Spoilt votes are blunt instrument of democracy

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Spoiling your vote is a valid democratic option, but it just doesn’t do enough to make your voice heard.

A group of African National Congress (ANC) veterans, who are urging voters to spoil their ballots rather than stay at home, are responding to one of the key issues in this election: that more than a few voters who have supported the ANC in the past don’t know whether to vote.

They are unhappy with their political home, but don’t have an alternative: if the ANC vote does drop significantly, it will be because many of these voters did not vote. The veterans are urging them to spoil their paper rather than abstain because, in their view, this will send a clear message to the politicians.

Contrary to some responses over the past few days, spoiling a ballot is an entirely democratic decision. Good democrats do not have to like any of the parties on offer — spoiling a ballot is a greater contribution to democracy than staying at home, as it signals that voters value taking part in the democratic process even if they can’t find a party to support. It also tries to make a statement rather than opting out.

This may be why India has introduced a "none of the above" option on its ballot papers so that voters can make a clear statement that they want to vote but cannot support anyone. Other democracies should consider following this lead because it adds to voters’ choices.

Those who have denounced the spoilt ballot option as irresponsible or antidemocratic seem to forget that democracy is the right to choose, which includes the right not to choose a party. Like those who want voting to be compulsory, they forget that voting is a right, not a duty.

But is spoiling your paper effective? Does it really send a clear message to politicians, as it is meant to do?

On its own, spoiling a paper may be little more effective than staying at home because very few people will know why the ballot was spoiled. In the previous election, 239,000 ballots were spoiled.

How many were because voters made a mistake and how many because they wanted to say something? If they wanted to make a statement, what did they want to say?

We shall never know. If there are more spoiled papers this election, is that because many people were making a point or because new voters were not sure what to do?

Again, we shall never know. So no message is sent to anyone and the gesture has no effect. This means that a spoiled ballot achieves little or nothing unless those who use this option say publicly what they are doing and why. This partly seems to be what the ANC veterans are doing.

It should turn the number of spoilt papers into an election issue, ensuring that the number will be watched and analysed. If there is a marked jump, the dissenters will have sent their message.

But the instrument is a blunt one. While a huge jump in spoiled papers will send a message, a moderate rise can be dismissed as a sign that more voter education is needed.

Even if the "none of the above" idea was introduced here, the message would be unclear, as voters would not be saying what it is that prompts them to reject all the parties; politicians would have no idea what they need to fix to win voters’ support.

A blunt instrument is better than none at all, but voters who are unhappy with all the parties may find that their best option is one that is used elsewhere but does not seem much in use here — tactical voting.

This sees a vote as a statement, even if that means voting for a second-best or even a third-best option. Tactical voters do not assume that you cannot vote for a party unless you are entirely happy with it — they are comfortable with supporting a party about which they have reservations if that means sending a message they believe politicians need to hear.

Of course, tactical voters need to do some thinking about what message they want to send: voting for a party that may give the majority party a fright but whose view of the world is totally out of sync with yours will encourage the governing party to move in the opposite direction to that which these voters favour.

While that may seem obvious, the fact that some who call themselves democrats are considering voting for the most antidemocratic option on the ballot because it loudly criticises the ANC, suggests that some people have not thought through what tactical voting means.

We have not had much tactical voting here because voter loyalties are very strong — most voters see parties as vehicles to express their identity, not tools to make a point.

But, if the spoilt ballot option is now being raised publicly, tactical voting may not be far behind.

Until then, spoiling a ballot will be better than not voting — but much worse than a tactical choice that sends a clear message.

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.


Article Source: Business Day