The Futility of Ballot Spoiling

Whenever elections are looming, well meaning supporters of the struggle for actual democracy will often declare their intention to spoil their ballots in protest at a perceived lack of choice or the electoral system in general. There are even campaigns designed to encourage all disenfranchised voters to do so.

In this blog, I’m going to set out why, contrary to many people’s beliefs, the act of ballot spoiling could never deliver any kind of meaningful progress or change and why campaigning for a formal and binding ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option on ballot papers should be the priority of all true democrats and reformists.

MYTH #1: Ballot spoiling is a form of NOTA.

A common misconception about ballot spoiling is that because spoilt ballots all have to be accounted for, it is in essence a form of NOTA. This is false.

In order to be effective, a rejection of all candidates must be formal and binding. In order for that to be the case, the act must be acknowledged as a rejection in the first place.

But in the UK and most other countries, no matter what people write on their ballot papers in protest, they are NEVER counted as protest votes or rejections and are ALWAYS lumped in with those spoilt in error.

MYTH #2: If we all did it, things would change.

Another misconception about ballot spoiling is that if enough people did this, it would have to be taken seriously and recognised as a widespread rejection leading to democratic reform. This is also false, due to the way in which spoilt ballots are counted.

There are four ways in which a spoilt ballot can be formally labelled:

  • absence of official mark [polling station stamp]
  • voting for more than one candidate
  • writing or mark by which the voter could be identified
  • unmarked or void for uncertainty

What this means, is that there is no such thing as a protest vote or rejection of all candidates as far as the counts and Electoral Commission are concerned. No matter what you do, your spoilt ballot will always be classified in one of these four ways.

In other words, your attempted formal rejection will always be lumped in with ballots spoilt in error, no matter what you do. No distinction is made.

Now, of course, if 50% of the electorate were to spoil their ballots in protest, the notion that they were all spoilt in error would become ridiculous. But even then, with no formal distinction being made, with no way of officially separating deliberate rejections from ballots spoilt in error, there’d be no legal basis from which to act or push for change. It could therefore easily be propagandised against as a one off campaign of targetted election wrecking, an attempt to undermine democracy in action.

MYTH #3: If we all make our intention clear (by writing in ‘NONE’ or None of the Above’), things would change.

Finally, there is a misconception that if we all spoil our ballots in ‘the right way’ and make it crystal clear what we are trying to do, the counts won’t be able to dismiss them as ‘void for uncertainty’ and will have to record them as deliberate rejections. This is an idea promoted by the well meaning ‘Vote or Vote None’ campaign.

The reason this is false is that as far as the counts and Electoral Commission are concerned, the only intention that could possibly exist in relation to a ballot paper is the intention to endorse one or other candidate. The intention to reject all candidates doesn’t exist for them. For this reason, the official advice for those counting ballots is to label any attempt to register a formal rejection as ‘voter intention unclear’ and put them in the ‘unmarked or void for uncertainty’ category.

For this reason, in order for the aims of the ‘Vote or Vote None’ campaign to be realised, they would first have to lobby the Electoral Commission for the inclusion of a fifth category of spoilt ballot: rejection / protest vote.

But if you were going to do that, why not campaign for inclusion of a formal and binding NOTA option on ballot papers in the first place? Because even if such a distinction between ballots spoilt in error and those spoilt in protest existed, you’d still be asking people to spell out their intentions while also relying on count staff to correctly label each rejection. A formal and binding NOTA option would do all of this instantaneously.

In conclusion, by all means spoil your ballot if it makes you feel better. But please understand that it is, and always will be, a symbolic empty gesture only. Ticking a formal and binding NOTA option on a ballot paper is the ONLY way to effectively withhold consent and reject all that is on offer at an election. The right to be able to do this is a central pillar of democracy itself, currently denied to all citizens of the UK and many millions of people around the world.

Read our white paper to find out why this one achievable, seemingly small systemic change could usher in an era of real democracy that maximises the common good. Sign our petition, share our posts, spread the word. Onwards.

NOTA UK online:

Jamie Stanley


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