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Vote for Nota rather than not at all

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 29, 2021

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OPINION: Some electoral systems have a democratic option called None of the Above (Nota), allowing voters to simultaneously participate in the electoral process while rejecting all the choices, writes Professor Colin Thakur.

THE pandemic struck a decisive blow to the 2021 Local Government Elections. The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) faced a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” choice.

Such dilemmas are called Hobson’s Choice. The options were 1) continue with the election as scheduled and possibly enable national super-spreader events or 2) delay the elections and defy our Constitution. That the IEC chose the latter is public knowledge.

The pandemic notwithstanding, the IEC faces further challenges persuading voters, particularly the youth, to return to the ballot box when the elections eventually occur. Voter disenchantment is progressively eroding participation.

The youth stay-away could even become habitual, with dire consequences for our future democracy.

It is comforting that our IECs integrity remains intact as analyses reveal that the voter disillusionment is not electoral fraud-related but rather about the performance and perceived lack of accountability of elected officials.

What should an unhappy voter do, given that they have just one voting opportunity every four years? A less desirable option include demonstrations and disruptions, which, frankly, serve no useful purpose.

The more meaningful options for the unhappy voter are to abstain and boycott the elections or participate and spoil their ballot paper. The two options are established practice in other electoral processes.

Measuring and distinguishing deliberate abstention from voter apathy is non-trivial. The intention of the act is weakened, sometimes even deliberately.

Abstention is also perceived as somewhat lazy inaction. Indeed, our favourite General and UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said South Africans who abstain from voting are “undermining the country’s democracy”.

We, therefore, need to find a method of allowing the electoral process to continue while simultaneously allowing aggrieved voters to demonstrate their discontent to the politicians unequivocally. A bonus will be if the approach mitigates electoral violence.

A spoilt ballot is realised by defacing a single ballot by selecting all candidates or writing a message on it. It appears to be the only systemic opportunity that an aggrieved voter could use to vote and reject all the options. Is this also an immature response to the noble act of voting?

Perhaps, not.

Some electoral systems have a democratic option called None of the Above (Nota), allowing voters to simultaneously participate in the electoral process while rejecting all the choices. Thus, Nota becomes a candidate in the electoral process.

Nota must be an essential consideration as the IEC ponders piloting electronic voting or e-voting. E-voting is the electronic means of capturing a vote or an electronic means of counting the vote.

You see, with e-voting, it is not possible to spoil an e-ballot because the option does not exist. India experienced such a conundrum when it introduced e-voting. Social activists appealed, asserting that voting machines deprived their democratic right to spoil their ballot. The Supreme Court in 2013 agreed and instructed the Electoral Board to add Nota as a mandatory option.

However, the changing of any system introduces new unintended or even unanticipated consequences. What happens if Nota wins the by-election? As counter-intuitive as it seems, Nota is a ballot candidate who is neither a natural person nor a political party. The Indian Supreme Court anticipated this possible outcome and sagely ruled that the winner shall be the non-Nota candidate with the highest vote tally. Nota now achieves its design purpose.

Nota also conveniently helps to mathematically signal voter discontent.

The introduction of Nota is a strategy that becomes available for a civic organisation or other stakeholders to leverage the electoral process to democratically register their displeasure. It also presents an opportunity for communities to reject candidates or highlight grave consequential local issues.

Further, as many voters only ever voted for the ANC, they may find it inconceivable that they will ever vote for anyone else, and they may abstain.

A spoilt ballot or specifically Nota is therefore proposed and recommended as a reform in future electoral practices. What about now?

Voter participation is the litmus test of democracy. Therefore, citizens, we must participate; spoil the ballot if one must but let’s participate. Although this ballot in the electoral system will be deemed a spoilt ballot, it will nonetheless demonstrate participation, reflect voter disquiet, and ultimately count in the final tally. The spoilt ballot remains mightier than the rock.

* Prof Colin Thakur is the InSETA Research Chair in Digitalisation. He writes in his own capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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