How have spoilt ballots been interpreted before?

After stating my intent to spoil the ballot I got push back from various anarchists. Some said my amusing message would not be read, this is obviously true and not the point – the point is to change the election statistics. Others stated that an elevated spoiled vote count would be interpreted as a desire to do something, and and make the situation worse, something which I conceded may happen, but which is not new or unique to spoiling the vote (as compared to staying away, or voting for a comedy candidate).

Perhaps I conceded too much. Here is a quote from a story on the Guardian about high numbers of spoiled votes. Note that a clear message is taken away from the dry statistic.

Unusually high rates of spoilt ballot papers have been recorded in the police and crime commissioner elections amid suggestions that there has been a co-ordinated online campaign to protest at the poll taking place.

The Conservative candidate Angus Macpherson became the first police commissioner in Wiltshire on a turnout of just 15.3% – of which 3.3% (2,682) were invalid.

The elections expert Prof John Curtice told the Radio 4 Today programme that while the two-vote system tended to result in more invalid votes than the first-past-the-post system, the level of spoilt votes in Wiltshire “raised eyebrows” about whether some voters were deliberately spoiling their ballot papers to indicate their dissatisfaction with the process of electing PCCs.

The 2010 general election, fought under first past the post, saw 0.3% of the total votes cast rejected. In the 2012 London mayoral election – fought under the supplementary vote system used in the PCC elections – there were 1.8% rejected ballot papers.

Curtice said of the Wiltshire result: “It raises the question whether some people didn’t simply fail to cast a vote because they were confused by the system, but maybe some people amongst that minuscule 15.8% who turned out went to the polling station and said: ‘Hang on, let’s spoil that ballot paper to declare we don’t think the whole thing is a terribly good idea.’ “

Part of the evidence for this being the message was that the election was to a new post of Police Commissioner, and partly because an online campaign had been making suggestions along these lines. One of those things cannot be replicated, the other clearly can.

One more thing: here is the Electoral Commision on rejected (spoiled) ballots:

The proportion of ballots that are rejected at the official count continues to be very small. In 2010 it was less than three in every thousand votes cast.

One in 3,000 is 0.3%, or in a constituency like mine about 150 votes. How hard would it be to run a campaign seeking to bring out 150 extra voters to spoil their ballots? That would mean you would have doubled the average number of spoilt ballots. This is a dramatically lower level than that required to win a poll.

10 Comments

    1. Well, I guess what I am hinting at is that you could succeed in placing an ideological opposition to democracy in the public record far more cheaply than you could by running to win on the same principle.

      I am also saying that the interpretation of the result can be controlled by running a noteworthy campaign.

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      1. Surely a libertarian is more opposed to the scope of the power of a democratic government rather than the process? i.e. by all means have a democratic system, but not one that permits the State to do A to Y, with Z being arbitrary punishments, rather let the State do A to B.

        In terms of tactics, I agree it would be cheaper than running, but how would one know the outcome, I suppose the difference in spoilt votes. However, the message that the political class would take might be: “I can be as venal as I like and I won’t get voted out by this lot”, whereas in a close race, tactically voting for the least bad candidate gives the more evil something to worry about.

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  1. In my experience (for example in the ward I am sitting in) spoilt ballots are interpreted as votes for the Labour candidate – never as votes for the Conservative candidate.

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  2. Perhaps not an ideal example given that those ballot spoilers were complaining that the election wasn’t democratic enough for their liking, but I take your point. If you could get such a campaign going and if it was big enough for politicians to take notice of, then yes, at least a portion of the spoilt ballots stand a reasonable chance of being interpreted as a call for a much reduced state. Whether those people whose livelihoods depend upon the continued existence of an ever-expanding state will “correctly” implement your proposals is, of course, another matter entirely.

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    1. You anarchists are like a bunch of diet fanatics looking at a new type of salad leaf and saying “it’s got more sugar in it than I wanted”, well so do donuts. Would donuts make you happier, or a salads? You have to eat something.

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      1. Well, I am “beach body” ready, if that’s what you mean…

        But, look, man, I’m agreeing with you. My original criticism – a purely practical one – was that disorganised ballot spoiling is extremely unlikely to be interpreted as call for a smaller state. Organised ballot spoiling of the kind your thinking of on the other hand, has a much better chance of being so interpreted (there will of course be ballot spoilers who aren’t doing it for that reason).

        The “implementation” problem though, is something else altogether – but it is still a practical problem. Think of it like this: I (or someone who knew a thing or two about computers) could come up with dozens of ways to make your job harder and less enjoyable. That’s not difficult. What would be difficult would be getting you to adopt these proposals, let alone stick to them. And it would be even more difficult if I were massively outnumbered by people who were making nice, agreeable recommendations. Again, this is a practical problem, and it is just as big a problem for us no-government types as for you small-government types.

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  3. If people are adding a NOTA boxand marking it, that has less chance of being dismissed as “functionally illiterate”.

    The need for a NOTA becomes more important if moves are to make voting compulsory and via some electronic kiosk device (at massive cost and dubious security, no doubt).

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  4. Speaking as a serial ballot spoiler – I have spoiled by ballot (simply by leaving it completely blank) at four of the last five general elections – I have no expectation that spoiling my ballot will send any message at all.

    People spoil ballots for many different reasons, and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody sits down and analyses spoiled ballots.

    Back in the 1980s, I was, on a couple of occasions, a candidate for my local council for a major party. My recollection of counts is that nobody was particularly interested in the spoiled ballots, unless there was a possibility that one could argue that the spoiler actually meant to vote for one of the candidates.

    I think that the act of spoiling one’s ballot is reasonable if one does it because one’s conscience suggests that it is the right thing to do. I think that to spoil one’s ballot in order to send a message or to advance a political cause is a waste of time. The number of spoiled ballots would have to rise to over 20% of all ballots cast before there would be any chance that spoiling would achieve anything – and frankly, that is not going to happen in any constituency in a UK general election.

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