When NOTA wins

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Posted on the 16th February 2015

This is a guest post by ERS member and NOTA UK researcher Rohin Vadera. The views, opinions and positions expressed within are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

The possibility of getting ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on the ballot is now changing from being an interesting, though largely ignored, fringe proposal to becoming a reality with the publishing of the Parliamentary Political & Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) 6th report on Voter Engagement.

While it stopped short of an immediate recommendation to implement NOTA, the select committee clearly felt that there was enough evidence that NOTA was worthy of serious consideration that it required the next government to conduct a public consultation on the subject and report on the results by May 2016. The report indicated that people strongly highlighted the need to consider the practical implications of implementing the reform.

Other recent articles, for example from DemosOpen Democracy and the broadcaster Rick Edwards advocate for the inclusion of NOTA. An article from Democratic Audit is less supportive, but shows that debate on the topic is emerging, demonstrating that NOTA is beginning to be taken seriously.

This blog will not discuss the case for or against NOTA, but to explore possible solutions to a nagging question. What would happen if NOTA actually ‘won’ an election? And how should we define a NOTA ‘win’ anyway? It leads on from questions posed by the previous ERS blog on the topic.

Logistical hurdles to having NOTA on the ballot are the possibility of continual re-runs, political instability if seats remain unfilled, and voter fatigue.

In the state of Nevada (USA) primaries have a non-binding NOTA option on the ballot, but though it recently won, the result was ignored. That is one possibility, we all pretend it just never happened; it does avoid having to deal with the hurdles given above, but is all rather unsatisfactory and pointless beyond causing some temporary embarrassment to the winning candidate.

The most obvious and commonly advocated solution, using the example of an MP constituency, would be to keep the seat empty or have a caretaker in place and hold a re-run as soon as possible with all new candidates. The article appearing in Demos advocated this type of solution. If NOTA ‘won’ by ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) rules, then the election should be re-run, but after open primaries for all contesting parties to select new candidates, and in the re-run election the NOTA option is removed. A caretaker MP, in the meantime, would be the runner-up or the previous incumbent.

There are troubling aspects to this idea; firstly that FPTP is a very poor way to decide elections, and using an undemocratic method to implement a reform to improve democracy seems contradictory to its intent. In our increasingly fractured political landscape NOTA could ‘win’ with a relatively small plurality and this hardly seems fair to a possible majority of those who did vote for a candidate, and as far as we know would not mind another candidate winning that election and representing them anyway. Secondly, the removal of NOTA in the re-run, while it does prevent the possibility of endless re-runs, does also present an opening for political parties to circumvent a NOTA ‘win’ and thus negate its purpose for being there in the first place.

Another possible way forward is to limit a NOTA ‘win’ to only when more than 50% of voters choose that option in an electorate. This result would demonstrate quite clearly that the electorate has withheld its consent for all the candidates on the ballot, and ensure that a re-run takes place through a democratically justifiable decision by voters themselves.

In this case the re-run can take place 6-12 months later, with a caretaker MP to take the seat until that time. This will give adequate time for parties and potential candidates to respond to the message given by the voters, especially if they have to consider the results in the context of the general election as a whole. For example: Is there a widespread withholding of consent? Are there any regional patterns? Or is it just a few isolated cases? The system must provide enough time to analyse and then subsequently develop an adequate and appropriate response to voter rejection for all concerned.

Here of course there is the possibility of continual re-runs, as NOTA is not removed from the ballot, but if more than 50% of voters continue to choose NOTA there a crisis of confidence that should be made a priority until it is resolved.

What do readers think? Supposing NOTA goes on the ballot, what is the best solution to a ‘win’ and what should constitute a ‘win’? How do we develop a consensus? NOTA advocates must get serious and come up with an effective and acceptable solution for voters.

In the interests of full disclosure, this blogger is an advocate of NOTA on the principle that elected representatives should obtain voter consent before taking office. And if implemented, NOTA should only ‘win’ if a majority chose that option and there should be a delay until a re-run as this seems the most fair and effective way to implement the reform. However others would think differently.

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