Blue Sky Democracy, Part 6: None of the above
Now we’ve got a bigger Parliament, a bigger electorate and bigger political parties, it’s time to blow it all by giving people the right to say no.
None of these. None of them.
Preferential voting is really effective at ensuring no-one is disenfranchised, even in optional systems. It’s hard to “waste your vote” and, eventually, the least unpopular option is (usually) elected.
This strength is also one of its weaknesses.
Under preferential voting — in fact under most voting systems — there’s no way to meaningfully express dissent or unhappiness with all available candidates.
Australian voters already express their distaste for elections with intentional informal voting — votes left intentionally blanked or defaced in some way.
Intentional informal voting is estimated by some as high as 3% of all votes.
But even a high intentional informality rate doesn’t result in any meaningful change, or even self-reflection from candidates. This gap — failing to capture and give real political effect to dissent — has been highlighted as a key failing of Australia’s electoral system through the Democratic Audit of Australia.
Even higher than intentional informal voting is the rate of general protest voting in Australia: non-ideological voting in favour of whatever candidate is seen to rock the boat the most.
This tendency is especially strong in Queensland and has benefited parties all across the political spectrum over the years. In many ways though, this is still merely a placeholder for their anger and dissent, evidenced by the high churn these protest parties get from election to election.
Using Australian Electoral Study data, researchers in 2016 interrogated why people voted informally, and found that, especially for young people, a combination of a lack of interest in politics, a lack of trust in “parties of government”, an objection to being forced to vote (or perhaps being forced to pick between candidates they objected to) and general alienation from politics (that is not believing your vote made a material difference) were the key reasons why people voted intentionally informally.
An electoral innovation from the final days of the Soviet Union might help: a “none of the above” option on every ballot paper.
In most places where a “none of the above” option has been implemented, it’s really just a way to formally count informal votes — a practice Australia already does regardless.
However, in India, which has been rolling out “none of the above” options on ballots since 2013, some activists have been agitating to give it real teeth — using it to give voters an option to reject all candidates and demand a re-election with new, fresh candidates.
Restricting the option to being formal informality is understandable in plurality voting systems like first-past-the-post where, depending on the number of candidates, a “default” option like this might easily beat out others.
But in Australia, treating “none of the above” the same as any other candidate would mean having to claw enough preferences to get across 50% of the vote.
So rather than “none of the above”, in a preferential system, it’s really more of a “I’d rather nothing than the other guy”.
This creates an interesting opportunity since that would be a very clear intent to reject the leading candidate.
If we introduced “none of the above” in House of Representatives elections, should it win the final two candidate preferred count, it could trigger an automatic re-election in a few months time. Potentially with a requirement that no candidate — or even no party — who contested the previous election be allowed to contest.
This creates an additional problem though. Re-elections and byelections have significantly lower turnout, usually because they’re less well-publicised or in the public consciousness as a general election. That lower turnout might distort the will of the electorate so strongly indicated at the previous election. This isn’t necessarily insurmountable, but it creates a new dynamic that would need to be managed.
That leaves what to do with the Senate. Obviously it’s a lot easier to claw the votes to get a threshold in a Senate election than it is to get over the line in a House of Representatives seat. One option is to leave the seat empty, although that creates problems in Parliament and might even be unconstitutional. Some have suggested that a “none of the above” Senate seat be filled by sortition on a short-term rotating basis — but this would run headlong into the Constitution’s direct election rule.
In part seven, we’re going to explore our fifth and last big idea: a clearing house for donations.