This clamour for right to reject is a muddled response to electoral issues
The “Right to Reject” proposals are again gaining ground in discussion. But there is something extravagant about the claims being made. While the proposal may not do too much harm, it is not at all clear it does much good. It is another instance of reform debates taking recourse to wishful thinking.
There are at least three versions of the right to reject on offer. The mildest version, proposed in the Election Commission’s letter to the PM, is an updated version for Rule 49 of the Conduct of Election Rules. Under this, voters can choose to have their abstention registered. Under current procedures, this abstention is not secret. The idea is simply to give voters a “none of the above” option. This has expressive value and is least disruptive. But it will not have any bearing on the outcome of an election. The other two proposals are more consequential. In one version, if more than 50 per cent of the electors choose a “none of the above” option, the election will have to be held again with a new roster of candidates. In another version, the election will be re-held if the number choosing “none of the above” option exceeds the number of votes garnered by the leading candidate. Then there are minor variations on the prohibitions the rejected candidates have to suffer.
It is not entirely clear what problem this is meant to solve. In discussions, one argument put forward is that it will lead to fewer criminals in politics. The logic for this supposition is not entirely clear. But a fair response to the worry about criminals in politics is this: if we are serious about removing criminals in politics, we need to get serious about the criminal justice system. Final convictions have to be secured in a reasonable amount of time. But to be a little more provocative, we need to ask why it is that in some cases people vote for so-called criminals? It is often because they provide services that often the state cannot - ranging from protection, to a visible ability to get things done. Condemning the choices without grappling with the circumstances that lead voters to make the choices they do is a species of easy moralising.
The second argument, expressed in Law Commission reports, is the concern that with plurality of candidates contesting, the winning candidate usually has a very low percentage of votes in their favour. If we could somehow require candidates to poll at least 50 per cent plus one vote, the system would be more representative. It would, so the argument goes, also diminish the role of caste etc., since every candidate would have to have broad-based appeal. But this argument is also too quick. First, if we really want a 50 per cent plus one rule, we need to openly discuss either runoffs, or Alternative Vote proposals, which the British just rejected. The Right to Reject has nothing to do with it. But we should also be cautious about the numerical fixation on 50 per cent plus. The claim that someone is our representative will always be endogenous to the rules of getting elected. Just because the rules require 50 per cent plus one, it does not necessarily mean that individual is more representative. It could mean other things as well. It could mean voters have had to compromise even more in making their choices. It could raise entry barriers into politics and cut down choices. This may not be sufficient to reject 50 plus one requirement. But we must get away from the idea that there is a set of election rules that does not generate its own externalities. Voting rules also have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Many well-intentioned reforms in places ranging from California to Israel have often produced worse outcomes. Tread cautiously.
But it is not clear negative voting has helped anywhere. In the US, some states have experimented; Russia had it, and abolished it. One simple reason is that under the 50 per cent rule, casting a negative vote makes sense only if you are confident that half of all voters agree with you. The middle class may have more contempt for politicians, but this is an extravagant assumption to make.
There is also the curious paradox of expressing contempt for electoral choices, through the rhetoric of more choice. Ostensibly giving the right to reject gives voters greater choice: they have the choice to reject and express exasperation. But in reality the choice argument is more complicated. One rather subtle point about elections is the moral importance of the simultaneity and independence of voting. My expression of preferences should not depend upon knowledge about how others have voted; and it should be based on broadly the same possible information. Only then have votes got equal value. Administering a right to reject in a way mimicking the simultaneity requirement is not going to be easy. Second, the issue of preferences is also not that straight-forward. Just because voters reject a set of candidates does not automatically mean that a second set has enhanced their choice or produced something closer to the illusory idea of their real preferences. Since you cannot test the transitivity of preferences along two different choice sets, it is a bit too quick to claim that the choices exercised on the second set are somehow more authentic than the first.
One possibility with negative voting, particularly the third variant, is that it could penalise good candidates. At least now in campaigns, we discuss sops and promises, however illusory. But under negative voting there may be huge incentives on part of weaker candidates and parties to ensure good candidates get disqualified. Finally, since party structures remain important, the significance of getting rid of one set of candidates is not as clear as people suppose; the individual characteristics of MPs now matter less. We need better institutionalised parties more than negative voting.
We need to discuss serious issues: party systems, election finance, decentralisation. We have created huge anomalies by aspiring for proportional outcomes out of a first past the post system. But the clamour for negative voting is distraction. I may not happen to agree with much of what goes on. But at some level I have to acknowledge that my arguments have lost. Having lost, I ought not to blame the rules, or construct the voters as helpless victims of bad rules. Politics is the slow boring of hard boards, as Max Weber said. But India’s privileged, having failed to do the requisite manual labour of politics, and elicit trust, now place excessive faith in new rules.