Emma Does Politics

There is such a thing as society. It's called politics.

What could a vote for “none of the above” actually mean?

“None of the above!”

Every election, the various political parties put forward an array of candidates. Whether thanks to the personal qualities of those candidates, or thanks to the policies of the parties they claim to represent (note how they less strongly claim to represent the electorate), quite often a voter is left feeling stuck, with no candidate who actually represents what he or she wants. What’s a poor voter to do? Were I a Leninist (I’m not) or prone to overly-melodramatic rhetoric (I am), I might even ask, “What is to be done?”

So one of the big objections to a NOTA vote is what happens if NOTA wins. Outright non-representation of the constituency is unconscionable. Temporary “independence” or some kind of localised sovereignty is impractical. Opening up one or more by-elections in rapid succession, while appealing to many in the NOTA movement, risks genuine voter fatigue, and will be a hard sell if it happens often enough (not just to budget-minded bureaucrats counting the cost of running elections, but to voters getting tired of voting and to parents when a school has to be closed for a day to make room for a polling station).

How about this…

This proposal assumes that the traditional UK “first past the post” system still applies. That simplifies the decisions involved from the common voter point of view, and avoids having to repeat classic arguments for and against proportional representation.

First, the election is run. This happens exactly as at present, except that on the voting slip, a new option appears at the bottom, called “NOTA (none of the above)”.

If an actual live candidate gets the most votes (beating all other live candidates and NOTA), that candidate wins. From here, things proceed exactly as they do at present.

If NOTA wins, the leading live candidate is returned. However, the lead of NOTA over the winning candidate is noted.

  • If NOTA received one or more votes more than the winning candidate, a by-election must be called after four years (if a general election hasn’t already been called).
  • If NOTA received 1.25 times or more votes than the winning candidate, a by-election must be called after three years (if a general election hasn’t already been called).
  • If NOTA received 1.5 times or more votes than the winning candidate, a by-election must be called after two years (if a general election hasn’t already been called).
  • If NOTA received 1.75 times or more votes than the winning candidate, a by-election must be called after one year (if a general election hasn’t already been called).
  • If NOTA received 2 times or more votes than the winning candidate, a by-election must be called after six months (if a general election hasn’t already been called).

In other words, the stronger the NOTA majority, the sooner a by-election must be called. This allows for the level of common voter displeasure with offered candidates to be measured. It also ensures that the stronger that level of displeasure, the less stable the returned MP’s tenure will be. And the minimum six-month tenure in the worst-case situation (or best-case, depending on your point of view)ensures that the winning candidate will have a chance to prove he is a viable candidate in time for the inevitable by-election, while still ensuring enough political stability to avoid a theoretical descent into anarchy.

Now, the inevitable questions…

NOTA should mean NONE of the above!

It probably should at that. But the obvious consequence of that is that an immediate by-election should be triggered if NOTA wins, with all previous candidates excluded. Voter fatigue is a very real thing, and historical voting data shows that where two votes have been held in rapid succession, the second one will invariably have a smaller turnout. By having a by-election triggered at a variable point during the lifetime of the new parliament instead of instantly, we avoid voter fatigue.

It’s too complicated for voters to understand!

Not really. It’s certainly simpler than conventional proportional representation systems in use in just about every EU country except the UK. In fact, the UK is the only EU country to have FPTP as its electoral system. The most similar other country is France, which has a two-round system (again, voter fatigue is an issue). People who say it’s too complicated are in effect saying that Britons are thicker than just about everyone else in the EU.

And seen in a certain light, it’s simpler. The FPTP system means that voters in marginal constituencies have to think hard on tactical voting, in which they vote for a second or third-choice candidate who is more likely to act as a spoiler for the leading “enemy” candidate, sometimes with tactical collusion from the political parties themselves. At times, some national parties have stood down from a seat to direct “their” voters to an allied party’s candidate, resulting in a candidate who didn’t honestly represent either party’s manifesto.

Compared to that tactical mess, all a voter needs to understand with this NOTA proposal is “the more NOTA wins by, the sooner a local by-election is called”. He can stop thinking about tactical voting and concentrate on what the candidates actually stand for.

How about if a seat that returns NOTA is represented by a candidate chosen from party lists according to the national popular vote?

No. This will empower political parties, disempower independent politicians, and far more importantly, it will mean that the local constituency gets a candidate whom they did not vote for. Suppose a seat returned NOTA as a majority. It might be required to return a candidate according to party lists, from the party that is least proportionately represented based on national votes. That might mean a Purple Party candidate, drawn from the party list, is imposed on the constituency, even though the Purple Party might not even have received any votes at all in that constituency. This is manifestly unjust.

How about if a seat that returns NOTA is represented by a rotating series of MPs, chosen by sortition (similar to how jury service works)?

No. Like it or not, being an MP is a specialist professional job. It requires a lot of time, energy, public speaking skills, and almost always contacts and and professional knowledge to do it well. Sortition would simply result in MPs who lack the skills and experience to do the job well. While this wouldn’t really matter if they only ever faced other politicians with similar levels of experience, the UK does not exist in a vacuum. Career politicians (both upstanding and otherwise) do exist, and they will run rings around MPs selected by sortition. And internationally, an MP chosen by sortition would lack the qualities to debate on equal terms with veteran politicians from other countries, who are not chosen by sortition.

Sortition is a fine way to choose people where the standard is “the average person at the bus stop with common sense”, such as for jury service. But it is a bad way to choose a professional. I wouldn’t have a lawyer or doctor chosen by sortition, and I wouldn’t have an MP chosen that way either.

How about having local votes of no confidence instead of by-elections?

No. This has the potential to lead to voter fatigue. If things go badly for the incumbent MP, this means first the common voter has to vote in a vote of no confidence against him, closely followed by an actual by-election a month or so later. The purpose of this system is to avoid voter fatigue by not having votes too frequently in rapid succession.

Would anything trigger a general election?

My initial thought was that general elections would be called only by the party in power, in response to the changing political landscape around him. Over the typical lifetime of a parliament, I would expect a number of by-elections to be called, and that typically the PM would call a new general election once his party is no longer a majority government.

However, on reflection, this may not always be effective. History has shown us that parties will rule with minority power when it is forced on them, or even form coalition governments which give neither the constituent parties nor the voters who voted for the constituent parties what they really wanted. Such “politically expedient strange bedfellows” should be discouraged.

So instead, I would suggest that, when at least 50% of parliamentary seats have had by-elections (either because of retiring/deceased incumbent MPs, or because of a NOTA win triggering an early by-election), a general election must be called. This would avoid the danger of a PM desperately clinging to power at all costs, regardless of the demonstrable wishes of the electorate.

In the most extreme case, in which NOTA beats the leading candidate twice over in the majority of seats, a new general election must be called after six months. That is very early for a general election, but the winning party wouldn’t really have a serious mandate if that happened. For that to happen, 99% of those who normally don’t vote would have to vote for NOTA. I consider that a low-probability event.

What about spoiled votes?

A spoiled vote should be counted as exactly that — a spoiled vote. In the absence of a genuine NOTA option on ballot papers, many people spoil their votes as a symbolic way to express the NOTA concept. But with an actual NOTA option on the ballot papers, a spoiled paper can be taken for what it is — a spoiled paper and nothing more.

What about abstaining voters?

An abstaining voter should be counted as exactly that — an abstaining voter. In the absence of a genuine NOTA option on ballot papers, many people abstain as a symbolic way to express the NOTA concept. But with an actual NOTA option on the ballot papers, an abstaining voter can be taken for what he or she is — an abstaining voter and nothing more.

Are these numbers set in stone?

No. This is a proposal only at this stage. In ‘net parlance, it is a request for comments. It certainly needs  a detailed analysis of how people might actually vote once a NOTA option is available. I want to avoid have governments that are too unstable to actually carry anything through, but at the same time I want to have a government that is forced to recognise the wishes of the voters directly, which is simply not happening with our present system (which tends to result in severe lurches and policy shifts every time the ruling party changes, rather than some middle-point that may represent what the average voter probably wants).

It could be that the trigger threshold for a general election should be changed from that proposed 50%. It may be that the time period for triggering a local by-election should be modified from the numbers given above. These are just numbers, and they can be adjusted and fine-tuned. But the basic framework is solid.


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6 thoughts on “What could a vote for “none of the above” actually mean?

  1. Hi Emma, I like your thinking and how to address the impact of NOTA. However I would suggest not dismissing the local recall referendum as a first step. Yes voter fatigue is a big issue, but NOTA suggests that none of the candidates are suitable and new should stand. The by-election would have at least the incumbent as a former ‘one of the above’. A by-election is asking which of the above, a recall is asking “Has X made the grade”. The argument is about the performance of a person in the role of MP, not a whole new argument as to who should be MP. The costs involved would / should be less. It is possible to have a cycle of elections where the top scoring candidate gets elected but NOTA wins and a by election is called after 6 months, and the same out come, so the same person gets elected for 6 months more and again and again etc, unless there is a limit of 1 term? 2 terms etc. then we have a by election where the 2 term candidate comes top but NOTA wins, so has to stand down and another by election. Using the structure you suggest (which is wonderful) but putting a recall referendum against it – a local performance appraisal, does not focus on party politics, but in the actions of the individual. Maybe there should be a set of criteria where by the recall vote is weighted – so if they have been an inclusive independently minded local MP representing the breadth of their constituency the recall needs a 2/3 majority to kick them out, if they have not met the objectives it only needs a 50% +1 to cause a by election – and the sitting mp would be excluded because they had failed to make the grade. It is a different conversation with the electorate, and I think will only cause as many votes at most compared to your original?

    • I really want to avoid the possibility of the voters being called out twice in as many months, which is what your proposal would do. This causes voter fatigue, effectively doubles the administrative monetary costs, and in the case of some polling stations, will require local schools to be closed on two separate days (in my primary school days, I used to like elections for precisely this reason). It may be a simpler decision for the common voter to make (“keep him or force a by-election”), but administratively, the costs are the same, and it still causes the same kind of voter fatigue despite being a different decision the voter is being asked to make.

      So far, I haven’t actually addressed the issue of whether an incumbent should be allowed to re-stand at all. Common sense on the party level would suggest that if an incumbent MP wins the seat but still loses (and badly) to NOTA, the party should consider replacing that candidate. But common sense can be in short supply. At the same time, MPs are people too, and need some level of employment stability.

      I would suggest as a first step that any politician who is forced by the above rules to stand down after six months three times (in any national parliament seat) be required to retire from national politics. In effect, this is “three strikes and you’re out”. Any candidate who is so manifestly unpopular that he can be beaten so severely on multiple occasions by a literal “no one” lacks the credibility to be acceptable to voters.

      • I think this is a better discussion for over a coffee than over the internet – but needs must. Cannot agree more about the need to avoid voter fatigue, and question whether a by-election as a first step as opposed to some form of performance assessment does not just deliver more by elections etc. If NOTA is an anarchic protest vote then we may well get 6 monthly by-elections ad infinitum irrespective of the candidates, howerver if it is about fitness to be an MP then there could well be some key indicators derived from the local electorate to judge the MP elected with confidence reserved (NOTA wins FPTP). This may take some iterations of complexity before the simplicity we seek comes through – but simplicity this side of complexity will not deliver, only simplicity the other side of complexity will…

        If a MP is returned without confidence (NOTA wins) then the electorate are saying ‘we dont trust you to represent us’… Could we have a process where by that representation of the electorate as opposed to the party can be tested, and only if found wanting a by-election held? If an MP without confidence can clearly show by their actions that they are representing the whole, through their voting record, attendance, local surgeries, open and constructive engagement with the other major local parties in furthering local issues etc then there should be no need for a by-election, if they fall short then a by-election would be needed (essentially a recall) and if they fall very short a by-election with them excluded. By-elections involve the cost to all parties and support of all parties, the thought behind a recall is the much reduced cost of have they or have they not performed, maybe the cost of independent robust scrutiny of performance at the review dates dependent on the NOTA vote could address the fitness for the role issue as opposed to the anarchic destabalisation?

  2. Just as an aside – should candidates who poll less than NOTA – irrespective of where NOTA finishes – be excluded from the next election? The electorate have expressed a lack of confidence in them?

  3. Pingback: Debate part 1: should adding ‘None of the Above’ to ballot papers be a priority of UK political reformers? : Democratic Audit UK

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