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.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A psychological approach to election administration

Source: google images
Human psychology plays a role in all aspects of everyday existence. Industrial psychology may look at the layout of controls in an airplane's cockpit, for example, placing certain displays, buttons and levels in specific locations to best accommodate the natural tendencies of pilots. In sales and marketing, advertising executives look closely at the psychology ramifications of their marketing efforts, capitalizing on how to best influence their prospective customers. And psychology also plays a critical role in elections. 

Indeed, there is not only a whole branch of psychology dedicated to this study – appropriately called electoral psychology – but there are also organizations that work closely to best understand what elections mean to voters and how to devise elections such that they are the most efficient and the most fair. One such organization is the International Centre for Electoral Psychology (ICEP), which has put forth several reports and presentations on the subject of a psychological approach to election administration.

The goal of the ICEP is to “help decision-makers to better understand the psychology of voters in a bid to make elections as effective, trusted and democratically fulfilling for citizens as possible.” To this end, the ICEP studies several factors related to the psychology of the voter as he or she heads into the voter booth to cast his or her ballot.

For example, the ICEP recognizes that casting a vote can be a very emotional experience and one that is not taken lightly. Up to 30% of voters do not decide on their vote until the final week before the election with 29% of Americans and 40% of French voters changing their minds on Election Day itself. When administrating an election, it is important to recognize that a voter's choice can be heavily influenced right up to the final moment before casting a ballot. 60% of voters feel excited in the polling booth and 74% feel a sense of pride.

Memories and early experiences also play a very critical role. It is important for election officials to approach youth about elections and democracy, ensuring that they do cast a ballot when they become of age. Early experiences significantly increase the likelihood of participation in future elections. Young people who do not vote in the first two eligible elections are likely to become citizens who habitually do not vote moving forward. That is why early experiences, like accompanying parents to the polling stations and participating in elections when they become of age, are so important. Indeed, 48% of those who accompanied parents to a polling place have voted themselves, compared to 30% of those with no memory of going to a polling station with parents.

Voting is habit-forming and habitual voters are likely to continue voting, even when they shift allegiances or partisanship. Social pressure also plays a role.

These memories and early experiences color all future perceptions of future elections too. If a young voter experiences fraud, organizational problems or other issues related to the legitimacy and professionalism of an election, that citizen will likely recall that problem in the future in a very vivid way. This citizen could become disenchanted and become distrustful of the electoral process.

Deciding on the actual vote itself can also involve many different factors. Some voters have sociotropic thoughts, considering social responsibility and the impact of the vote on the rest of the country. Others may have more egocentric thoughts, focusing more on family and the impact of the vote on their personal situations. Past elections, current emotions, and previous voting behavior can also impact the vote.

There are many responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of election administrators. They must ensure that the logistics of the election are properly carried out, they must hire staff that will be impartial in front of the voting public, and they also have to consider the psychology of the election to make sure the results are fair, unbiased, and democratically fulfilling. The integrity of the election must be upheld and all psychological factors must be addressed to allow for a nonpartisan election.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Electoral Ergonomics: Enhancing Voting Experience

Ergonomics is a discipline that studies the design and arrangement of things in order that humans may be able to use them more efficiently, comfortably and safely. Known also as human engineering, ergonomics has found wide application in the design of furniture and equipment for homes, offices, factories and vehicles.

Recently, the science has also been applied to elections in the hopes of understanding what makes voters vote and how to enhancing voter experience. Electoral ergonomics as defined by pioneers Bruter and Harrison, is “the optimization of all relevant electoral procedures and mechanisms to provide the best possible electoral experience for voters.”

Research has revealed that seemingly inconsequential things such as where a vote is cast, what method is used, at what time polling stations open, how the ballot is designed,  all matter greatly in shaping voters´ experience. Electoral ergonomics, although still in its infancy, may help us understand “who votes, how they vote, why they vote the way they do, and how they feel about it”.

Studying electoral ergonomics and its effects is one of the most scientifically complex tasks in the field of elections. It entails a complex and highly-nuanced interaction among psychological, technical, and sociocultural variables.

So far, electoral ergonomics has observed that voting is a highly emotional act that carries with it a lot of memories, pleasant and otherwise.  Voters attach various positive and negative emotions to the act of voting.

Emotions are significantly more positive for people who go to vote in person as compared to those who use postal voting. They feel prouder, happier, and more excited about the vote than those who use postal voting. Moreover, voters in person also end up feeling more reassured and more relaxed than those who use postal voting.

More importantly, as can be gleaned from the 2010 British General election, it was determined that voters aged 18-25 were nearly twice more likely to choose an extremist party if voting by mailing their ballots than at a polling station. Among 25-45 year old voters, the likeliness to vote for the extreme right also increases by 24%.  For the first time, the method of voting is being proven to have an effect on the choice of the voters.

Another interesting case study is one where advanced voting in polling stations was compared with mailed-in balloting , the two methods employed by the US to allow people who cannot go to vote on election day to participate in elections. Interestingly, it was revealed that voters who opted for advanced voting in polling centers perceived the elections to be more efficacious, trustworthy, and important as compared to those who selected mailed-in voting.

It may be deduced that the mere physical act of going to a voting center, hitherto not regarded as noteworthy, may be an important part of the voting experience, and may, in fact, influence the outcome of elections.

Electoral ergonomics is still in its infancy and much more research needs to be undertaken to validate assumptions. Yet initial findings are promising and may lead us to finally be able to tweak the many factors comprising an election to give the voter the best experience.