The impunity of the NOTA vote suffocates democracy

Sacrificing universal suffrage to express dissent in a democracy is like shooting yourself in the foot.

Women in India were given voting rights in 1919. Women in America too were given these rights around the same time. Although several turned up at polling booths throughout history, black Americans were handed the same privilege only in 1965. To say that voting is key to a democracy would be an understatement of cosmic proportions. Equally important in a democracy is one’s right to protest peacefully but loudly against an incompetent government. This is, in fact, one of the pillars holding up any democracy: law, representation and knowledge.

The problem with NOTA in India

People in India voting NOTA need to be made aware of an important fact often omitted from any discussion of this voting choice: the Election Commission of India (ECI) treats NOTA votes as invalid votes, which means you travelled to the polling booth for nothing. Here is precisely what the ECI says about NOTA even in cases where everyone votes for NOTA and only one person manages get one vote:

It is clarified that NOTA has the same effect as not voting for any candidate under the earlier provisions of Rule 49-O. Therefore, even if, in any extreme case, the number of votes against NOTA is more than the number of votes secured by the candidates, the candidate who secures the largest number of votes among the contesting candidates shall be declared to be elected as per the provisions of Rule 64.

In a democracy someone will always vote for someone. There has never been a case where 100% of the votes fell to one candidate in a fair democracy. There will, therefore, never be a case where 100% of the votes will fall to NOTA. When you vote for NOTA in India, you are sitting on your couch at home and letting others elect a government into power. The roller coaster of incompetence you wanted to get rid of through NOTA in India is not the purpose it is serving. It is simply letting a bunch of people know you are unhappy and no consequences follow. Inconsequential actions are meaningless in a republic where ritual has no space. They may hold some sway in a monarchy where ritualism is prized. Fortunately we are not a monarchy.

Introducing NOTA—in the way India has—has rigged election ballot counts so there is a greater likelihood of left-wing votes being discounted

NOTA with teeth

In all instances above I emphasised voting NOTA in India because the NOTA vote—or its equivalent versions—exist in a handful of other countries with key differences from the Indian model. The NOTA model employed in India is toothless. Some other countries employ or are proposing to employ NOTA ‘with teeth’. This is the current state of NOTA around the world:

  1. Colombia, for instance has been employing NOTA in government and corporate elections alike. And when NOTA wins a Columbian election, a re-election is held1. This consequence does not exist in India.
  2. Even in the Soviet Union, when Boris Yeltsin won, the NOTA vote prompted a re-election1 and was famously stated as giving the people “real power even in a rigged election”. The validity of this statement is up for debate.
  3. The NOTA vote was proposed in the US with impunity i.e. along the same lines as India’s model, but the Americans quashed it so NOTA does not currently exist in the US.
  4. The UK currently does not employ NOTA but half-a-dozen organisations are campaigning for the option. All of them seek a NOTA “with teeth” i.e. consequences in case the NOTA vote wins an election. The UK does count protest votes labelling them as ‘uncertain’ but, like in India, they have no bearing on the outcome of an election.
  5. Canada does things funnily. They do not have a NOTA option in practice but they do have an alternative that is no different from India’s NOTA model. In Canada, you can turn up to an election booth, register your name and then formally state that you “decline to vote”. It is glaringly obvious how much good that dance does.

Empowering NOTA

The Indian NOTA vote is an appeasement of the Supreme Court that ordered that the option be offered to the people. It is a superficial action that panders to governments, the Election Commission, some statutory bodies, and ill-informed NOTA votes who think of themselves as white knights in a democracy.

However, if anybody comes to power in the future who wants to give the people more than an illusion of power, they will do well to slap consequences on elections where NOTA wins.

There are some proposals currently floating around to empower NOTA in India. I doubt any of these will see the light of day in the near future (some should not as I will argue presently) but at least someone somewhere is discussing it.

Re-election with new candidates or Governor’s rule

According to one proposal, if NOTA wins an election a re-election must be held with all new candidates. Alternately, the state must be handed over to the Governor.

This is an incredibly dangerous proposal that ought to be discarded straight away. Governors in India are directly under the central government and governorship is not an elected position. Enforcing this idea would either make NOTA a disasterous option or turn the state into an authoritarian one, doing the bidding of whatever party is in power in New Delhi.

Re-elections only

This proposal requires any NOTA win to require a re-election. This is a sound option but is not entirely practical given that elections cost money. Indian election are among the costliest in the world, with the last general election costing the country $7 billion, about $500 million more than the US elections.

What we would need, ideally, is some sort of cap that prevents us from going off on an infinite NOTA election string, especially because most NOTA voters are unlikely to suddenly vote for a candidate, with most such voters being driven by the idea that they are being asked to choose the least of many evils.

There is a parenthetical proposal to disable NOTA for re-elections, which makes sense provided we have decided how many re-elections we should allow at all. Most countries seem to think one will do and I am inclined to agree.

NOTA should disqualify candidates

Perhaps someone came up with this idea one evening at a pub, half drunk because whether the proposed disqualification is temporary or permanent, this is another dangerous idea. In a democracy, everyone is allowed to stand for elections, even people imprisoned for under two years and under certain circumstances2.

This provision is also ripe for misuse. A party could field a candidate as a formality and coerce a NOTA vota from its base of supporters just to get an important candidate of a rival party disqualified and then put their candidate in place during the ensuing re-election.

Choosing between a few evils

The general argument for re-election is that it costs much less than a corrupt official in power does. Even if this is true, there is no guarantee that none of the persons elected anew will refrain from taking a bribe. The entire procedure is a gamble just like democracy itself. The will of the masses, however uninformed, will steer a country at the end of the day. It is the will of the masses that should punish bad governance too. NOTA can enable this but certainly not in the manner India has implemented it.

NOTA is also skewed between political leanings. In India at least NOTA voters were more likely to be left-leaning3; and the further left someone placed themselves, the more likely they were to be voting NOTA. In other words, introducing NOTA—in the way India has—has rigged election ballot counts so there is a greater likelihood of left-wing votes being discounted.

Finally, the thing that drives people to vote NOTA is the idea that they are choosing between a bunch of evils. In such cases it helps to look to long-standing philosophy for an answer. When one stands silent witness to rape, one is morally complicit in it. They may even be indirectly empowering the rapist. When one stands silent witness to bad governance, they are empowering questionable politicians. NOTA in India is currently a case of staying silent against failing governments. This will only put the populists back in power.

Platonic philosophy says “The lesser evil can be seen in comparison with the greater evil as a good, since this lesser evil is preferable to the greater one, and whatever preferable is good.” The solution to choosing between evils is simple enough: silence empowers the greater evil; choosing the lesser evil keeps us closer to good by ensuring that change is possible at all. It allows us to bring about a change in the system rather than see it foregone. So long has NOTA enjoys impunity, vote for the lesser of two evils.

  1. The NOTA vote winning in this case allows for one one re-election, meaning if NOTA wins a second time the leading candidate wins anyway. While not ideal, it is still considerably better than the spineless NOTA option offerred in India.  

  2. See Section 8 of The Representation of the People Act of 1951

  3. Two other observations from the same source: Higher NOTA votes were mostly cast in Northern India; and NOTA votes were more likely to be cast in states that had a two-party system. In the South, most states have at least three parties, explaining both these observations.