November 5, 2013

A Voting Suggestion


Like millions of others I watched the entertaining Paxman vs Brand interview with great interest. Jeremy Paxman is deservedly known as a tough interviewer, regularly savaging experienced politicians. He is the interviewer that asked an evasive UK minister the same question 12 times. Here he is overshadowed by the comedian/actor Russell Brand’s eloquence, humour and anger.

When Brand talks about the disconnect between politicians and the populace I think he’s right. When he talks about revolution I have to disagree, not because his preferred replacement society is distasteful, but because it is unlikely to result from revolution or be stable if it did (think Orwell’s Animal Farm). However, what he said about voting was very interesting.

Russell Brand has apparently never voted. This is because he thinks none of the options available are worth a vote. Paxman finds this a problem. So do I, but in a different way. The purpose of voting in the UK is to capture the desires of the population towards which party should govern. Most constituencies only give a voter a choice of two realistic options, in safe seats there is only one option (hopefully that is the one you want!). It is likely that a valid vote comes down to choosing the least of two evils. Brand is saying he chooses neither evil. A view with which I have some sympathy and I suspect many others do too.

The situation is worse in Australia where it is illegal not to vote correctly. This translates into it being a fineable offence not to turn up to a voting station on election day, since it is a secret ballot and no one knows what is actually on your ballot paper. This has led people with views similar to Russell Brand to suggest intentionally spoiling your vote or donkey voting as a protest. However, little attention is paid to these invalid votes as people rationalise that they are due to stupidity.

In the 2010 UK General Election the turnout was 65%. How many of the 35% that didn’t vote are like Russell Brand, and how many didn’t care? How many of the 65% only voted out of obligation, because it is supposed to be the right thing to do, but still sympathise with Brand? How many of the invalid votes in Australia are a protest and how many are real errors? I’d like to know.

Leaving aside questions on the voting or political system, here is a simple suggestion to find out.

Add an official “None of the above” option to the bottom of all ballot papers.

The “None of the above” votes could be ignored for the sake of deciding a winner, but should be reported alongside the candidate totals. It is important they are publicly reported. They would serve as an indication of the democracy’s health. A low percentage of “none” votes suggest all is well. A high percentage and the system has problems. Either the candidates are not meeting the electorate’s desires or the voting system as a whole is not working. As any management consultant will tell you, the first step to solving a problem is measuring it.

I suspect the level of “none” votes would be disturbingly high, and this is the main impediment to implementation. Politicians would be embarrassed and their mandate weakened by a high level of “none” votes in their constituency. It would take a person confident in their support or egoless to happily to initiate such a change to the system. I’m not sure these are common traits among current politicians. Still a little embarrassment is a small price to quantify growing apathy and maybe prevent the government sleepwalking into revolution (as Russell Brand hopes). Counting “none” votes would provide the information in a public, unambiguous and non-partisan manner.

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