It’s been an interesting start to the year in the world of campaigning for a NOTA option.
Arvind Kejriwal recently won a landslide victory (India Times) (BBC) (Times of India) in Delhi’s election (Wikipedia) (BBC). His Aam Aadmi Party champions the ideas of both NOTA and Voter Recall. It’s unfortunate that this is only a city-wide election and not a nationwide one. But nonetheless I look forward to hearing more news from India about election reform.
Earlier this month, Mr Birdwell of Demos posted an article about NOTA. I feel he is wrong about promoting online voting and compulsory first time voting though. Online voting greatly opens up the opportunity for election fraud (BBC) (The Independent) (Telegraph). Compulsory voting, even for first-time voters, not only challenges the idea that it should be legal for an adult to sit at home with curtains drawn minding their own business, but also ignores the wider fact that the person may not be sufficiently informed or even interested in voting – such votes would be election “noise” that increases the turnout without genuinely counting up heartfelt political opinion. And it is opinion that matters more than raw numbers. Anyone can build numbers, as witnessed by Britain First’s social media campaign.
Mr Birdwell doesn’t seem clear on the key difference between merely spoiling a ballot and a NOTA with teeth ballot option, confusing the two concepts in some paragraphs. Nonetheless, it’s a good start. He also proposed the idea of open primaries in the resulting by-election. I’m not so sure about this. Asking a party to allow non-party members to assist in choosing their candidate opens up the door to “spoiler” voting, in which the members of the Magenta Party intentionally vote for an extremist candidate for the Mauve Party, in order to spoil the Mauve Party’s chances in the by-election. Most parties already have internal systems in place for choosing their own candidate, and forcing a primary on a smaller party or an independent may result in an excessive cost that they cannot fund, effectively pricing them out of the election.
There’s been some discussion on the Democratic Audit website about NOTA. Mr Berry recently wrote about election reform, claiming that PR, election primaries, and a lower financial burden on candidates would be better ways to make our government democratic, rather than NOTA. Mr Stanley has responded in his own way.
My view is that PR and NOTA are entirely compatible, and should be implemented simultaneously. Election primaries suffer the same problem noted above; namely it either opens the way for non-party members to spoil a party’s primary election, and it can create an unnecessary financial burden. Additionally, it reinforces the idea that people should be voting for parties, which marginalises independent candidates even more. Open primaries can in effect polarise political thought, rather than reflect the true spectrum of political opinion, because there would be a greater expectation that once the primary is completed, dissent within the party should be silenced. Mr Berry also correctly notes that the £500 “entry fee” to standing is a barrier for candidates. What he ignores is that the actual entry fee is closer to £5000, and much more in a hotly-contested seat. Without spending time and/or money (preferably both) on the election campaign, a candidate will be a mere “paper candidate”, and cannot reasonably expect to break triple digits in the vote count, let alone win.
Finally, I have parted company with Mr Stanley of NOTA-UK. I found a recent blog post of his unconscionable, and against the principles by which I personally would campaign for NOTA. In his role as a leader of a NOTA campaign (one of a handful, despite the claim made on the site), he called for unity and for everyone to all be “on the same page”. He then clearly states that he will be taking his own vote home and will support any other group that encourages others to do the same.
If that had been posted his personal blog, it wouldn’t matter. But as leader of a campaign, posting his personal decision on what to do with his ballot paper whilst simultaneously calling for unity, a neutral observer could quite reasonably understand that call for unity to be a request for everyone to do likewise with their ballot (even though he says it is not a policy that the campaign “should be putting all its eggs in”). This is a form of “election hacking” that was discussed in depth in the Facebook group, which I argued strenuously against, as it would in effect reduce the campaign to just another “one of the above” competing for peoples “votes”.
I am flattered that he continues to champion a slightly modified form of the NOTA with teeth proposal that I posted some 18 months before his version. I still support, and will continue to campaign for, a “NOTA with teeth” option on UK ballots.
“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.
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.