The 2011 race for mayor of Bello, a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, looked like a sure thing. There was only one candidate: Germán Londoño of the Conservative Party, an engineer with ties to Bello’s disgraced ex-mayor, who was imprisoned for colluding with certain paramilitary organizations.
And so it was shocking when Londoño didn’t win. In fact, he lost by almost 20 percent — not to an opponent, but to el voto blanco, or “the blank vote.” According to the Colombian constitution, since the blank vote garnered more than 50 percent of ballots, Bello would have to hold another election for mayor. And only new candidates could run.
Bello’s election was a rare triumph for a voting innovation known as the None of the Above option, or NOTA. Unlike ranked-choice voting, which aims to ensure that contests with multiple candidates produce a winner who has majority support, None of the Above allows voters to reject everyone — and register that displeasure in a way that’s formally counted.
And it’s beginning to catch on worldwide. India, the world’s largest democracy, has had a non-binding NOTA option on its ballots since 2013. In Peru and Bolivia, empty ballots can trigger new elections. Voters in one U.S. state, Nevada, have had the “None of These Candidates” option since 1975, and many used it to register protest votes against the presidential candidates in 2016. And in the United Kingdom, the nonprofit group None of the Above UK has worked since 2010 to get a “formal and binding” option on the ballot.
In a country like Colombia, where free and fair elections are the norm but corruption and inequality still run rampant, the blank vote validates a certain disillusionment with the democratic process. But it can also be used to register voter dissatisfaction, even when the structures are largely intact. Is it a mostly-toothless statement of protest, a futile shout into the wind? Or is it a way to make democracy stronger?
Protest voting takes many forms around the world. You can vote for a small political party with little chance of winning. You can submit a blank ballot. You can also deface it (known as a spoiled ballot) or fill it out incorrectly or incompletely (a null ballot). You can write in a candidate (Mickey Mouse is a perennial favorite in the United States).
In many places, those protest votes are simply discarded. They don’t count.
But in some states and countries — particularly in Latin America, where democracy has often failed to deliver on its promises — protest votes have been a formal part of the process for decades. While Colombia is the only country in Latin America with a blank vote option on the ballot, others also give protest votes real power. In Bolivia, a new election is called if an absolute majority of votes cast are spoiled or left blank. In Peru, where voting is compulsory, it takes a two-thirds supermajority.
“If I’m angry but the system is giving me a way to express my anger, that might legitimize this whole democratic show.”
“Lots of Latin Americans are still committed to the rules of the political game — they think that elections are the best way to select leaders, for example,” Mollie Cohen, an assistant professor of comparative politics at the University of Georgia, wrote in an email. “But [they] have little faith that the political options they are expected to choose from are going to deliver on economic growth, equality, and security.”
Hence the interest in a blank vote, which has existed in some form in Colombia for decades. Steven Taylor, a political science professor at Troy University who has studied the blank vote extensively, has found references to it in the Colombian press as far back as 1937. In the past, political parties produced Colombian ballots, but voters could slip in a blank piece of paper. When the state began producing ballots in 1990, they preserved the blank vote option with a box that voters could check.
And while the blank vote typically wins no more than 5 percent nationally in Colombia — Bello’s vote was the first time ever that a blank vote had actually won — its specter has loomed over important elections. Some early polls showed it winning up to 30 percent in the divisive 2014 presidential race, though it attracted only 6 percent when voters actually went to the polls.
“Its operational value is low,” says Mónica Pachón, associate professor at Universidad de los Andes, who researches electoral procedure. “It doesn’t matter, but it matters. It has a symbolic value.”
Whether submitted in protest or ignorance, the blank vote has drawbacks. “It can arguably weaken electoral mandates,” says Cohen. When None of the Above attracts a lot of votes, Cohen says, the winning candidate can come into office with less political capital.
That means political players with an interest in undermining the system have reason to manipulate the blank vote process, Pachón says. As of 2011, Colombian citizen groups can sponsor a blank vote campaign and pay people to promote it. “Imagine two incredible candidates going against two corrupt firms,” says Pachón. “Then the firms find someone to promote the blank vote.”
Yet some argue that the blank vote can also strengthen the democratic process by giving people a sense that their dissent is being heard. “If I’m angry but the system is giving me a way to express my anger, that might legitimize this whole democratic show,” says Cohen.
In the United States, Nevada is the only state where citizens can vote for None of the Above. The option traces back to one of the great fractures in America’s political consciousness — the Watergate scandal.
Former Assemblyman and State Senator Don Mello introduced None of These Candidates legislation in 1975, a year after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency under threat of impeachment.
“President Nixon gave me that idea,” Mello said in a state-sponsored oral history project in 2008. “When we were going door-to-door, I would find more people that knew me and said, ‘We would vote for you again — or for the first time — but we’re not going to the polls.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because we don’t feel that most of the people are worthy of our vote.’”
After conducting an unofficial poll, Mello concluded that people could be enticed back to the ballot box if they were allowed to vote for nobody. His original proposal applied to all offices, but Mello’s colleagues in the legislature, seeing no reason to risk their own seats, narrowed it to statewide races only. Then they declawed it; if None of These Candidates did win, the office would simply go to the candidate with the most votes.
It’s unclear if None of These Candidates has increased voter turnout as intended. But it has finished first — four times, most recently in 2014, when it got the most votes in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“Mostly it gets used in races that nobody follows,” says David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada. “Usually we see it as a sign of lack of knowledge. But you also find it used in highly salient races where voters should know something, suggesting that it is used as a protest.”
That was the case in the 2016 presidential race, when None of The Candidates received 2.6 percent of the vote, more than the difference between Hillary Clinton, who won Nevada with 47.9 percent of the vote, and Donald Trump, who got 45.5 percent. The same thing happened in 1996, when President Bill Clinton narrowly defeated challenger Bob Dole in the state.
At present, it doesn’t seem likely that NOTA will become a factor in more U.S. elections anytime soon. First off, it would have to be passed state by state, by politicians who have strong incentives not to risk the embarrassment of losing a future election to “no one.” The last state to consider it was California in 1998, but the measure was defeated.
And then there’s the ethical argument against NOTA. “There’s a perception that using that option is irresponsible, sometimes undemocratic,” says Cohen. “The argument is that voting is a sacred right, not just a privilege, but a responsibility.” By voting None of the Above, the argument goes, you fail to do your duty as a citizen of a democracy.
In “Seeing,” the 2004 novel by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, the citizenry of a nameless capitol casts blank ballots en masse. A repeat of the election only results in more blank ballots. Outraged, the government declares a state of emergency. Citizens are interrogated and detained. When they still can’t figure out who was behind it, the government seals off the city, depriving its citizens of essential services. Soon, officials are waging an all-out terror campaign, proving what the populace has known all along: the people in power are not worthy of it.
Happily, no such events occurred in Bello after the blank vote won in 2011. Instead, the unlikely victory was roundly applauded. “El voto en blanco es bello” — “The blank vote is beautiful” — read the headline of a newspaper column by the respected journalist Reinaldo Spitaletta, making a play on the name of the city. The president of Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives called it a “brilliant exercise in democracy.”
The election was repeated a month and a half later, and a new mayor (who was later involved in his own corruption scandal) was chosen. But Bello’s experience — and NOTA’s possibility — suggested a profound challenge to political elites, in keeping with Saramango’s story. If a democratic system fails to produce leaders worthy of its people, NOTA gives the people a democratic way of denying them power — or at least putting their displeasure on record.
“People say the oligarchs always win and it doesn’t matter,” Taylor says. “I think the blank vote gives a place for people to say, I’m unhappy with the kind of outcomes I’m getting, but at least I can register my complaint officially.”