Friday, May 20, 2011

How to channel your electoral outrage

When it’s time of elections, no matter which kind of elections are concerned, there is a common situation: many people wish to express their rejection towards political parties and look for alternative voting by channelling their electoral anger through blank votes, abstention, spoilt votes… However, this political act (because it is still a political act despite being caused by a rejection of the current political system) is often misunderstood in terms of its true meaning: how can I show my anger? who is going to benefit from it? how is it counted? Let’s solve these doubts.

Blank vote: a blank vote is an empty envelope or a ballot paper with no option ticked (for instance, in the election of the Spanish Senate). In some countries such as Colombia, ballot papers include the option of blank vote. However, in most countries, if the envelope contains a blank paper (not a ballot), it is not considered a blank vote but a spoilt vote. Contrary to abstention, which could be considered as protest vote or as apathy because voters prefer going to the beach rather than exercising their right to vote, blank ballots are always understood as a protest vote, meaning that citizens do not feel represented by any of the listed political parties. As for its use, a blank vote is included in the tally during vote counting in order to calculate the distribution of seats. Most voting systems (like D'Hondt method, used in Spain and in many more countries) require a minimum amount of votes for a party to be allocated a seat (3% in Spain, 10% in Turkey). Therefore, as blank votes increase the total amount of cast votes but not the amount of votes of a particular political party, blank votes usually favour large parties and coalitions over scattered small parties. The more blank votes, the more difficult for small parties to be allocated a seat.

Abstention: Abstainers are just non-voters. The problem is that there is no clue on their reason not to vote: it could be a boycott of the political system or just a lack of interest. In very few countries, voting is compulsory, so then non-voters are clearly protesting against the political system, but this is not so in most countries. Sometimes abstention is such that it outnumbers the votes of the winning political party, but it is useless because seats are divided according to the number of cast ballots, regardless of the percentage of population going to the polls. Therefore, abstaining from voting has no repercussion on the allocation of seats in the Parliament or on the election of the President. Moreover, if we take into account that the sum of non-voters plus the number of ballots in favour of the official opposition outnumbers by far the voters of the ruling party, abstention is clearly a missed chance to cast a protest vote against the current government. 

Spoilt vote: spoilt or null vote is a ballot paper not complying with polling rules, either because the voter’s will is not clear or because the ballot is not cast properly. Spoilt votes are those not meant for a standing party or those not considered blank votes. Therefore, spoilt votes include undervotes and overvotes (unintentional or deliberate) as well as envelopes containing letters or anything other than ballot papers. Those voters who express their disapproval by casting a ballot of a party which is not allowed to stand for, are considered spoilt votes too. As for the allocation of seats, spoilt votes are counted as abstention.

Vote to a disobedient party: Some elections include candidates that promise to leave their seat empty, thus not voting political decisions and not issuing any parliamentary speech. Voters of these disobedient parties are citizens who feel disappointed by the uselessness of blank votes and abstention, but wish to find a solution to blatantly express their unhappiness on the polling day and during the whole term of office. This option is not always possible because it depends on the existence of a disobedient party standing for the elections, such as None of the Above (NOTA) ballot option. Voting this option involves reducing the amount of seats for large parties. However, in practice, it is of limited use because they never cast votes in favour or against policies, so the rest of parties still have the same power. For instance, in a 100-seat chamber, absolute majority is 51. If there are 10 disobedient seats, large parties will have 10 less seats and it will be more difficult to reach the absolute majority of 51 seats to pass a proposal, but as disobedient seats do not exert their right to vote, the new absolute majority will be 46 seats (that is, half of 90 seats plus one). Therefore, voting disobedient parties is just a way of showing your unhappiness with the traditional political system by reminding people of the reason why there are empty seats.

Vote to a “non-political” party: besides traditional political parties (be them large or small, with political representation or not), there are other parties which stand for an election with the aim of gaining protest votes without having any political programme. These “non-political” parties are often made up of famous people (TV celebrities, sportsmen or sportswomen, comedians…) who, in case of being elected, will turn their speeches into a show. However, the problem is that these people do take their seat and do cast a vote in political decisions, but citizens who have voted them have no idea about their ideologies or their voting preferences, which is quite dangerous. More or less, we all know what traditional parties think (even when their ideas have nothing to do with their election manifesto). This problem is also present in those parties whose manifesto only tackles one issue: in favour or against the legality of cannabis, bullfighting, etc. Which is their vote when deciding other policies?

All these options are honourable to express a protest against an unfair political system. However, there is another way to channel your electoral anger, which is far more effective: going to the polls and voting for a party willing to change things. It is obvious that our democratic system is rather deficient and not very participative because citizens’ control over candidates is weak and evasive. But it is also true that we are not making the best of it. The best way to change what we don’t like is by butting in and participating. Health, education, pension plans, unemployment benefits, freedom of expression, civil rights or labour law may be incomplete and improved on, but we have them thanks to this system. Underestimating them means underestimating the efforts of many generations who fought to get and consolidate what we have today. There are many ways to change our world, and many of them have nothing to do with representative democracy, but we cannot dismiss this possibility.
If we vote for parties who are willing to change things, if we attend plenary sessions (which are currently empty) and if we control and punish the actions of our representatives, if we make the best of the (few and occasional) participation processes where citizens have the right to express their opinions (which have currently low attendance) and if we demand many more, if we get informed in depth about what’s going on and if we can build up our own well-reasoned opinions…. things could be different. Be outraged, complain, demonstrate and go to the polls.


  1. Voting systems:
  2. D'Hondt method used in many countries for allocating seats in party-list proportional representation:
  3. Election calculus simulation based on D'Hondt system :
  4. Countries where voting is compulsory :
  5. European citizens for a ‘None Of The Above’ option :

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