The power of negative voting

Sep 28 2013, 08:44 IST
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Summary'None of the above' could introduce new ways of gaming ballot and bring about surprising outcomes.

‘None of the above’ could introduce new ways of gaming the ballot and bring about surprising outcomes.

Distilling the truest, fairest message from the ballot paper has been a work in progress since the beginning of electoral democracy, and the Supreme Court’s landmark order on installing a “none of the above” option on the ballot — or, more precisely, a button on the electronic voting machine — has recast India’s quest for an outcome truly representative of the voters’ collective will.

The argument that sustains the right to reject option is that a mechanism needs to exist that prevents voters from being captive to bad choices, that is, being forced to choose the least worst of candidates in the fray. It would put political parties on notice that they cannot take the voter for granted, and consequently to search wider and with more sincerity to put up worthy — real “clean” — candidates. In its complete form — and it is uncertain whether this would be adopted in India — the right to reject nullifies the election if enough voters spurn all the candidates in the fray.

The Election Commission has been pointing out for some time that the right to reject is available to the voter. Under Rule 49 of the Conduct of Election Rules, a voter can explicitly record her choice not to vote for any of the candidates — but the procedure does not protect her anonymity. Practically speaking, without the secrecy that a fair ballot demands, that is neither here nor there. Therefore, putting the “none of the above” option on the ballot could be a game-changer. Indeed, it could introduce new ways of gaming the ballot. Whether this would work to the overall collective good or not is a separate question, but it would be instructive to look around the world and see how gaming the ballot works in different measures to make the vote somehow more representative than a simple first-past-the-post result that can have a candidate elected on less that a third of the votes cast.

Our first-past-the-post system has so far operated on a positive vote. There is tactical voting even now, with voters sometimes working not to elect a candidate but to defeat another, but whatever vote is cast eventually accrues to the benefit of the candidate chosen.

What may the right to reject do? It should bring to the polling booth the voter apathetic to

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