An insight into NOTA in four cards. 

Dissecting NOTA for Lok Sabha Polls: A Tool For the Disenchanted

The much-anticipated electoral battle of 2019 has begun, with the Election Commission on Sunday, 10 March, announcing the Lok Sabha poll schedule.

As the campaign pitch of political parties gets shriller by the day, some of us – perhaps disenchanted by the prevailing political scenario – might be mulling pressing that button right at the bottom of the electronic voting machine (EVM). Introduced only recently, this button gives the voter the right to express his/her negative opinion by choosing NOTA or ‘None of the Above’.

So before you head off to the polling booth, perhaps with an ‘anti all-candidate’ mindset, here’s a lowdown on the NOTA provision in India’s electoral system.

A Brief Definition and History of NOTA

The 'None of the Above' option, simply put, gives the voter the right to express a negative opinion by not selecting any of the candidates in the fray. The Supreme Court envisaged NOTA as a way of cleansing the political system, saying, “Negative voting will lead to a systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates."

“If the right to vote is a statutory right, then the right to reject a candidate is a fundamental right of speech and expression under the Constitution.”
Supreme Court

While it may seem that NOTA has been around for a long time, it actually came into force only in 2013. The first time it was used was during the Assembly elections held in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Delhi.

This was preceded, in September 2013, by a Supreme Court directive in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India case to provide for a NOTA button in the EVMs, thereby upholding a citizen’s right to vote negatively along with the right to secrecy.

Now you may ask if citizens could exercise their right to not vote for any candidate prior to the institution of NOTA. The answer is yes, but process was tedious. The precedent existed in the form of Section 49 (O) of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. Here, the voter could cast a negative vote would through Form 17A, which would also have to go through the presiding officer. Considering that it did not maintain the voter’s right to secrecy, this section was invalidated with the SC ruling of 2013.

How Does It Work? Does it Make a Difference?

Those who are under the impression that their NOTA vote will have a bearing on election results would unfortunately be in for disappointment. As an Election Commission official pointed, "The NOTA option on EVMs has no electoral value. Even if the maximum number of votes cast is for NOTA, the candidate getting the most of the remaining votes would be declared winner."

In other words, the existence of NOTA has been seen just as a “symbolic instrument to express resentment” against all the contesting candidates or the political system in general.

However, attempts have been made recently, albeit at the local level, to expand the scope of NOTA.

In 2015, it got a symbol – a ballot paper with a black cross running across it.

In November 2018, the Maharashtra State Election Commission (MSEC) announced that if NOTA garners the most number of votes in a panchayat or municipality election, then none of the candidates in the fray would be declared elected, and instead a re-election would take place.

That same month, the Haryana State Election Commissioner made a similar announcement ahead of municipal corporation polls in the state. "If in the re-election, NOTA again gets the highest number of votes, then the candidate with the second highest votes will be declared elected," state election commissioner Dalip Singh had further explained.

However, note that for Assembly and general elections – which are governed by the Election Commission of India – the scope of NOTA remains limited. Nonetheless, in November last year, the ECI was considering seeking the opinion of political parties on the possibility of a re-poll if NOTA gets the most votes, according to a report in The Economic Times.

Now, for the NOTA option to be given some "electoral value" in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, amendments will need to be made to Rule 64 of the the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.

Analysing NOTA Voting Patterns Since 2013

Garima Goel, a scholar at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London, who has researched extensively on NOTA voters, had earlier said, “NOTA voting decreases as constituencies get more urbanised.”

In other words, rural voters are more likely to vote NOTA than urban voters. Similarly, seats with a lower literacy rate are more likely to have higher NOTA votes.

By now, the option of NOTA has weathered several Assembly elections and even one Lok Sabha election. But it has not been able to garner a significant percentage of vote share in any of these, with the highest being 3.06 percent in the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections. Meanwhile, the distinction for having the lowest NOTA vote share (Assembly and general elections together) goes to the states of Haryana, Nagaland and Delhi.

According to figures provided by the Association for Democratic Reforms (2013-2017), the negative option has secured 1.33 crore votes in state Assemblies and Lok Sabha elections combined. In the 2014 general elections, 1.08 percent of the voters (or 60,02,942 votes) went with this option.

Nevertheless, the salience of the NOTA option can be gauged by the number of times it has got more votes than the victory margin. One analysis published in 2017 points out that there were 261 Assembly constituencies since 2013 in which the negative votes were higher than the winning margin. In the case of Lok Sabha elections, there were 24 constituencies where NOTA achieved the same feat. Note that if the NOTA option was absent in all of these instances, it could have theoretically swung the results of the elections.

More recently, NOTA votes were more than the victory margin in at least 12 seats in the Rajasthan Assembly elections. In Madhya Pradesh, NOTA votes exceeded the margin of victory in 22 seats. The significance of these figures can be realised if one is to see how close the elections in the two states were.

A closer look at the NOTA voting patterns across regions has also given some interesting insights into voting behaviour.

According to the same analysis cited above, constituencies reserved for SCs and STs, as well as those affected by left wing extremism have seen more NOTA voting than in others.

While the trend in the former is understood to reflect “continued social prejudice against political reservation for SC/STs”, the pattern in the latter may be an outcome of the sentiment of disaffection prevailing against the Indian state itself.

Some 'NOTA-Worthy' Instances

While NOTA may not possess any "electoral value", it has still managed to cause a loss of face for parties in a few instances.

In the Tamil Nadu RK Nagar bypoll of 2017, it was not TTV Dhinakaran’s victory that grabbed headlines, but the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP’s) abysmal performance. The BJP candidate K Nagarajan came sixth with 1,417 votes, much lesser than the number of votes NOTA got – 2,373.

Meanwhile, in the recent Assembly elections held in five states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram), mainstream parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party, all fell behind NOTA in terms of the overall vote share in the states (although these parties may not have fought on all seats, like NOTA did!).

Taken together, roughly 15 lakh voters chose the NOTA option across five states.

Now, in the upcoming general elections, one may just see NOTA trumping some of the biggies in at least a few seats.