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To Nota or Not to Vote-ah?

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Are you deeply committed to any specific political party? Have you ever considered the limited choices available to you when you last participated in an election? Well, I'm uncertain whether to caution you that reading this blog might be of little relevance to you, or to assume that given the various voting options available, you're not overly particular, and thus reading this won't cause any additional harm.

This blog is dedicated to those who either voted for NOTA (None Of The Above), contemplated voting for NOTA but opted against it, intended to vote for NOTA but decided to abstain from voting altogether assuming that not voting and selecting NOTA were equivalent, and to those who encouraged others to vote, abstain from voting, or vote for NOTA.

Metric that matters

Pursuing an objective is both essential and unavoidable. Even attempting to avoid having an objective becomes its own objective. Analysis and optimization are inseparable. Thus, to achieve the objective and optimize, analysis is necessary, which entails tracking some metric. For individuals in various pursuits such as weight loss programs, online store management, or exam preparation, this metric tends to be something specific and quantifiable. Perhaps the success of the concept of 'money' lies in its quantifiability compared to other abstract notions, but that's a discussion for another time. For the election commission, one such crucial metric is voter turnout.

While conducting elections may not seem daunting in our current era, managing elections in the world's largest democracy presents significant challenges. Historically and even today in certain regions, raising awareness about elections and ensuring their smooth conduct are formidable tasks. Political parties often resort to spreading misinformation about election dates and candidates, inciting chaos to disrupt the process, and engaging in various underhanded tactics for personal gain.

Looking at rough statistics from past General Lok Sabha elections (2019), one can observe a gradual increase in voter turnout over the years, indicating progress in the conduct of elections:

YearVoting Percentage

Despite the challenges, the election commission has demonstrated remarkable efficiency in keeping the populace informed and ensuring the smooth functioning of elections. Considering this progress and the continuous scope for improvement highlighted by the statistics, it is reasonable for the election commission to prioritize voter turnout as a significant metric, given its primary responsibility of conducting elections.

Metrics that Actually Matter

The question remains: how well does this metric align with the overall objective of democracy or governance? If a shop owner fixates solely on visitor count without boosting sales, it's akin to a successful operation, but the patient died. The primary aim is to find the right person to represent the masses. While this seems evident, the Election Commission cannot utilize it as a metric due to its vagueness and lack of quantifiability.

Hence, the election commission adheres to its voting turnout metric, aligning their campaigns accordingly. They emphasize the importance of exercising the right to vote, the potency of each vote, and discourage its commodification; employing actors to advocate these principles. However, this approach risks saturation for some individuals. Moreover, some resort to shaming non-voters, and in the last election, I witnessed individuals going as far as condemning those who voted for NOTA, branding it as a wasted vote. This shaming not only disregards individuals' feelings but also polarizes people, even if they're reluctant to take sides. This is particularly problematic considering the inability to specify in one's vote whether they genuinely believe a candidate is suitable or if other candidates are unsuitable.

Is such specification truly necessary? At the election's conclusion, does it not simply matter who garnered the most votes? Yes, but only if one views an election as a singular event, isolated in its purpose of determining the governing body for the upcoming years. However, when viewed with a broader perspective, elections are not merely standalone occurrences. They are recurrent events in a democratic system, each influencing the next in indirect ways. Your vote, after determining the winner, reverberates back to society as a message. Thus, polling results not only determine representation but also gauge citizens' perceptions of candidates. Although this metadata holds significance, implementing it in the voting booth is challenging. Until then, our society defaults to interpreting your vote as an endorsement of the candidate's suitability. Therefore, voting to ensure the lesser evils win may secure victory in the short term but ultimately leads to losing the larger battle.

The Advent of NOTA

India has been conducting elections since 1951, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the NOTA (None of the Above) option was introduced. This 62-year delay in providing a way for voters to express their disinterest in all candidates might seem long, but consider that it took about 120 years for women in the United States, a country known for its democratic values, to secure their voting rights. However, comparing these timelines directly may not be appropriate due to different historical contexts.

Discussing NOTA, one could argue that simply not voting could serve the same purpose, but this would compromise the voter’s anonymity. The government not only failed to recognize the need for a NOTA option but also actively resisted it. This resistance could be attributed to several reasons:

  • The government leaders might lack the understanding of the necessity of such an option.
  • They might fear that it could pose greater challenges for them in the future.
  • They were trained at a design school where they were taught not to add extra options, so people can still anonymously vote for no one by marking something wrong or not marking anything. (After EVMs, this is no longer the case.)

In 2013, the implementation of NOTA was finally realized due to a Public Interest Litigation filed by an NGO. In its debut election, NOTA secured 1% of the votes. To put this into perspective, the click-through rate of an internet advertisement is approximately 1%, and yet, billion-dollar internet companies thrive on this. If this 1% of the population were strategically relocated, they could potentially influence the outcome in at least five constituencies. While this is purely hypothetical and highly impractical, it serves to illustrate the significant size of this group.

Constitutional Right or a Civic Duty

Voting is indeed a right, much like the rights to freedom of speech and movement. Just as owning a car doesn’t negate the right to walk, the right to vote doesn’t obligate one to do so. Some individuals may choose to use election day for relaxation, family time, or catching up on work. Choosing not to vote can save time and reduce congestion at polling stations, and the decline in voter turnout can still reflect public disapproval.

However, one could also view voting as a civic duty. Even though it’s a right in legal terms, isn’t there a moral responsibility to participate in the democratic process? By abstaining, you’re effectively distributing your vote’s power among those who do vote. Non-voters are often labeled as lazy or irresponsible, but those who do vote may recognize the rebellious statement in consciously choosing to vote for none of the candidates.

Looking at election statistics, the voting percentage is typically around 67%, with the winning candidate garnering about 33% of the votes - a figure that matches the percentage of non-voters. This creates a fascinating equilibrium: one-third of the population votes for the winner, one-third votes for other candidates, and one-third chooses not to vote. This non-voting segment represents a significant, untapped potential that could be harnessed for societal improvement.

Two different design schools

If you feel the NOTA is pitched higher than not voting, then it may be either my incompetence to equalize them or maybe the NOTA is actually better. But, to say the least, they are vectors of equal magnitude but in different directions. They belong to different design schools; they both are fine, and most importantly, both are definitely far better than voting for the wrong person for the sake of voting or voting for lesser evil ones.