Tag Archives: Parliamentary Committee

‘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

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NOTA campaign gets massive boost from parliamentary select committee!

On 05/02/15, the parliamentary Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) published its report into ‘voter engagement’ in which it recommends a whole slew of genuinely quite radical (by UK standards!) electoral reforms to be implemented during the next parliament. The full report can be downloaded here.

Here’s what they had to say about NOTA, as a result of NOTA UK’s lobbying and public engagement with the committee:

“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.”

This really is a huge leap forward for us. Although the committee has stopped short of including NOTA as one of its recommended immediate reforms, it has explicitly stated that it believes that the demand for NOTA and the potential positive effects on voter engagement of having it means that the next government must hold a public consultation on the issue.

Although this is slightly less than we could have hoped for, it is still a huge achievement when you consider that a year ago the mere mention of NOTA in the corridors of power was likely to be met with derision and a cold shoulder.

The PCRC survey mentioned above, in which we were able to get them to publish a question about inclusion of NOTA as a reform in and of itself regardless of whether voting is made compulsory or not, is very telling. This question got the second most responses (15,840), beaten only by the question about compulsory voting (16,095).

A whopping 71.8% of respondents to our question voted ‘yes’ to NOTA.

I think it’s fair to say we have now successfully put NOTA on the map, a key aim of this campaign from the beginning five years ago. There’s a long way to go of course. But no-one can say we aren’t getting the arguments heard and moving in the right direction.

A massive thank you to everyone who took part in the consultation and to all our facebook, twitter, youtube and website followers for your continued support in our efforts to make UK democracy fit for purpose.

Onwards & Upwards!
Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
05/02/15

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GUEST ARTICLE: ‘Time for None of the Above’ by Chris Ogden, lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews.

Time for None of the Above

To foster accountability and restore our right to dissent, we need another option on the ballot paper.

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A polling station in Suffolk – don’t all rush at once.

(Flickr/Blue Square Thing. Some rights reserved.)

As Scotland’s recent Independence Referendum showed, a large proportion of the population can be successfully engaged in, and passionate about politics.  Yet whilst the number of political parties offering their services appears to be significantly expanding – along with the scope of electorate choice – the fundamental option to reject all possible candidates in an accountable manner, remains absent.  Such a re-buffal – for reasons such as uncertainty, dissent or apathy – is currently tied to a more fundamental rejection; that of our right as citizens to legitimately take part in fair and free elections, in which each of our voices, no matter the persuasion, carry equal weight and importance.

Our present participation is limited.  Saying “no”, “don’t know” or “don’t care” are essentially illegitimate choices in Britain’s current election procedures.  They are also viewpoints that – when held – systematically disenfranchise large segments of our population.  Instead of respecting all opinions, our system demands conformity to historically dominant and simplified groupings.  This inherently limits electoral choice and shuts off possibilities for progress, evolution and improvement.  It also results in a loaded and skewed response by voters to the limited options available, whilst diminishing the value of the dissenting public’s voice.  Far from celebrating diversity and complexity, our system seeks to streamline debate, limit our participation in it and rests upon the population’s tacit acquiescence to Britain’s prevailing political consensus.

Broadening our options

As Susan Harrison noted on openDemocracy some years ago, what is so illegitimate about a voter who would “like to register the fact that I have taken the trouble to vote, have thought about things, and yet (found that) there isn’t really anybody whose opinions represent mine”?  Simply not agreeing with those in power, or with those putting themselves forward for political office, should not be considered invalid.  At the very least, “not being able to agree” ought to be acknowledged, accurately recorded and taken as a barometer on the legitimacy of a political class that ostensibly represents the whole population.  Presently, voters are only left with the ability to spoil their ballot, which provides no measure of actual voter discontent and can be dismissed by political elites as an act carried out in error or misunderstanding.

The inclusion of an official “None of the Above” (NOTA) option on all ballot papers can help restore our right to contribute, our right to be heard and our right to dissent.  Such efforts will re-invigorate Britain’s democratic tradition, and promote elements central to it, including heightening electoral participation, inclusion and accountability.  It will also help to increase the people’s power to press for change through the ballot box, bolster our ability to demand better quality politicians – as Democrat contenders recently experienced in Nevada when they were all rejected in favour of a ‘None of These Candidates’ option – and boost electoral turnout, the decline of which is an engrained negative dimension of politics in modern Britain.

As Graham Allen MP has noted, “turnout for the last general election was only 65% – almost 16 million voters chose not to participate – and millions of people are not even registered to vote … this is not an acceptable state of affairs for a modern democracy”.  The percentage of those voting has fallen dramatically since 1950, when voter turnout across the UK was 84%, and the country enjoyed a high level of political participation and involvement.  Now, when 65% of an electorate votes, a party only needs 33% of the electorate to claim a majority and mandate to govern – hardly the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Stop being afraid of democracy

Beyond this equation, current voter apathy has clear electoral advantages for those in power.  Rather than needing to get the entire population galvanized behind a set of core political beliefs, the contemporary politician secures victory by targeting a small number of swing voters identified via focus groups.  Low voter turnout makes the number of these critical voters even smaller.  NOTA would act as a significant performance indicator for politicians, whose power rests upon electoral calculation rather than full electoral engagement.  For the dedicated MPs who fully represent their constituents (and who are not moonlighting with a second job – a notable contemporary trend), a low NOTA turnout could be a noteworthy validation of their role as a community servant.

Importantly, change appears to be afoot for democracy in Britain and its constituent parts.  At the beginning of December, the UK Parliament’s Political Constitution and Reform Committee asked the public for their views concerning how to improve electoral engagement.  Apart from suggestions to lower the voting age to 16 (which will occur in the 2016 Holyrood elections), electronic voting, compulsory voting and holding elections at weekends, their online survey also asks whether ‘None of the Above’ should be an official option on the ballot paper.  Whether you agree, disagree or don’t know, taking part in the survey can be the first step to making all of our democratic voices reheard.  And for politicians opposed to having a “None of the Above” option, it is time to stop being afraid of democracy, and to accept your public accountability.

Originally published on openDemocracy.net Republished with permission.

Open Letter to Mark Flanagan (Notavote / The NOTA Party / The Above & Beyond Party)

Like Dr. Who and Sam Beckett, the group formerly known as Notavote and The NOTA Party has apparently once again morphed into a seemingly different entity. There is now an ‘Above & Beyond Party’ that intends to pick up where they left off after being barred from standing by the Electoral Commission. Below is my open letter to Mark Flanagan, the apparent head honcho. Feel free to share.

***UPDATE*** Apparently, Above & Beyond is in fact Mark Flanagan’s separate, further offshot from Notavote / The NOTA Party… which makes it even worse! Original letter edited slightly to make more sense in light of this.


Dear Mark,

Since its inception in 2012, Adrian Langan’s Notavote / The NOTA Party (now aided and abetted by your offshoot Above & Beyond Party) has consistently sought to cancel out and replace NOTA UK as the primary group campaigning for a formal None of the Above option on UK ballot papers for all future elections.

This is in spite of NOTA UK pre-dating their efforts by two whole years and in spite of the significant progress we have made towards getting NOTA in place for real since our inception in 2010.

Notavote / NOTA party members inadvertent (or concerted, depending on your view point) efforts to undermine the credibility of NOTA in the past have included:

– claiming that their party’s presence on the ballot paper constituted a bonafide NOTA option when it clearly didn’t,

– lying about their origins and claiming to have been set up in 2007 in order to get the jump on us,

– allowing known far right agitators to infiltrate their facebook group at an admin level,

– bullying and ejecting their own members if they spoke up for NOTA UK,

– and, of course, publicly attacking my own personal credibility at various times along the way.

They were recently prevented from standing candidates on a supposedly NOTA platform next May by the Electoral Commission on the grounds that the party name could have confused voters into thinking it is already possible to vote for None of the Above when it isn’t. This deception is in fact exactly what members of the group, a group that you yourself were at the time a part of, had attempted to do.

Your group’s reaction to this news was to encourage your supporters to believe that the banning was the result of a conspiracy to prevent NOTA appearing on the ballot paper. (NOTA UK’s response to this can be seen here: https://nota-uk.org/2014/11/08/nota-banned-as-party-name-by-electoral-commission/ )

I later appealed via our NOTA UK blog for you to finally put this perceived split to bed by publicly endorsing our campaign and acknowledging that your efforts must now be, and always should have been, in support of our campaign rather than in competition to it (see here: https://nota-uk.org/2014/11/28/appeal-to-reason-and-logic-re-the-nota-party/ )

There was no response.

Instead, you have now taken it upon yourself to re-brand the idea as The Above & Beyond Party, identical to its predecessor in all but name, and restated your intention to stand single issue NOTA candidates next May, now complete with a set of proposals to deal with a NOTA ‘win’, once in place, that run directly contrary to NOTA UK proposals that have been formally presented to a parliamentary select committee and accepted into the public record.

So – with all this in mind, please answer the following questions:

1: There is a parliamentary select committee survey and public consultation running until January 9th 2015 that invites members of the public to put forward their views on a set of proposed electoral reforms, including (thanks to NOTA UK’s lobbying) inclusion of an official None of the Above option on the ballot paper. (Survey: http://tinyurl.com/octv8r3 Consultation: http://tinyurl.com/oxboqy4 )

Why have you not mentioned this in your campaign material or made any effort to alert your supporters to this crucial, landmark change of attitude in the corridors of power towards NOTA?

2: Your proposal as to what would happen in the event of a NOTA ‘win’, aside from being completely unworkable, flies in the face of the solid proposal to deal with such a scenario that we have been promoting for years now and that the afore mentioned committee has accepted into the public record. (See here: http://tinyurl.com/mcqywys )

Are you purposely trying to undermine and cancel out the good work and massive progress towards NOTA for real that NOTA UK have achieved in the last four years? And if so, why? In whose interests are you acting, if not all who want to see NOTA on the ballot paper?

These are legitimate questions Mark. Because nothing that you or Adrian are doing is in any way aiding the cause that we supposedly share. By constantly presenting yourself as THE None of the Above movement, complete with strategies and proposals that fly directly in the face of our formally established ones, all you are doing is making all those campaigning for NOTA look like they don’t know what they are doing.

But we do know what we are doing.

The real question is: what exactly are you playing at?

I eagerly await your response.

Yours sincerely,
Jamie Stanley
NOTA UK
10/12/14

Commons Select Committee Evidence Submission

NOTA UK recently submitted written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee as part of their inquiries into voter engagement. It has been accepted into the public record and published on their website. You can view it here:

http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/WrittenEvidence.svc/EvidenceHtml/7985

NOTA campaign officially arrives!

On 20th March 2014, our NOTA campaign went into overdrive and found itself very much at home in the corridors of power…

David Babbs from 38 Degrees appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Voter Engagement to give evidence from a recent survey of their members. NOTA featured heavily in the responses and so naturally featured heavily in his presentation also. Watch the video here, NOTA comes into its own around 20 mins in.