Tag Archives: Electoral Reform

THE FIGHT FOR ACTUAL DEMOCRACY: Time To Step It Up

Every election to office should also be a straight Yes/No referendum on what’s on offer and/or the system itself.


Apparently, the UK is a true democracy. I beg to differ. Here’s some statistics for you:

The population of the UK is around 64.1 million.

Only 72% of the UK population are registered to vote (46.4 million).
Only 66.1% of those registered to vote actually voted in the 2015 UK general election (30.7 million).

That’s 47.9% of the total UK population. Using 2011 figures, somewhere between 18% and 20% of the UK population is under voting age. So we can safely say that somewhere between 32% and 34% of the voting age UK population didn’t register or didn’t vote.

Only 36.9% of the turnout voted Conservative (11.3 million).

That’s 17.6% of the entire UK population, 24.4% of the registered electorate, dropping to around 22% of the voting age population as a whole. So less than 25% of potential voters actually voted for the government that we are now stuck with for the next five years.

“Well, they should’ve voted shouldn’t they, if you don’t vote you can’t complain…” etc. etc.

Just think about that for a second.

Excluding those under voting age, somewhere between 32% and 34% of the population, between 20 and 22 million people, either didn’t register to vote or didn’t bother to vote. Do you really think that many people simply don’t care about something that very obviously affects their lives?!

Statistically speaking, it stands to reason that the majority of these people are not going to be well off. The majority are bound to be people living at the sharp end of UK society and directly suffering the consequences of government by and for millionaires and the corporate and financial sector.

If they thought voting for the lesser of several evils could make a difference to their lives, then they surely would, right? But they don’t. So, evidently, most of them must know – or believe, depending on your point of view – that no amount of voting in a failing, broken system of oligarchy masquerading as democracy is ever going to make any damn difference to their lives. So they have nothing to do with it, they withhold their consent and reject all the candidates and/or the system as a whole the only way they can – by non-participation.

But what if they could formally register that disdain, that withholding of consent, that rejection of all candidates and/or the whole system, in a way that could influence the election result if the majority were to do so.

There is no doubt in my mind that a great many of this significant but currently silent group absolutely would choose to do that if they could. This is why there is currently no formal ‘None Of The Above’ (NOTA) option on UK ballot papers, no formal mechanism to distinguish between apathy and conscious rejection. The powers that be know it would be a game changer.

And that is why we must step up the fight for NOTA as the logical starting point for widespread democratic reform.

In a true democracy, as well as being a way of choosing and legitimising a government, a general election should always also be a straight Yes/No referendum on whether that system is working and has the support of the majority.

NOTA would provide a way to ensure that our elections are just that. If you support a party or candidate or the system in general and vote, then you vote Yes. If you choose NOTA, you vote No. There would be a clear measure of how many want in and are happy with the process as it is and how many want out and demand change.

It’s not a democracy if you can’t do this. We know from the Scottish referendum that when a simple Yes/No question that people actually care about is posed, people get involved. Some 84.5% of the electorate in that case.

Put NOTA on UK ballot papers and give people the option of making any election a Yes/No referendum on the parties and candidates put forward, or the system as a whole, and it would only be matter of time before things changed for the better.

With actual NOTA ‘with teeth’ in place, actual democracy becomes possible. Without it, there’s no reason why it ever would or could.

And THAT is why we don’t have the option already. Time to step up the fight.

You can get involved by signing and sharing our petition here and by following/subscribing to us via these social media links:

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Onwards & Upwards!

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
09/05/15

ELECTORAL REFORM ‘O CLOCK? OF COURSE IT IS!

But calling for PR in the current political landscape is like trying to make an omelette without breaking a single egg…


(This article first appeared on the Democratic Audit website)

Once again, the UK’s antiquated First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system has delivered a government that the vast majority of the registered electorate (around 63%) actively voted against. Parties with a sizeable share of the popular vote once again have a tiny share of seats in parliament, while parties with far less popular support have been awarded a disproportionately large share of seats.

Not surprisingly, everyone who has lost out to this system this time around, from UKIP to the Green party and everyone in between, is now calling for electoral reform in the form of Proportional Representation (PR).

There can be no doubt in any rational, sane person’s mind that when you have more than two parties vying for office, FPTP is a farcical and redundant voting system and that a more proportionally representative system is long overdue.

But campaigning for PR alone is not the place to start if we truly want to reform our electoral system.

Because, no matter who wins a UK election, FPTP absolutely ensures that only either Labour or the Tory parties, neither of which have anything to gain from PR’s introduction, can ever call the shots in government by virtue of always having at least four times as many seats each as the next nearest party. This is true even in coalition, because whichever of them is called upon to form one will always have easily twice as many seats as all their junior partners combined under FPTP. If coalition government in the UK (and indeed parliament as a whole) were about grown up compromise, this would not necessarily be an impediment to progress. But in a childish numbers game where the party/government whip is king, ensuring that the party with the most voting power always rules the roost, real progress and radical change is nigh on impossible.

Not only do neither of the two dominant parties have anything to gain from changing the voting system, they can never be put under any real pressure to do so because, as undemocratic as FPTP is, they can always say it is ‘democratic enough’ as it always delivers a majority in parliament one way or another. For this reason, no matter how loud the calls for it, they can always pay lip service to PR (as a desirable reform only) and then do precisely nothing about implementing it.

By stark contrast, inclusion of a formal ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option on ballot papers is an achievable reform as it can be shown to be a democratic pre-requisite, 100% essential in any true democracy and impossible to argue against without arguing against democracy itself, once properly understood (see here and here for why).

With enough widespread understanding of this fact, NOTA could eventually become an inevitable government concession to appease a population increasingly aware of its democratic rights, just as votes for women and the welfare state were won before it. From there, the playing field would already have been levelled considerably, as all parties would be compelled to work harder for more votes or risk having more people visibly and formally reject them at the ballot box than actually vote for them. In such a landscape, the prospect of further democratic reform ought to be significantly improved.

Without this first step, there is no reason whatsoever why any Tory or Labour dominated government would introduce PR. If electoral reform is the order of the day, then the achievable reform of NOTA must surely be the logical starting point.

We now have an unprecedented window of opportunity to pile pressure on the newly elected government to introduce this potentially game changing and undeniably essential electoral reform. Because thanks to NOTA UK’s lobbying (and some 71.8% of around 16,000 survey respondents calling for it), the parliamentary select committee for Political & Constitutional Reform (PCRC) felt compelled to recommend in its final report on increasing ‘voter engagement’ (published in February 2015) that the next government consult before May 2016 solely on inclusion of NOTA on ballot papers. They concluded that there is not only huge demand for NOTA, but that there would be a clear, positive impact on voter engagement of having it. This is a huge step forward for our campaign.

When you really understand the extent of the democratic deficit in the UK, it becomes clear that NOTA is the ground zero of electoral reform upon which all other democratic reform could be built. For this reason, it must now be the priority of all pro-democracy reformists at this time. The alternative is five more years of ineffectual lobbying of turkeys to vote for Christmas with zero progress made and no end to the current, undemocratic two party system in sight.

People can support NOTA UK’s campaign for achievable electoral reform by signing our petition here and by following and subscribing to us via these social media links:

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Enough is enough. Together we can call time on our outdated, failing democracy and take the power back. Lets make history.

Jamie Stanley
11/05/15

NOTA UK

An Open Letter to Russell Brand & Brian May

Dear Russell and Brian,

In the run up to this year’s UK general election, I have been closely following your respective approaches to getting people to engage with the pressing problems of our times.

On the surface of it, you both appear to be wanting the same thing: a fairer, more humane, compassionate and environmentally sustainable society with communities and ordinary people calling the shots as opposed to career politicians and corporate lackeys.

Russell, your message is much more nuanced than the simplified ‘don’t vote’ version of it regularly cited by the mainstream media. What you are basically saying is we need to disengage from the established political system as it is not fit for purpose and instead become politically active at the grass roots level.

Conversely, your message Brian is essentially get involved with the political system as it is by voting for decent candidates and policies in the hope that that will lead to the kind of changes you want to see.

As understandable and commendable as both these approaches are, the truth is that on their own neither of them can work in the long term.

I absolutely agree with you Russell that people need to look outside of the established political system and manage their own communities at a grass roots level. But that established political system will trundle on regardless, awarding thoroughly undeserving, corporately sponsored people disproportionate amounts of real power to ruin the lives of everybody else. So in conjunction with the grass roots engagement you espouse, we urgently need to radically reform the established political system into something that runs parallel to it and compliments those efforts – otherwise attempting to achieve real progress becomes a long, drawn out, stress and disease inducing battle with authority and bureaucracy. The New Era Estate campaign that you championed was inspiring and a perfect example of how and why people can win through when they organise and unite against injustice and corruption. But people shouldn’t have to go through all that just to get what is right. Not everybody has the gumption and fight in them that those people on that estate had. And for those that do, the stress levels involved with taking on the system undoubtedly take their toll in the long run. We need to create a society where it is not possible in the first place for people’s lives to be so utterly disregarded and ruined by a minority in pursuit of short term financial gain.

I also absolutely agree with you Brian that people should be able to influence decision making at a macro, societal level by engaging with the systems already in place. But, unfortunately, the established political system is absolutely a closed shop designed to ensure that no meaningful change of the guard can ever take place. I have written at length elsewhere about why this is the case. In a nutshell, no matter how many people vote and no matter who they vote for, the voting system in the UK guarantees that only one of two establishment parties can ever call the shots in government, even in the age of hung parliaments and coalitions. So Russell is 100% correct to say that engagement with that system in its current form is futile.

As stated, the problem is that this system trundles on regardless. Technically, even if considerably less than 50% of the population were to not vote at a general election, a government would still be able to claim a mandate as our system is not about vote share but seats: they will always be able to achieve a majority of seats in parliament and claim that that is sufficient mandate to govern. Yes, there would be an outcry and much hand wringing and calls for reform in that scenario. But technically there’d be nothing anyone could do about it. No amount of endorsing such a system by voting is going to change that paradigm. But, similarly, no amount of grass roots activism is going to prevent people of the political class from wielding disproportionate amounts of power over everybody else.

The solution to this problem, clearly, is to radically evolve the very systems by which governments are formed in the first place, in conjunction with grass roots activism, so that communities and ordinary people are truly represented at all levels of societal decision making. The million dollar question then is: “How on earth do we do that?”

There is a reason why I have devoted so much of my life over the past five years to campaigning for inclusion of an official None of the Above (NOTA) option on ballot papers – with formalised consequences for the result if the majority choose it – ahead of all other possible reforms and worthy causes. When you truly understand how the current electoral system works, it becomes clear that no meaningful reform of the kind that the Electoral Reform Society campaigns for (PR, right to recall, elected House of Lords etc.) can ever be achieved in the current paradigm. Because the only people that have the power to enact those changes have everything to lose and nothing to gain from doing so and there is currently no way of officially challenging their authority and forcing the issue.

By contrast, inclusion of NOTA on ballot papers is 100% achievable in the current paradigm as it can be clearly shown to be a democratic pre-requisite, impossible to argue against without arguing against democracy itself, once properly understood. This is because consent, central to the concept of democracy, is only truly 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. Neither abstaining or ballot spoiling constitute the formal withholding of consent as both acts can be construed otherwise and neither affects the result in any way. The only way to formally withhold consent at an election is via a formal NOTA option on the ballot paper.

The powers that be can never be seen to be anti-democratic, even if they secretly are in practice. It stands to reason then, that with enough understanding among the general public of NOTA being 100% essential in any system claiming to be a democracy, it would become an inevitable government concession. This is essentially how votes for women and and the NHS were won. They weren’t benevolent gifts from on high, they were concessions to appease an increasingly politically aware populous. So could it be with NOTA.

Clearly, the fact that no reform other than NOTA is achievable at this time is not necessarily reason enough to champion it. But an understanding of how a post-NOTA inclusion political landscape would look is.

Introducing the possibility for the electorate to reject all candidates and parties on offer at an election would have a huge impact on the system as a whole. No party is going to want to be embarrassingly beaten at the polls by NOTA voters are they. So it follows that this potential would force them to put forward more ‘decent’ policies and candidates that would appeal to many more voters, potential NOTA voters included. So already, an organic levelling off and cleaning up of the political landscape will have occurred. The current two party oligarchy, while still favoured by the First Past The Post system, would for the first time be under threat as those parties will be just as vulnerable as any other to being visibly rejected by more people than not at the polls. In this new paradigm, the potential for further democratic reform would be greatly increased.

This is why NOTA is the ground zero of electoral reform upon which further democratic progress could be built. If we accept that the system cannot be ignored and must change, and if we accept that no other meaningful electoral reform is possible at this time, then we must also accept that campaigning for inclusion of NOTA, alongside grass roots activism, is the logical starting point for taking the power back.

To recap:

Russell, you are right to call for disengagement from the current political system and encourage grass roots, community engagement. But we need to reform that system as well, otherwise we will always be on the back foot, stronger in numbers but out-gunned where it matters. There is a way to do this. It’s called NOTA.

Brian, you are right to want to see increased engagement with the current political system making a real difference. But the sad truth is that it can’t, currently. They have it sewn up. Engagement with the current system is simply to endorse it and ensure its continuation. We need to change the game before we play it. There is a way to do this. It’s called NOTA.

Thanks to NOTA UK’s lobbying, the parliamentary Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) felt compelled to explicitly recommend in its final report, published in February, that the next government consult before May 2016 specifically on the issue of inclusion of a formal NOTA option on UK ballot papers for all future national elections. So we have an unprecedented window of opportunity to push for real and lasting democratic reform. This is a huge development. With that in mind, I have written an open letter to all party leaders asking them to state for the record where they stand on this issue. As yet, none have responded.

The three of us, you with your respective audiences and me with a clear, logically sound path to real electoral reform and a growing movement of people getting behind it, could genuinely make history. But all the while we are pulling in different directions, I’m afraid it will be business as usual for those holding the reigns of power for the foreseeable future.

Feel free to contact me via email ( stan(at)nota-uk.org ), I’d be more than happy to discuss these issues with you.

Yours sincerely,
Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
27/04/15

Problem, Reaction, Solution: Why understandable efforts to boost voter turnout miss the point

UPDATE: To be clear, NOTA UK are NOT ‘telling people to not vote’ as has been claimed. We are saying do whatever makes sense to you on polling day. But if you care about improving democracy, then please take the time to fully understand the system you are participating in so that you may evaluate the potential impact, or lack of impact, that your vote, or non-vote, will have in your constituency.

While it is commendable that so many prominent figures are urging people to register to vote and encouraging them to use their vote at the 2015 election, it is incredibly frustrating for anyone who understands how the current electoral system actually works that the false idea that we can vote our way into a better paradigm is being peddled alongside this.

The ‘if more people vote things will change’ myth is easily debunked. The myth goes that because 15.9 million people didn’t vote at the last election and the party with the most votes got only 10.7 million, if those people were to vote this time a result other than a Tory or Labour majority government, or a coalition with one or other of those two parties calling the shots, would be possible.

To illustrate why this is a false belief, I will use the example of my own constituency of Horsham.

First though, I will briefly outline how our First Past The Post (FPTP) system gives an unfair advantage to Labour and the Tories from the off.

Designed for two party politics, and therefore totally inappropriate in a multi-party system, FPTP ensures a two horse race in the vast majority of constituencies every single time. Not always between Labour and the Tories, sometimes it is Labour and the Lib Dems, or Lib Dems and the Tories, or even a smaller party and one of the big three. But in most seats, one or other of the only two in the running will be Labour or the Tories as they are the most established parties with the strongest traditional support bases nationally.

To form a government it is necessary for a party or coalition of parties to win a majority of seats in parliament. But because FPTP decrees that the candidate with the most votes in each seat wins even if the majority of voters voted against them (spread out over several parties), the percentage of vote share for each party never corresponds to the percentage of seats they have won. Example: in 2010 the Tories got 36.1% of the votes nationally but 47.1% of seats in parliament while the Lib Dems got 23% of the vote share but only 8.8% of seats.

This BBC ‘majority builder’ game helpfully, but unintentionally, illustrates how weighted towards the two main parties our current electoral system is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32336071

Now – in Horsham, a safe Tory seat, Frances Maude won in 2010 with around 29,000 votes. The 2nd placed Lib Dem candidate had around 18,000. Around 22,000 didn’t vote. On the surface of it, it seems that if those people had voted the result could have been affected, because mathematically, that is possible.

But look deeper and that notion starts to look increasingly implausible.

In order to have affected the result in any way, at least half of those non-voters would not only have had to have voted, but they would have ALL have had to have voted Lib Dem. It is extremely unlikely that that percentage of such a large group would all support the Lib Dems and no other parties if forced to choose. So they would also all have had to have decided to vote tactically just to keep the Tories out. That is a completely improbable outcome, given that 18,000 people already had voted Lib Dem, many of whom will probably have voted tactically also.

This situation is mirrored in over 300 seats around the country, most of which are rendered safe Tory or Labour seats (+ a comparative handful of safe Lib Dem, SNP & Plaid Cymru ones) by virtue of the FPTP voting system which, remember, renders the vast majority of seats a two horse race with all other parties completely redundant.

Think about it. It is simply not realistic to believe that just because getting more people to vote could mathematically cause an upset at an election that it actually will. It’s nowhere near as simple as that. It is wishful thinking to believe otherwise.

To believe that the problem with our ‘democracy’ can be solved by more people voting is to fundamentally misunderstand this problem. The problem is that our system ISN’T a democracy in the first place. The system is designed in such a way as to ensure two party hegemony at all times, even in the age of coalitions, as the voting system still ensures that the two main parties have way more seats than all their potential coalition partners put together, so one of them will always call the shots even in a coalition government.

For this reason, either Labour or the Tories are the only parties that can ever wield any real power in the UK as things stand, no other outcome is possible. That’s not my opinion, it is the stark reality that reveals itself when you really look into what’s going on and how this system works.

To think this paradigm can be changed by further legitimising and endorsing it is pure delusion. The paradigm needs to change first. The logical starting point for that is to get a functioning ‪#‎NoneOfTheAbove‬ option on ballot papers in the first instance and then use the newly levelled playing field to push for further reform. Seriously – how else is that going to happen?!

And to those who try to claim that coming at the problem from this angle is negative, I say this: is it positive or negative to delude oneself as to the true extent and nature of a problem? Is it positive or negative to have fully understood a problem and exhausted all other possibilities before settling on a workable and achievable solution?

Take as long as you need.

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
18/04/15

GUEST BLOG: Is NOTA a Legal Requirement?

In an update to his guest blog from last year, NOTA UK’s Rohin Vadera further explores the question:

Is a ‘None of the Above’ option on ballot papers a legal requirement?

In September 2013, the Indian Supreme Court (SC) ruled that electronic voting machines (EVMs) must include a ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option for the upcoming national election. Its presence was intended to provide the option for a voter to effectively spoil their vote in private, otherwise impossible given the way voters cast their vote through an EVM.

In this case the NOTA option allowed voters to come to the polling section to register their desire to abstain from the voting process. But it did not function as a true NOTA option, which is a mechanism to formally reject all candidates on offer and initiate a re-run election if need be.

The full judgement is available here: http://www.pucl.org/Topics/Law/2013/vote_none.pdf

What is interesting from the NOTA UK point of view is that the SC based its judgement on sections from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the latter of which India has ratified (as has the UK). The ICCPR in particular is a covenant that the UK is legally bound to follow and its terms cannot be overturned by an act of parliament, as I understand it.

Part of the SC judgement is laid out below:

49) However correspondingly, we should also appreciate that the election is a mechanism, which ultimately represents the will of the people. The essence of the electoral system should be to ensure freedom of voters to exercise their free choice. Article 19 guarantees all individuals the right to speak, criticize, and disagree on a particular issue. It stands on the spirit of tolerance and allows people to have diverse views, ideas and ideologies. Not allowing a person to cast a vote negatively defeats the very freedom of expression and the right ensured in Article 21 (of the UDHR) i.e., the right to liberty.

(Text highlighted by author)

The SC gave reasons why it felt that the NOTA option was an important part of the voting process:

55) Giving right to a voter not to vote for any candidate while protecting his right of secrecy is extremely important in a democracy. Such an option gives the voter the right to express his disapproval with the kind of candidates that are being put up by the political parties. When the political parties realise that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates being put up by them, gradually there will be a systematic change and the political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity.

I certainly agree with the reasoning. However, for NOTA to have a substantive impact as described above it must be able to affect the results of an election in a formalised and robust manner. Politicians are used to widespread approbation, so a widely used symbolic NOTA option could be shrugged off, or used in some type of political game that results in no substantive positive changes.

A symbolic NOTA option provides little incentive for disillusioned voters to express their voice as there are no clear and unambiguous consequences to that choice. Uncertainty is the worst outcome of all and undermines the use of this type of NOTA, as disillusioned voters would likely steer clear of the voting process altogether, instead of choosing an ineffective NOTA option.

The SC has also made the common mistake of conflating NOTA with abstention, using it as a mechanism to ‘actively abstain’, rather than reject, in the hope that it will have a positive impact.

So what is the relevance to the UK situation?

Firstly the Indian experience demonstrates that documents like the UDHR and the ICCPR carry weight in determination of election law and secondly there is a good reason to believe that these documents have clauses that require a properly functioning NOTA option that allows voters to reject all candidates with formalised consequences.

Before going into the aforementioned documents, readers should remember that NOTA confers the ability to withhold one’s consent during an election process and thereby ensures that consent can also be validly given, thus making an election a democratic process where voters are the sovereign power. Without NOTA you cannot have an electoral democracy. It is as simple as that.

What I hope to demonstrate is that not only is it a democratic pre-requisite, it is also a legal requirement for any country that has agreed to abide by the UDHR, and especially the ICCPR.

UDHR Article 21.3 is relevant to NOTA, in my view:

21.3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

(Text highlighted by author)

ICCPR Article 25(b) is also relevant:

25. Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

(Text highlighted by author)

UDHR 21.3 is clear and unambiguous in its support for a bona fide NOTA option. If the ‘will of the people’ is the basis of a government’s authority, then that government must surely have obtained their consent first. And how can voters give consent unless there is a commensurate ability to withhold it?

This is of course assuming that the oft used phrase ‘will of the people’ actually means what it says rather than being a meaningless cliché, included for effect.

The ICCPR article 25(b) is a little more subtle, but once understood, equally compelling. Elections are supposed to guarantee ‘the free expression of the will of the electors’. How can that be guaranteed unless their consent has been sought and obtained?

For those in any doubt, if we examine the dictionary meaning of ‘will’, in this context it means: expressing desire, consent, or willingness.

How can any government that is based on the will of the electorate not have their consent? Once we can establish that consent cannot be formally given (by voting) without a bona fide NOTA option facilitating the formal withholding of it, the UK is, arguably, legally bound to provide it.

The ICCPR is especially important in this regard as the UK agency responsible for elections could theoretically be sued for breach of covenant if they failed to carry out elections as set out by the terms of the ICCPR and could in turn be liable for monetary recompense to the aggrieved parties i.e. all UK citizens. The ramifications are enormous.

I don’t recommend that anyone rush off to sue the UK government just yet (unless you allow me to join in!), but it is an interesting avenue to pursue should other ways of bringing this important reform into the election process not come to fruition.

Rohin Vadera

16/04/15

The full text of the UDHR and ICCPR can be found here:

The UDHR is here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=eng

The ICCPR is here: http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

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

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

‘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

The ‘NOTA would help establishment parties’ fallacy

During my recent interview for RT’s Going Underground, host Afshin Rattansi asked a question along the lines of: ‘But wouldn’t NOTA just take votes away from smaller parties and help establishment parties?’

This is a common concern that is often cited by critics of NOTA, but one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in my view. There wasn’t quite enough time for me to expand upon my answer at the time so I thought I’d post a short blog on the subject.

Firstly, NOTA has the potential to take votes away from all parties, not just the smaller ones. Currently, there are plenty of people who grudgingly or tactically vote Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour as they see them as the lesser of several evils. There are also people who vote UKIP or Green more as a protest against the main parties rather than out of genuine support. All of these voters could find a bona fide, binding NOTA option ‘with teeth’ more appropriate. All of these parties do of course enjoy genuine support also. One could argue that, in the current climate, fledgling smaller parties enjoy more genuine support than the increasingly discredited bigger ones. So I see no reason to believe that smaller parties would suffer more than bigger ones if NOTA were in place.

Secondly, when people talk about ‘letting establishment parties in’, I have to wonder what electoral system they are talking about. The bigger parties ALWAYS get in. The UK’s voting system absolutely ensures that. The plain fact of the matter is that no amount of green surge or support for UKIP is going to alter the fact that the next government will be Conservative or Labour in practice, even if they are in coalition with smaller parties, rendered essentially cosmetic by corporate lobbying and the party / government whip systems. So even if NOTA were to favour the big two, which there is no reason to believe it would, how would that be any different to what we have now?

The bottom line is that NOTA has the potential to inflict damage on ALL parties equally and as such would act as a leveller, forcing them all to lift their game, appeal to more voters and actually mean what they say.

This is all theoretical of course, as real NOTA ‘with teeth’ has never been tried. But an absence of real world data should never be an impediment to progress. If it were, none of the great leaps forward for humanity would  ever have got off the ground. As I always say to doubters, let’s get NOTA on the ballot paper and see what happens. What have we got to lose?

Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
15/02/15

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An open letter to Emma Rome, formerly of NOTA UK

My former NOTA UK partner in crime Emma Rome recently published a blog post which, although of no real significance to our ongoing campaign, certainly warrants a response from me “in my own way” for reasons that will hopefully become clear:

“Dear Emma,

I note that you chose not to mention in your blog how, when challenged to justify your publicly declared,  inexplicable and seemingly wilfully inaccurate reading of my ‘Unity & Focus’ blog post, you threatened to, and I quote, ‘assassinate our campaign’ in an online NOTA debate the following week.

You then claimed that this impulsive, pm’d missive was ‘a satirical joke’, but it was clearly nothing of the kind. It was a momentary lapse of control that laid bare a side to you that I was shocked to discover existed, one that clearly is not compatible with a pro-democracy reform campaign like NOTA UK’s. Having already left voluntarily, there was no need for me to ask you to leave and very obviously no chance of me allowing you back in, despite you asking me repeatedly.

I also note your attempts to imply that I have in some way acted improperly. The proposal for dealing with a NOTA ‘win’ on our website is one that you, I and others agreed on after much discussion of your original idea. It is not mine and mine alone as you claim. It is, and always has been, open to debate and modification as the campaign develops and as our legitimacy grows.

Last week I appeared on a live RT UK news bulletin talking about NOTA and was asked back six days later to record a full interview for one of their flagship shows Going Underground, due to be broadcast next week. This was aided somewhat by the fact that in the same week, thanks to our lobbying, the select committee looking into ‘voter engagement’ explicitly stated in its report that due to public demand and the potential positive impact of having it, the next government should hold a public consultation on NOTA’s inclusion on the ballot paper.

Clearly, this signifies that our campaign is working and that we are at a crucial moment. The last thing the campaign needs right now is people jockeying for position and causing problems within the established front of the wider NOTA movement. So in a way, I’m grateful that you did what you did when you did, rather than further down the line at a potentially more damaging time.

I wish you no ill Emma. But your attempts to take the moral high ground on this issue serve only to underline why it is no longer possible for you and I to work together.

Thank you for your help over the last couple of years. Good luck in all your future endeavours, your clear political ambitions included.

Yours sincerely,
Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
13/02/15