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To Nota or Not to Vote-ah?

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Do you fervently support any particular political party? You never considered how limited your options were when you last cast a ballot. Then, I'm not sure whether to warn you that reading this blog might be highly irrelevant for you or to presume, considering the options out there for voting,that you are not so choosy and reading this won't do any (further) harm.

To those who voted NOTA, to those who thought about voting NOTA but ultimately decided against it, to those who planned to vote NOTA but stayed home because they figured not voting and voting for NOTA were the same, and to those who encouraged others to vote, or not vote, or to vote or not vote for NOTA: this blog is for you.

Metric that matters

Following an objective is important and inevitable. Even if you try not to follow an objective, "trying not to follow an objective" becomes your objective. Analysis and optimization go hand in hand. So to reach the objective; to optimize, you have to analyze, and that is when some metric has to be tracked. For someone in a weight loss program, it is their body fat; for someone running an online store, it is the number of visitors and conversions; and for someone preparing for an exam, it is their mock test score. Generally, as you can see, the metric that is used for tracking is something less vague and more quantifiable. Maybe the concept of 'money' is so successful because it is quantifiable and less vague compared to its counterparts—a topic for a different day. One such important metric for the election commission is the voting percentage.

We are in a space-time where holding elections doesn't seem to be a difficult thing, but running the elections in the world's largest democracy isn't easy. If we go a little back, in the olden days and even still today in some parts, getting people aware of the election and conducting it itself is a huge challenge. The political parties will stoop so low that they will spread misinformation about election dates and candidates, create chaos to prevent it from happening, and do all kinds of cheap stunts for their own gains.

Rough Stats from General Lok sabha elections (2019)

YearVoting Percentage

Keeping people informed and conducting elections is hard, and the election commission is great at it, no doubt. Considering this and also, if you observe from the stats how it keeps getting better over time and there is still room to improve, it is not a bad metric for a body whose sole responsibility is conducting the elections. So it is very justifiable for the election commission to choose voting turnout as an important metric.

Metrics that Actually Matter

But the question is how well does this metric align with the overall objective of democracy or governance? If a shop owner keeps concentrating on the visitor count but fails to increase sales, would you call it healthy? It’s more like an operation success, but the patient died. The objective is to find the right person to represent the masses. The above is very obvious, but the Election Commission couldn’t use it as a metric as it is too vague and not quantifiable.

So the election commission just sticks with its own voting turnout metric; therefore, their campaigns are aligned with that. They talk about how important it is to exercise this right, how powerful this vote is, and not to sell it; bring actors and make them talk about this. This works great, but the problem is that it becomes an overdose for some people, and what these folks do is shame the people who don't vote -- this is certainly not right, and in the last election, I have seen some people go one extra step to shame even people who voted for NOTA, calling it a waste of vote. This shaming isn’t just about the feelings involved but will result in people taking sides even though they don't want to; this is really bad, especially considering there is no way to specify in your vote if you truly feel the candidate is fit or if other candidates are too bad.

Is this specification necessary? At the end of the election, doesn't it just matter who got the most votes? Yes, but only if you see an election as a single, isolated entity meant to decide the governing body for the following years. But if you view them a little wider, from a long distance, they aren't just that. They are recurring events in a democracy, and one is going to indirectly influence another and definitely the next one. Your vote after deciding the winner bounces back to us as a message. So the polling result doesn’t just decide who is going to represent you for the period but also surveys what citizens think of the candidates. Though this metadata is very important, it is hard to implement this in the booth. Until then, the society we live in, by default, is going to interpret your vote as if you find the candidate fit. So voting to make the lesser evils win is like winning the battle but losing the war.

The Advent of NOTA

Elections in India have been going on since 1951; in 2013, the option of NOTA was added. It took the government sixty-two years to realize that people needed a way to indicate that they were not interested in any of the candidates. If you think 62 years is a lot, then I have to bring you the fact that it took roughly 120 years for women to get their voting rights in the most popular country, the US, which brags, brands, and labels itself for democracy and freedom – Anyway, It’s in a different position of time, so it's not wise to compare directly. Talking about NOTA, Simply abstaining from voting could accomplish this, but doing so would remove the element of anonymity. Not only does the government not see the need for a NOTA option, but it actively opposes the concept. This could be possible because of one or more combinations of the following:

The government's leaders are too dim to understand that having such a choice is a necessity.

They worry it will become a bigger problem 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.)

Finally, in 2013, NOTA went into effect as a result of a PIL that an NGO filed. While it came out in its first election, 1% of people voted for it. This is huge; the Click-through rate of an internet ad is roughly 1%, but there is a billion dollar internet giant running on that. This population, if strategically relocated with coordination, could capture at least five constituencies. The above is completely impractical, and I'm just saying how large this crowd is.

Constitutional Right or a Civic Duty

Voting is a right, right? Like how you have all the rights to talk and walk, this is another right. Having a car doesn’t mean you shouldn’t walk. The choice of whether or not to use a privilege is entirely within your discretion. It is possible that some people will take advantage of the election holiday to relax, spend time with loved ones, or get some work done. Not voting saves you the trouble of getting there and waiting in line, and it is good for the environment and the people around you because you are not adding to the congestion in any of the above locations. Your disapproval is still reflected in the declining voter turnout.

Or is it a civic duty? Even if it is a right on paper, is it not a moral obligation? By not participating, you are distributing the power of your vote to every other person who votes. The drop in voting percentage will again be framed as laziness and irresponsibility. The general ignorant public who voted for the candidate is going to call this a waste of vote, but still, deep down, they realize that somebody spent their time and energy, traveled to a booth, stood in line, and marked their opinion that they don't feel any candidate fit for the job, which sounds more systematically rebellious.

Roughly, if you look at all those election stats, the voting percentage is roughly around 67%, with the winner taking 33%, which is also the same as that of people who never voted. Look at this beautiful equilibrium. One-third of people went to vote for the winner, one-third went with others, and one-third refused to vote. This refused-to-vote population has stagnated potential that has to be harnessed for the betterment.

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.