None of the above

A ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot paper could be the reform our electoral system needs to counter anti-politics, suggests Jonathan Birdwell.

Who are you going to vote for in May? Would you consider ‘none of the above’?

For the next four months, hopeful MPs will be trying to convince people that they deserve your vote, but they’re fighting an uphill battle. The public has had enough of its politicians.

Politicians are now less trusted than estate agents, bankers and journalists. In 1986, one in ten Britons said that they almost never trust the government. In 2012, that figure had risen to one in three. Young Britons in particular are cynical about politicians’ trustworthiness, less likely to feel an affiliation to a political party, less likely to think voting is a duty, and least likely to vote.

In 1964, 18–24-year-olds voted in the same proportions as the over-65s. In 2010, 44 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted compared to 74 per cent of Britons over 55 years old. As Figure 1 below shows, the gap in turnout between young and older voters in the UK is now the largest in the OECD.

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This isn’t due to apathy. Young people are concerned about social issues and want to have a positive impact. But they are disillusioned with the political system and the political class. Instead of looking to traditional politics, they are looking to have an impact through their career choices, by starting social enterprises or businesses, or supporting social media campaigns.

Many reforms are put forward for reengaging younger generations with the act of voting: improved political education, electoral reform, votes at 16, online voting, and even compulsory first time voting.

But another reform should be considered before all of these: adding a formal protest vote to the ballot in the form of ‘none of the above’.

A ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot paper could motivate disillusioned citizens to take part in the act of voting – without compulsion. It could exert a new kind of pressure on the political parties and candidates, forcing them to see, in hard cold numbers, the degree of frustration in their own constituency. It could deflate support levels of fringe, populist parties.

It could become especially popular as a rebellious option for younger voters: allowing them to participate in the system, but changing the terms of reference and giving greater emphasis to new forms of activism. None of the above could be a strong electoral expression of many young people’s current attitude towards politics.

But, how would it work, and has it ever been done before? Is it even needed if we can all just spoil our ballots anyway? Would it lead to paralysis of Britain’s institutions, making governing more difficult? How would it change the electoral landscape? What if ‘none of the above’ actually won?

Debates about the efficacy of ‘none of the above’ have recently been taking place among campaigners and academics, but awareness among the general public remains low. ‘None of the above’ fails to receive the same serious consideration that other reforms, such as compulsory voting, receive. It is often dismissed as an amusing fringe idea: intuitively appealing when one feels like giving the system a kick, but unclear what would it actually mean in reality.

In this article I make the case for NOTA. Below I provide a brief outline of protest voting and ‘none of the above’ models currently running in other countries or elections. I then consider what an effective NOTA model could look like and how it could be linked with other democratic reforms like open primaries. While it’s impossible to know exactly what levels of support NOTA would receive, I argue that NOTA could motivate disillusioned non-voters and potentially unsettle both safe and marginal seats.

NOTA: the protest vote

Citizens are already free to protest at the ballot box, and many do. Some decide not to vote as a form of protest (Russell Brand), while others may support populist or anti-establishment parties with strong rhetoric about ‘the elite’ but few policies. There are also more direct forms of ‘protest’ voting which can include spoiling one’s ballot on the day. In many countries this takes the shape of voting for or writing-in absurd candidates, like Mickey Mouse (in the US), Donald Duck (in Scandinavia) or Darth Vader (as was tried in Ukraine). These votes may be a laugh, but often have little if any impact – with a few exceptions: in the 2015 Zambian Presidential elections, ‘Spoiled Ballot Paper’ reportedly beat the third place candidate.

The problem with spoiling ballots – as many NOTA proponents point out – is that it’s very difficult to distinguish between ballots spoiled in error and those spoiled in protest. Moreover, spoiled ballot campaigns never draw the needed levels of support to have impact. Nor is it even clear what sort of impact it would actually have beyond symbolism. There are, for example, no procedures for triggering a re-election if the number of spoiled ballots reaches a certain threshold.

Because of this, some countries have developed formal protest options in the form of ‘none of the above’, though they often operate under different names and structures. India, Bangladesh, Greece, Ukraine, Spain, Colombia, and the US state of Nevada, all currently run something akin to a ‘none of the above’ option. Elections to student unions and representatives in the UK have a RON option (‘re-open nominations’), which is probably how most Britons are familiar with the concept. It has also featured in popular culture in the madcap film Brewster’s Millions, where Richard Pryor runs for Mayor of New York as ‘none of the above’ and wins.

For the most part, NOTA votes are symbolic in these countries. For example, in India and Nevada, even if ‘none of the above’ wins the ballot, the candidate who comes second takes the seat. Thus, it may send a message but nothing more. Other approaches include keeping the seat vacant if ‘none of the above’ wins (as in Spain’s vote en blanco), or holding another election or reselection of candidates (as with RON in the UK student unions).

But NOTA protest votes have also had significant impact in some places. According to John Fund of the conservative US magazine The National Review, protest votes in Poland in the late 1980s helped to defeat the then Polish Communist Prime Minister, hastening the decline of Communism in Poland. Similarly, a Russian version of NOTA prevented various Communist incumbents from winning a majority of votes, leading to 200 new elections (out of 1,500), in which over 100 Communist incumbents were defeated. According to Fund, Boris Yeltsin said that NOTA ‘helped convince the people they had real power even in a rigged election, and [it] played a role in building true democracy’.

In the UK, there have been attempts to get ‘none of the above’ on the ballot. In 2001, the ‘No Candidate Deserves My Vote!’ party stood candidates, as did the ‘NOTA party’ in 2010. There have also been individuals who changed their names, to ‘None of the Above Zero’, and ‘None of the Above X’ (the latter polled at 0.3 per cent). More recently, the campaigning organisation ‘NOTA UK’ has lobbied MPs directly, for example through the Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform, and they currently have a petition with the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees to have NOTA added to the ballot paper.

Despite these efforts, there is still little awareness of ‘none of the above’ as a serious reform in the general population. This is likely due to the fact that there is such variation in how it operates in other countries, and that it can often come across as a joke, rather than a serious reform: the preserve of the Monster Raving Loony Party, or absurdist comedies like Brewster’s Millions. There have been few attempts to think through how it would operate in detail, and to take it seriously as a reform that could restore trust to the system.

How would NOTA work?

Even a symbolic ‘none of the above’ option could exert long-term pressure for reform through the discussion and debate that it would inspire among the media, pollsters and political scientists.

But in order to fully realise its potential for reform, ‘none of the above’ must also have a clear impact in the short-term. Having considered how NOTA works in other countries, and what its practical aims would be (e.g. producing a better choice of candidate), I propose that a legitimate NOTA option should entail the following:

  • A NOTA win would require a plurality of votes.
  • This should trigger an open primary in the contested constituency.
  • The primary and rerun election would function similarly to a by-election timetable.
  • A NOTA option would not be provided during the rerun election.

As noted above, many examples of NOTA from other countries are purely symbolic. There are exceptions however. In Bangladesh, which recently added a ‘no’ vote to the ballot, NOTA must reach 50 per cent to cancel election results and require a re-election. This has intuitive appeal: invalidating the results of an election should, it seems, require a majority of the electorate. But, of course, this is not how the British first-past-the-post electoral system works, and it would be unfair to set a higher bar for a NOTA win. Thus, winning a plurality should be the appropriate threshold for NOTA.

Proponents of NOTA ‘with teeth’ talk about NOTA win triggering a reselection of candidates, but few surprisingly appear to consider the need for an open primary procedure, rather than just another batch of centrally-approved candidates.

There would be logistical challenges in running an open primary and reselection within a tight timeframe, but these can be overcome through careful planning and clear guidelines. The attention that would be focused in these areas – in such an event – by the media, and the excitement that it could possibly engender, could allow for high profile primary campaign that could be relatively targeted in its focus. Timetables for by-elections could be used as an initial model, and then adjusted as needed based on early experiences.

It could be argued that, as independent private bodies, political parties cannot be forced to hold open primaries. A savvy political party would recognise the need to have an open primary in the event of a NOTA win, given the message that would send, and wouldn’t need to be forced to do so. Indeed, a NOTA vote being added to the ballot could prompt parties to think again about their selection procedures, including considering at primaries.

Nonetheless, provision within any future legislation establishing NOTA could be made to place an open primary requirement on political parties (in the same way that party finance and spending are regulated), given the ‘public interest’ of needing a legitimate sitting MP and a procedure that has legitimacy in the views of the public. This would need to be agreed with the parties in advance of the reform taking place.

There would need to be someone to assume the seat as a caretaker in the meantime – which could include either the runner up to NOTA, or the previous incumbent. Again similar to by-elections, MPs in neighbouring constituencies could temporarily take up constituency work in these areas.

There would also need to be a restriction on ‘none of the above’ appearing as an option again, in the re-run election. This would limit the possibility of interminable primaries and elections, an important consideration not least in case these seats were decisive in determining which party could form a majority Government.

In short, while there would be challenges to overcome, designing a legitimate and practical ‘none of the above’ option would be entirely feasible and could be done in a way to support other reforms such as open primaries. This would help put power – particularly power in how candidates are selected – back into the hands of citizens in a manner that is urgently needed.

Who would vote for it?

How NOTA is designed would be critical to how people respond to it as an option. Seeing it as a symbolic protest vote would naturally limit its appeal. However, designed as above, a clear procedure for reselecting candidates could lead to greater levels of support.

Still, having never had a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot, it’s impossible to know what percentage of Britons would choose it if it were presented to them. I could find no surveys exploring the public’s appetite for a ‘none of the above’ option, or how it would change the electoral landscape and process.

In May last year, ‘none of the above’ was included in Indian elections for the first time. It received 1.1 per cent of the vote, with some provinces registering 1.9 per cent, 1.8 per cent and 1.5 per cent levels of support. In one province, more people voted for none of the above than the Congress candidate.

One per cent might not sound like an overwhelming show of support, but it is notable given that in the 2010 UK election, the BNP received 1.9 per cent, the SNP received 1.7 per cent, the Greens 0.9 per cent and Plaid Cymru received 0.6 per cent. In the 2011 Spanish election, the none of the above equivalent ‘black vote’ won over 1.2 million votes, or just over 5 per cent of the electorate.

We can’t extrapolate directly from India’s experience to the UK. But it seems reasonable that if offered, ‘none of the above’ would initially receive similar levels of support, and a higher percentage in some constituencies. It could even be significantly higher if it was supported by well-coordinated and high profile media campaigns, backed by celebrities (the irrepressible Russell Brand would be an obvious candidate). But would it increase voter turnout overall by motivating current non-voters? What impact would it have on the electoral landscape, in both safe seats and key marginal seats?

Would it increase turnout?

The appeal of ‘none of the above’ would depend on how it was designed, the public’s awareness of it, the breadth and depth of disillusionment towards the political classes, and the party candidates on offer. There could be a strong generational effect: older voters, with stronger party allegiances, may be less open to such a fundamental change in voting behaviour. But it’s difficult to know whether it would in fact drive up voter turnout.

Richard Berry argued recently in a Democratic Audit blog that it wouldn’t. According to Berry, ‘the notion that significant numbers of voters refuse to participate at the moment because they lack a formal mechanism for registering discontent is far-fetched’.

Berry has a point: political apathy is often rooted in communities that have long felt ignored by the political classes, and whose family and friends do not vote and possibly have not voted for generations. Adding NOTA to the ballot would not suddenly eliminate these structural problems. But if we look at the reasons that non-voters themselves give for not voting, it does seem that a NOTA option could have an impact.

In a survey conducted last year by Survation and Lodestone Communications, the top reasons for not voting given by respondents were:

  • My vote doesn’t make a difference (27 per cent)
  • The parties / candidates are all the same (25 per cent)
  • I’m not interested in politics (19 per cent)
  • I didn’t have enough information or knowledge to choose (18 per cent)
  • My views were not represented by the parties or candidates on offer (17 per cent)

It’s unlikely that respondents who said they aren’t interested in politics or who said that they didn’t have enough information would be motivated by NOTA.

But those respondents who feel that the parties do not represent their views – or that all the parties are the same – could be drawn to ‘none of the above’, if it was designed to have a clear effect that include open primaries.

In Tune In, Turn Out, we asked focus groups of 18 to 25-year-olds their thoughts about politics, voting and the idea of a ‘none of the above’ option: would it motivate them to take part in the act of voting through this form of protest?

Very few of those we spoke to had heard of the idea of spoiling the ballot in protest, or the idea of a ‘none of the above’ option. Once explained, many came around to the idea of it. One young woman, who at first said she didn’t see the point, later claimed, ‘it does make me more inclined to vote’. Other comments included:

It’s helpful either way [whether a large amount of people vote for it or not]. I would be more likely to vote with a NOTA option.

And:

If I knew ballot spoiling was an option, I would have done it at the last election.

As one of our focus group participants put it: ‘People focus on the fact that I’m not voting rather than that there’s no-one to vote for’. Adding ‘none of the above’ to the ballot could be the first step to shifting this discussion to the selection of candidates: a discussion that increasing numbers of people feel strongly about given the perception that MPs are out of touch.

It’s also likely that some of those respondents who said in the Survation/Lodestone survey that their vote doesn’t make a difference could be swayed by NOTA. It’s highly likely that many of the respondents who selected this option live in safe seats, and thus feel that no matter whom they support, the incumbent party will always win. Indeed one of the biggest effects of a NOTA option could be felt in ‘safe’ seats across the UK.

Would it unsettle safe seats?

A ‘none of the above’ option could suddenly make ‘safe seat’ constituencies interesting again by exerting a pressure on political parties to select candidates that are more suitable to these constituents.

One of the common refrains (typically from populist parties) about the political classes is that they ‘parachute’ candidates into safe seats where they often have no local ties, and no personal experience of what life is like in those areas. Indeed, research shows that the background of MPs is increasingly important to voters, including whether they are from the local area.

University of Nottingham’s Philip Cowley and Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck College found that members of the public wanted more women, ethnic minority, young and working class MPs. This was echoed in recent research by Demos into young voters: over half (56 per cent) of whom said that they would be more likely to vote if there were more MPs from a working class background.

But the most striking finding from Cowley and Campbell’s research is that 80 per cent said they would like more MPs who came from the area they represent – in other words, ‘local candidates’.

Interestingly, new research from Demos’ Ralph Scott into whether MPs are ‘local’ or not shows that safe seats are less likely to have ‘local’ MPs. There are approximately 200 MPs with majorities of 5,000 or less, and of these 71 per cent are from the local areas that they represent. In contrast, if we look at the safest seats in the UK – there are 97 seats where MPs have a majority over 15,000, and only 40 per cent are local to the area.

It may be that the MPs for these safe seats are extremely popular with constituents, and that their position would not be threatened by none-of-the-above. But MPs without a ‘local’ connection to the area they represent may have more to fear from ‘none of the above’ – and rightly so if this is what the public is saying they want.

How would it impact key marginal seats?

In addition to unsettling ‘safe’ seats, a NOTA option would add a layer of complexity to the 150 key marginal seats that are so crucial to the UK election.

As noted above, a ‘none of the above’ option in recent elections in India received 1.1 per cent of the popular vote – and much higher levels in some constituencies. In the UK, there are currently 24 marginal seats according the website May2015 with a projected majority of 1 per cent or less. At present, 10 of these seats are predicted to go to the Conservatives, nine are predicted to go to Labour, two to the SNP and one to the Lib Dems. There are also two seats where UKIP is in a very close second place (less than 1 per cent) to the Conservatives and Labour – Great Yarmouth and Heywood and Middleton, respectively.

It’s highly likely that every party would lose some voters to a ‘none of the above’ option, but it’s difficult to determine which parties would be hit hardest.

As Professor Pete Dorey pointed out in a recent post, support for Labour and Conservatives has declined notably over the past 40 years: from a combined total of 85 per cent in the 1970s to 65 per cent in 2010. As argued above, their support could drop further if a ‘none of the above’ option was offered, particularly in safe seats.

Some of this decline may be seen in the decrease of voter turnout overall, but much of it is also reflected in support for smaller parties: previously the Lib Dems, but most notably now UKIP, the Greens and nationalist parties like SNP and Plaid Cymru. Indeed, support for these parties are sometimes described as ‘protest’ votes, particularly when their rhetoric focuses more on anti-establishment criticism rather than substantive policy choice. Thus, it could be that these smaller parties could lose support to an official ‘none of the above’ option.

Indeed, it seems reasonable to assume that smaller parties – and particularly UKIP – contain within their current support levels, a higher proportion of voters who are ‘protesting’ against establishment parties and thus could be more open to ‘none of the above’. In other words, if there was a ‘none of the above’ option at work in the 2015 election, it could take the wind out of UKIP’s sails, particularly in the two marginal seats, Great Yarmouth and Heywood and Middleton.

Consider Great Yarmouth. In 2010, the Conservatives won with 43 per cent of the vote, compared to 33 per cent for Labour, 14 per cent for Lib Dems, just under 5 per cent for UKIP, 3.3 per cent BNP and 1 per cent for the Greens. The latest poll in Great Yarmouth by Lord Ashcroft finds the Conservatives in the lead with 33 per cent (down 10 per cent from 2010), but UKIP surging to 31 per cent (up 26 per cent), Labour down to 28 per cent (-5 per cent), the Lib Dems down to 3 per cent (-11 per cent), and the Greens up to 4 per cent (+3 per cent). Clearly, UKIP are taking supporters from both of the main parties, and not just from the Tories. They could be motivating people who didn’t vote in 2010, but they are also likely taking support from Labour’s core working class base.

Lord Ashcroft’s marginal seat polls predict a UKIP win with just 0.67 per cent of the vote. With this small a margin, it’s certainly possible that a small swing of UKIP voters for a protest ‘none of the above’ option could swing the result. Of course, it’s also possible that ‘none of the above’ would attract voters who are currently reporting their intention to vote for the Conservative (and not just UKIP). But again, it seems highly likely that the current levels of support include a larger proportion of ‘protest’ voters among UKIP supporters than current Conservative supporters.

The same could also happen in Heywood and Middleton, where the margin is 0.83 per cent, but in this case ‘none of the above’ would possibly swing the vote in Labour’s favour. But in the four other seats that Ashcroft’s polls give to UKIP (Thanet South, Rochester and Stroud, Thurrock and Clacton), the majorities are more significant and unlikely to be materially affected by a ‘none of the above’ option (they stretch from above 6 per cent in Thanet South to 37 per cent in Clacton).

It therefore could be, that one of the possible implications of a legitimate ‘none of the above’ option would be felt most by smaller parties – and that, ironically – a ‘none of the above’ option could have the effect of strengthening the establishment parties, at least in some marginal seats. Of course, ‘none of the above’ could take votes from all of the parties, thereby reducing the overall share of votes for political parties and thus potentially giving each winning MP even less of an electoral mandate. But overall, the fact that voters were given an official ‘none of the above’ choice, with the possibility of triggering an open primary and re-run election, would ultimately give the candidates who did win more legitimacy.

Conclusion

We live in a radically democratic age but our political system is failing to keep up. It’s time that a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot is taken seriously as a legitimate and realistic reform. A ‘none of the above’ option would be more likely to increase public trust in politics than other suggested reforms, including online voting (subject to hackers), compulsory voting (compulsion doesn’t breed trust), or votes at 16 (which isn’t supported in public polling).

Without electoral reform, we will continue to debate, interminably, about the lack of trust in politicians and the system. Voter turnout will continue to fall, driven by generational changes in attitudes towards politics. Populist parties will capitalise on this systemic discontent with simple slogans and simple solutions. Younger generations will switch off traditional party politics even more.

Reforming the ballot to include a ‘none of the above’ option could be vital to keeping this generation of first-time voters from falling off the electoral map. And for the population at large, it might not be a panacea for political disaffection, but it could help to open up politics: a new vehicle for registering discontent, a legitimate, and official protest option that has a discernible procedure and impact.