more people actively, formally reject them than vote for them. Not spread out over several parties and therefore obscured, but visibly, undeniably, all in one place.
Think about that for a second.
The knock on effect of this ought to be that parties would feel obliged to put forward more universally acceptable and ‘decent’ policies and candidates, giving disillusioned voters something to vote for in the first place.
THAT is the whole point of NOTA. It is a vital check and balance in any truly democratic system, currently missing from ours. And because it can be shown to be a democratic pre-requisite, it is achievable – as the powers that be can never be seen to be anti-democratic (even if they are in practice).
Without NOTA, literally nothing is going to change. Because no amount of getting more people to vote can make any difference in the current paradigm, for the simple reason that, no matter what, there are only two parties that can ever really call the shots in practice, even in the age of coalition governments, and neither of those parties have any incentive or reason to introduce reforms that are seen as desirable only and not 100% essential. (More on that here: https://nota-uk.org/2015/04/18/problem-reaction-solution-why-understandable-efforts-to-encourage-high-voter-turnout-misses-the-point/ )
When you really understand that the problem is not lack of engagement with the system but the system itself, it becomes clear that the solution is not to endorse the system further but to actively change it from the ground up. The way to do that is to campaign for the achievable reform of NOTA, in the first instance, as it is the ground zero of electoral reform upon which all other democratic reform could be built.
The efforts of all those calling for electoral and democratic reform are commendable. But very few are seeing this bigger picture and taking the systems thinking approach that we are. If all those people and groups were to get on board with us, then we really would be on our way to making the current, fundamentally undemocratic UK electoral system a thing of the past.
Crucially, thanks to NOTA UK’s lobbying, we have a unique window of opportunity between now and May 2016 to lobby the next government hard to make NOTA a reality. We have written an open letter to all party leaders to find out where they stand on the issue in light of this development. (See here: https://nota-uk.org/2015/03/30/an-open-letter-to-the-leaders-of-all-uk-political-parties/)
Feel free to respond in the comments or by email ( stan(at)notauk.org ). Bear in mind that I reserve the right to publish conversations if I feel doing so may further understanding of and/or support for our cause.