Is ‘None of the Above’ Really an Option?
The debate on what defines ‘democracy’ has been going on since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. While the many facets of what democracy truly is are being questioned, one aspect is often universally agreed upon- it is a type of state that allows the citizens to choose their leaders; not just limiting the options to one, but providing multiple valid candidates to choose from. From Greek philosophers like Aristotle calling upon people “as a body being as good or better than those with special knowledge” to the utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham considering the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”, there has been a general consensus on the power of the masses, and faith in their choices. These thinkers contributed, in their own ways, to what democracy is based on today – to a free and fair election.
What Constitutes a Free and Fair Election?
The rise of many famous fascists in the world has often come from a “democratic” beginning – the Nazi party was actually the largest in the German elections of 19321 – making Hitler a democratically elected Chancellor, who would soon turn into a dictator. Around the same time, in Southern Europe, the Italian population elected Benito Mussolini as the President around March 1934. While the elections were won on similar ideologies and during a similar political, cultural and economic crisis in the two nation-states, there was, in fact, some very simple difference between the two elections.
In the German elections, the citizens had to choose from multiple parties – from amongst the liberal conservatives to the Nazis, but they did not have the option to choose any of them (as blank votes were considered invalid). As for the Italian elections, the citizens could only choose from a single-party list taken out by the National Fascist Party, but they had the option to say “no”. If the majority vote went to “no”, a new list of candidates would be taken out from the same party.
If the German citizens had the option of voting for none of the candidates, would the majority have gone to the Nazi party with 33.09% votes? And if the Italian citizens had the option of voting for another party, would Mussolini have received 99.85% of the votes? While these are questions we cannot answer, we do get a sense of the idea that if these voters had better choices, the results would definitely not have been what they were.
Imagine a scenario where the different aspects of both these “free and fair elections” are mixed, and if citizens, in a democracy, are allowed to choose not only between multiple candidates and parties but also show their distrust in all of them and choose “none of the above”?
NOTA: Why it Does and Does not Help
“None of the Above” or NOTA was brought about as an option in the electoral system after the Supreme Court judgment to a writ petition filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The Court directed the Election Commission to provide necessary provisions in the ballot papers and EVMs for voters who come to polling booths and decide not to vote for any of the candidates, to maintain their right of secrecy. It also maintained that having this option will compel political parties to nominate their best candidates who have high moral and ethical standards.2 Before this, if a voter wished to not vote for any candidate, they would have to inform the presiding officer of the election booth, which would violate their secrecy.
While the provision of the NOTA is a landmark step towards strengthening democracy and is one that is given by no more than 15 countries in the world, it does not help. Here is why.
NOTA gives voters the option to vote for no one but does not give them the power to make their vote count. If a voter chooses to click on NOTA in an election, the vote is counted but is considered “invalid”, which essentially means that the vote is wasted. If NOTA gets the majority of votes, then the candidate with the next highest number of votes will be chosen.
The option to choose NOTA was given for three major reasons – first, to ensure that the choices of the voters are valued. Second, to make the voting process truly democratic by leveraging this option to increase voter turnout. Thirdly, for parties to nominate better candidates. While considering these reasons in the context of the current rules, it can be seen that they do not validate any of these reasons. The choice of the voter is not valued even if NOTA has the majority, and the democratic process ends up in a self-fulfilling prophecy, where NOTA voters do not come out to vote, knowing that their choices will not make a difference, and parties do not nominate the best candidates, knowing that they cannot be disqualified.
The question that remains is, have NOTA votes ever made a difference?
Successes of NOTA
NOTA votes have, in India and other parts of the world, changed the voting outcomes throughout history. In the 1991 elections in the erstwhile USSR, the Soviet had “none of the above ” options for the elections which led to fresh elections with new candidates. This led Boris Yeltsin to comment that the “none of the above” option had helped convince the people that they had real power even in a rigged election, and had played a role in building true democracy.3
In India, in the Assembly elections of 2018 in Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana, NOTA outperformed many political parties. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, NOTA received more votes than the winning margin in around 22 and 16 constituencies respectively. In the 2014 General Elections, it was seen that NOTA received a total of 1.1% of the votes, and received more votes than the winning margins in 62 out of the 822 constituencies in the country4. Whereas in the 2019 General Elections, both these figures dropped to 1.04% of the votes and 26 constituencies, respectively.5
While these figures show that not only does NOTA give political parties a run for their money, but also has the potential to completely knock them out of the park. These figures also show that if NOTA votes continue to not make an impact in the election results, the self-fulfilling prophecy of fewer people voting for it for this very reason will continue to be proven in elections.
How NOTA Should Ideally Function
If the results of these elections in 2014, 2018 and 2019 are taken as indicative of the people’s mandate, it can be seen that if people are choosing to vote for NOTA in such high numbers, knowing that it is an invalid vote, the numbers would be much higher if NOTA votes actually made a difference in election results.
In a situation where NOTA receives the maximum number of votes, the candidates from that constituency should be disqualified on grounds of not being the people’s choice, and fresh elections should be held for that particular constituency, with better candidates. This has been adopted by the State Election Commissions of Maharashtra and Haryana, which have stated that if NOTA was to win, the other candidates would be disqualified and fresh elections would be held. This applies to all Urban Local Bodies in these states.
With states beginning to adopt these rules, it is noted that other Election Commissions hesitate on adopting them on grounds that conducting elections can be an extremely expensive and cumbersome business. To this, the words of Sanjay Parikh, a Supreme Court advocate, deem fit- “Some people argue that the implementation of NOTA will drive up election expenses. But a tainted candidate who indulges in corruption and malpractices is a greater cost for the country. It is only the desire to continue in power and the greed for money that take prominence over values.” 6
While some nations like the United Kingdom do not provide the option of NOTA, there exist “NOTA Parties” to contest elections from each constituency, and leave the seat empty if they win. This would ensure re-election for that seat and would respect the choice of the people, without needing the NOTA button. Even in countries where there is no direct provision for NOTA, the choice of the people is ultimately accepted. Why can the countries which legally mandate such a provision not do the same?
There is a need to uphold the importance of the choice of NOTA on three levels- by citizens who can vote for it if dissatisfied with the candidates, by parties who should fear disqualification and nominate more competent candidates, and by the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, which can create and enforce stricter consequences to a NOTA win.
As India geared up for the Assembly elections in Bihar in 2020, and many others in 2021, the question of NOTA’s future becomes even more important. Elections in India are run for the people and by the people, then should the mandate of the people not be the most important result?
From Aristotle to Bentham, political thinkers, around the world and across time, have stated the importance of people, and the words of John Locke, a philosopher from the 1600s, captures the value of consent in politics correctly; “Men being, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”