New Delhi: Political observers have long debated whether ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA)—an option that enables the voter to not vote for any candidate—is a disapproval of the candidates in the fray or an expression of disenchantment with the country’s existing political system.
NOTA was introduced to the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) in 2013. Since then it has been used in one Lok Sabha election and 37 Assembly elections.
In all elections held between 2013 and 2017, NOTA secured a total of 1.33 core votes, according to an analysis done by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-governmental electoral and research organisation, in 2018. This means that on an average, NOTA got 2.7 lakh votes in the 37 Assembly elections that took place till 2017.
The option was introduced based on the perception that more choices would lead to a higher voter turnout. Bear in mind, the NOTA vote has no arithmetic value; it is a neutral vote which isn’t counted towards the final tally, thereby making it distinct from a negative vote. Yet, in 2013 the Supreme Court remarked that the NOTA option “will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate,” noticing that it might help in cleansing the political system.
The NOTA vote has had a crucial impact on the electoral outcome due to the votes it cuts from the political parties, and the resulting shift it creates in victory margins. While the margin may have been small in earlier elections, the discounted votes due to NOTA have remained significant.
An analysis by News18 of all the elections since the inception of NOTA in 2013 shows that the count is nowhere close to that of leading political parties. But the number of NOTA votes polled is still a considerable amount and is slowly increasing.
The analysis also shows that in Parliamentary and Assembly elections, it doesn’t affect the outcome of an election directly, contrary to the common perception.
How it Outperformed Regional Parties in 2018
In the 2018 Assembly polls, the results of Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana show that NOTA votes outperformed parties, including Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Samajwadi Party (SP). NOTA votes ranged from a high of 2%of the total votes in Chhattisgarh to a low of 0.5 per cent in Mizoram.
In Chhattisgarh, while AAP fielded 85 candidates, it got a mere 0.9% votes and the NOTA votes were 2% of the total counted votes in the state. Other parties which fared lower than NOTA were: Communist Party of India (CPI) with a vote share of 0.3% and SP and National Congress Party (NCP), which secured a paltry 0.2% vote share each.
SP in Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections got 1.3% of the vote share and AAP 0.7%, which was much lower than 1.4% of the NOTA votes.
In the Rajasthan Assembly elections, Communist Party of India (Marxist) got 1.2% of the vote share. SP, AAP and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) managed to secure 0.2%, 0.4% and 0.3% of the vote share, respectively. Again, NOTA outperformed all these parties and got a vote share of 1.3%.
In Telangana, CPI(M) & CPI each got 0.4% vote share and NCP got 0.1%, compared to 1.1% of the NOTA votes. In Mizoram, too, NOTA outperformed some regional parties. In the state, People’s Represent for Identity and Status of Mizoram (PRISM) got 0.2% votes — lower than the 0.5% NOTA votes.
However, the most important aspect of these votes, which one witnessed during the five state Assembly polls in 2018, was their effect on the closely fought constituencies in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP was defeated by the Congress in the state but the margin of defeat for the party was not big.
There were around 23 assembly constituencies in Madhya Pradesh where NOTA votes were more than the margin of victory. Of these, 12 were won by the Congress and 10 by the BJP.
Constituencies like Bina and Kolaras polled more NOTA votes than the victory margin. Both the seats were won by the BJP. In Bina, the number of NOTA was were 1,528, much higher than the victory margin of 632 votes. The same phenomenon was observed in Kolaras, where the total number of NOTA votes was 1,674, again much higher than the victory margin of 720 votes.
In Rajasthan Assembly elections too, NOTA votes were higher than the victory margin in 16 seats. Eight of these seats were won by the BJP, seven by the Congress and one by an independent candidate.
One interesting example from Rajasthan, and the impact of NOTA is the seat of its former health minister, Kalicharan Saraf. Saraf won his seat by 1,704 votes while the NOTA votes were 2,371. If two-third of these NOTA votes would have been polled for the runner-up candidate, the electoral outcome of the constituency could have been different.
In Chhattisgarh, eight such seats where the NOTA votes performed better than the margin of victory were divided among the BJP (3), Congress (2) and Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (3).
Explaining the phenomenon of why some political parties secured lesser votes than NOTA in the five state elections in 2018, Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said, “When people choose a party, the visibility becomes an important factor. If people don’t see a candidate which is likely to win the elections, they are not likely to vote for them.”
“So if the party is not seen as a serious contender, people not likely to vote for them. Also, I don’t see any reason why NOTA would make a much bigger difference in these elections compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. I don’t expect the NOTA vote to go up,” Kumar said.
Impact on 2014 Lok Sabha Elections
The year 2018 wasn’t the only one when NOTA votes dented the prospects of various candidates. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, NOTA secured 60 lakh votes (1.1%) of the countrywide vote —more than that of the political parties such as the Janata Dal (United) and CPI.
During the 2014 polls, the constituency that got the highest number of NOTA votes was in Nilgris, Tamil Nadu (46,559), while Lakshadweep got the lowest number of NOTA votes (123), states the March 2018 ADR report on the ‘Analysis of NOTA votes (2013-2017)’.
Interestingly, in Vadodara, the second seat where Narendra Modi won the elections, NOTA polled 18,03 votes, third after the runner-up Madhusudan Mistry of the Congress.
The Highs and Lows of NOTA
The NOTA secured the highest number of votes in Bihar Assembly elections in 2015. It received over nine lakh votes or 2.5% of the total votes polled, the highest ever.
On an average, it polled a total of 4,000 votes in all constituencies of the state; its count was more than the victory margin in 21 of the constituencies or close to 9% of all the seats. Among these constituencies, the highest margin of victory was in Amnour with 5,251 votes and the NOTA count was 6,447. Tarari had the lowest margin of victory (272 votes) with a NOTA vote count of 3,858.
During these polls, the BJP won from seven Assembly constituencies, namely, Raxaul, Chanpatia, Biharsharif, Chainpur, Siwan, Ammour and Banmankhi (SC) with a margin less than NOTA, while the CPI (ML) won from Tarari constituency.
Warisnagar in Bihar had the highest NOTA count at 9,551 votes (the margin of victory here was 58,573 votes).
The results of five states that went to polls in 2016 elections—West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and Assam—also show that NOTA votes polled were more than the victory margin in 62 of the 822 constituencies that went to polls. Of these 62 constituencies, 24 each were in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, nine in Assam, four in Kerala and one in Puducherry.
NOTA polled around 1.25% of the total votes polled in these five states. In other words, this accounts to 17 lakh votes approximately.
On the contrary, the lowest number of NOTA votes was polled in Mizoram (3,810 votes) Assembly elections in 2013.
Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in 2017
The NOTA secured 5,51,615 (1.83%) votes in the Gujarat Assembly elections and Himachal Pradesh secured 34,232 (0.905%) votes.
In Danta constituency in Gujarat, NOTA secured the highest vote count of 6,461—more than seven other contesting candidates. The lowest number of NOTA votes polled was in Mahesana constituency with 686 votes. This number was more than 27 other contesting candidates.
There were 30 other constituencies (16%) where NOTA secured more than the margin of victory.
In Himachal Pradesh Assembly Elections, NOTA secured the highest vote count of 1,162 in Jogindernagar. Lowest votes were witnessed in Lahaul and Spiti. The four constituencies where these votes were more than the victory margin were Barsar (464), Dalhousie (569), Kasauli (503), and Kinnaur (249).
In both the Assembly elections, the BJP formed the government.
Taking It Forward
On November 6, 2018, the Maharashtra State Election Commission issued an order stating that if the NOTA option got maximum votes in a constituency, no candidate would be declared a winner and fresh elections would be held.
Later, on November 22, the Haryana State Election Commission also declared an order stating it would consider the NOTA option as a “fictional character” in the elections and hold re-elections if it secured maximum votes.
These two orders are applicable to all the Urban Local Bodies elections, which include Municipal and Panchayat elections.
In the context of NOTA’s significance, this is a landmark step because the idea with which the Supreme Court introduced it hasn’t shown any significant changes yet.
Anil Verma of the ADR agrees. “Unlike the ECI, the state election commissions in Haryana and MP have started disqualifying candidates that get less votes than NOTA in the local body elections. That is a step forward in local body elections,” he said.
Verma believes that it’s time to move onto the next stage where candidates with a vote count less than that of NOTA should be debarred from contesting the election from that constituency.
He argues that “…one-third of the candidates elected have criminal backgrounds.”
Though the idea may have been to create a moral pressure on political parties to field better candidates, it hasn’t worked much. As seen in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there were 1,404 (17%) candidates with declared criminal cases and 175 (34%) winners with declared criminal cases against them, according to MyNeta.info.