Many democracies suffer from low voter turnout. The Blair government was reelected in 2005 in an election that saw 61.2% of eligible voters exercise their franchise. In 2004, when President Bush was re-elected, only 60.7% of those entitled to vote chose to do so. In Canada, voter turnout was at its lowest ever of 60.5% in the 2004 election. Low levels of voter turnout are regularly bewailed by media pundits and other savants as evidence of chronic defects in democracy, vindication of Neil Postman’s argument that societal obsession with entertainment will marginalize civic engagement to a self-perpetuating elite, and as a driving factor behind the much-heralded decline in respect for authority.

All of which may be true, though not necessarily bad. But there is another plausible explanation, one that doesn’t rely on the presumption of shallowness or male fides on the part of citizens: voters don’t like to be offered false choices. When you vote, your choice is constrained to a limited set of pre-ratified alternatives (each party has a selection procedure for candidates – they arrive pre-approved, much like a high-interest credit card).

But what if you don’t like any of the choices offered? In markets, you choose not to consume. Companies interpret non-purchase as a signal to improve product quality or reduce price, because they need your consumption to grow and thrive. In politics, you choose not to vote. Political parties couldn’t give a damn about your decision, so long as they can win without you. There are no incentives to improve candidates, policies, or anything else. So long as forced choice elections are legitimate, sanctioned by an ostensibly fair and open process, a low voter turnout is not all that important. You send information about your preferences by voting, though if you choose not to vote, your lack of preference doesn’t register. This isn’t fair – one voter’s decision not to endorse one of an array of poor choices should have at least as much impact as the decision of another voter in favour of a particular candidate. Because my non-vote has no meaning, no wonder I feel disenfranchised.

This can be fixed: besides candidate names, every ballot will contain a choice marked “none of the above”. None of the above (or NOTA) is a way to register a choice. It would work quite simply: if NOTA earned a plurality of votes in an election, the outcome in a particular constituency or congressional district would be “unelected”, and a new election for that electoral district would be scheduled for 30 days hence. But none of the candidates on the first ballot would be allowed to seek election on the second ballot. That would have the effect of encouraging non-voters to vote, as their lack of endorsement of any of the candidates would, at long last, have impact. And the core principles of democracy remain intact, because NOTA must win at least a plurality to apply. Better yet, many of the opportunists who contest elections would be rejected by an informed and engaged electorate, much like so many products are rejected by customers who find the price too high or the quality inferior.

Critics will argue that this type of system will paralyze governments and cause uncertainty. Perhaps, though for most people, the important work of government is service delivery rather than policy making – a little paralysis might be a good thing. Political operatives will hate this idea because it will reduce their ability to manipulate the media, define messages to fragment voters or actively work to suppress turnout. Incumbents will be embarrassed at the risk of losing to an idea rather than to a person. But voters and non-voters? NOTA problem.

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