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You can't vote for no one.

Byline: By Kay Jenkins

Will next month's local and European elections be a victory for democracy or for voter apathy? Would introducing a 'none of the above' box on the ballot paper be the only way to tell? Election expert Kay Jenkins examines the positive abstention manifesto

ELECTION time is upon us and, with it, the question of 'positive abstention'. The Electoral Commission often hears the view that voters should be able to register their preference for none of the candidates on the ballot paper - to vote for 'none of the above'.

This would mean a box on the ballot paper enabling a voter to indicate that he or she did not wish to vote for any of the named candidates. When the votes were counted, the number of voters who did not want to vote for any of the individual candidates or political parties would be declared as part of the election results.

The Electoral Commission conducted a public consultation on positive abstention last year. Most who gave us their views were against introducing a 'none of the above' option on the ballot paper. But as election season is here, it's worth looking at why.

There are arguments for and against positive abstention.

Supporters of the case argue that our current system of voting does not allow electors to show their dissatisfaction with the candidates or political parties on offer in a positive way. They are concerned that they will be condemned as apathetic, because their options are not to vote at all or to 'spoil' their ballot paper.

In addition, research conducted by the Hansard Society after the 2001 General Election suggested there would be support for positive abstention among some people who do not vote. If an option to vote for 'none of the above' were introduced, the number of overall votes could increase and provide a barometer by which political parties could judge what voters felt about the candidates and parties on offer.

However, many of those responding to the Electoral Commission's consultation were strongly of the view that electors would not actually use a right to abstain. As a barometer of the electorate's views, they argue, positive abstention would not be reliable.

Against the idea is the argument that 'positive abstention' is contrary to the whole purpose of elections. After all, the purpose of an election is to elect a candidate who will represent his or her constituents. Many people see participating in an election as a civic duty. Several responding to our consultation were of the view that enabling a vote for 'none of the above' would introduce a flippant element in what many feel is an important act.

The argument is also frequently put that voting for 'none of the above' would be justifiable only where there is compulsory voting. There are, in fact, fewer examples than might be expected of countries that have forms of positive abstention along with compulsory voting. There is quite a widespread use of positive abstention in trade union ballots and other types of non-party political elections and ballots. But few countries have any type of positive abstention in democratic elections to their state institutions or have introduced law to enable such a system. Examples include some of the newer democracies in Eastern Europe and some US states.

Perhaps surprisingly, positive abstention is not an option in some countries where voting is compulsory, including Australia. However, Australians do have an informal system allowing voters to 'spoil' their ballot paper, so they are not actually obliged to vote for one of the candidates on the ballot paper.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the introduction of positive abstention is the possibility that 'none of the above' might actually win the election! In Nevada and Washington in the USA, where positive abstention is practised, the runner-up would be elected if 'none of the above' actually pulled off the election. So although positive abstention would not prevent a candidate being elected, the effect must undermine the winning candidate. In Massachusetts, if 'none of the above' is the winner, the election must be re-run. Rest assured, perpetual re-runs are not an option. If 'none of the above' won again, the runner-up would be declared elected.

The Electoral Commission weighed up these various arguments and the views expressed by the majority responding to our public consultation last year. The commission concluded that introducing an option for electors to vote for 'none of the above' would not be merited, at least at present. Further evidence of the pros and cons would be necessary for a change of view.

People in Wales will go to the polls on June 10 to vote in ballots for the European Parliament, local councils and community councils. The Electoral Commission's current nationwide advertising and public information campaign, aimed at encouraging voter participation in the forthcoming elections is based on the premise 'If you don't do politics, there's not much you do do'. The message of the campaign is that politics is everywhere, from the food and drink we consume and the hours we work, to local facilities for our children and the state of our streets.

As is always the case, there will be much post-match analysis after the elections of why we vote or don't vote, in the numbers we do and what motivates us. Although voters are often characterised as apathetic, all the evidence shows that people feel very strongly about the issues which are most relevant to their everyday lives. The Electoral Commission believes that voting in elections is a vital way of influencing local, national and European decisions. At least for the foreseeable future, voting in our elections remains a choice for the candidates we want to elect, and the mysteriously named 'Mr/Ms None of the Above' won't be on the ballot paper.

Kay Jenkins is head of office for the Electoral Commission in Wales.
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 24, 2004
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