Friday, October 25, 2013

None of the above: Exercising the right to reject

The right to choose leaders is one of the most cherished freedoms in a democracy.  

A voter casts his vote for the candidate he wants and hopes for the best. But what is a voter to do if none of the candidates catches his fancy? Does the right to suffrage include the right to reject too? 

The issue has, in fact, attracted considerable attention recently. In India, the Supreme Court has come out with a landmark ruling granting voters the right to reject. The High Court has ordered the Election Commission to provide a “None Of The Above” (NOTA) button on the e-voting  machine, commenting that negative voting would help cleanse the political system in the country.

In the decision, the high court said that "Democracy is all about choices and voters will be empowered by this right of negative voting." 

It added that such a right to reject would lead to a “systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates".

Aside from India, negative voting is also a fixture in the election systems of Greece, the US State of Nevada, Ukraine, Spain and Colombia.  Russia experimented with negative voting but abolished such in 2006. 

Pakistan also had a None of the Above option in the ballot until the government  dropped it in 2013, saying that elections were meant to "elect and not reject".

Just how significant is this ruling giving voters the right to reject? Many analysts say that such a mechanism puts political parties on notice that voters would no longer put up with mediocre candidates. Voters hitherto resigned to choosing the “least evil” among the lot could suddenly find themselves with the power to reject.  

Yet advocates are apprehensive about the development noting that the right to reject would only be truly efficacious if it materially affects the outcome of elections. They ask, for instance, about the effect of NOTA getting the most number of votes. Will it result in forcing the government to conduct other elections with better candidates? 

Some note with concern that while India e-voting machines will now feature the NOTA button, the candidate who gets the second most number of votes will still be declared winner, rendering the whole effort moot.