Making Protest Votes Count

Image from The Guardian. Counting votes in a UK election.

All votes, including protest votes, unclear votes and 'spoiled' votes, are counted, recorded and announced in the results for each constit­uency on election night.

Like all democratic votes, protest votes will only be included in news reports and national results if the numbers make them significant and newsworthy.

In the 2010 General Election, the UK total of protest and 'spoiled' votes was around 295,000.  That is a large number, but it represents less than 1% of voters.  So it was not news.  Meanwhile, 34% of registered voters just didn't vote.

If that 34% Vote, they can change the outcome of the election.  If they Vote NONE, the protest can be larger than the support for the government.

Protest votes must be clear.  To make a protest visible, don't just 'spoil the ballot'.  Here's why.

The right of protest within our democracy

Our democracy was built on protest.  Women, and those who didn't own property, finally got the vote by protest, not just by asking.  Sus­tained protest has been the route to positive change.

A good democratic election should include a right to protest.  Otherwise it is like a referendum where you can only say 'yes' to what is on offer.  That is the case in the UK.

This campaign aims to establish that right of protest, now and for the future.  To do so, requires some of the Unheard Third to vote NONE in protest.

Here's how it works…

Classifying protest votes

Image from The Guardian. Counting votes at a UK election.

protest vote will be rejected as a vote for a candi­date.

To be a visible protest, it should also be classified as a protest vote.

The rejection happens, and if the number of rejections multiplies in this election that alone will be newsworthy.

However, classification is also important.  Protest needs to be recognised and heard as a protest, not dismissed as voters' mistakes or 'spoiled ballots'.

The Electoral Commission guide for those who count the votes shows what they should accept or reject as a vote for a candidate.  (See the guides, right or below.)

It requires that rejected votes be counted and classified by the reason for rejection.  At the moment, their categories are:

- absence of official mark [i.e. no cross];
- voting for more than one candidate;
- writing or mark by which the voter could be identified;
- unmarked or void for uncertainty.'

Their examples include one protest vote (image below) where the voter has scribbled 'None of the Above' with a tick.  The advice is to classify it as 'voter's intention uncertain', on the basis that there is no 'clear intention to vote for one candidate'.

Image from the Electoral Commission booklet, showing a tick with 'None of the Above' written beside it.

Whilst elections must focus on selecting candidates, it is indefensible not to have a rejection category that recognises protest votes.  If enough people make clear protest votes this time, that will have to change.

The weakness in their classification is that this 'voter's intention' is actually clear.  No sane person could fail to understand it, especially in the current political environment.

However, it is not clear beyond dispute.  There is a tick in a candidate box, and the guide will accept a tick as a vote in place of a cross.  So only the scrib­bled words indicate that it's not a vote for the candidate.  Hence it can perhaps be dis­missed as 'voter's intention uncertain'.

Establishing the right of protest

To establish the formal right of protest within UK elections, protest votes must be clear beyond dispute, and must increase significantly in number. 

Action 1:  ensure protest votes are clear beyond dispute

- Avoid the official mark.  Don't put a cross (or tick) anywhere on the paper.

- Don't put confusing marks in several boxes.  Just put a single line through all the boxes.

- Don't write anything else which could identify you, or create any uncertainty or excuse.

Write NONE across the ballot paper, so that your intention is clear beyond dispute.

It will then be indefensible to classify it as 'voter's intention uncertain'.

Action 2:  multiply the number of protest votes

Raise public awareness of the option to vote NONE.  One third of the UK didn't vote last time, so there are potential protest voters everywhere.

Challenge and inspire them to do something: either to Vote, or Vote None.

There's no reason to be silent.

Put up posters, hand out leaflets and send tweets to engage the non-voters you know and those you don't know.  See the red action box, our Campaigning tips, and Why Vote NONE?

The numbers make it possible.  If just some of the Unheard Third vote NONE, then:

- in the close election results around the country, the news media, the public and the competing parties will demand to know why so many more votes have been rejected.

- to explain a significant increase in rejected ballots, and justify their certainty about the 'uncertainty'(!), returning officers will have to identify them as protest votes.

Together we will have improved UK democracy, by estab­lishing the right to protest within it.  We will have laid the foundation for enabling protest, when necessary, in all future elections.

Don't be silent.   Vote for a candidate who you trust to work hard for things you believe in, or vote NONE in protest.