Friday, October 7, 2016

Conscientious Abstention, Protest Votes and Election Boycotts

Non-Voting Methods Explained

Non-voting covers conscientious abstention, protest votes and election boycotts, all of which may be used as ways to suggest anything from ambivalence to contempt for the ballot options available and/or a lack of legitimacy of the government, the election or the eventual winner.

In some cases, voters may choose not to vote because they do not believe votes matter: if they believe the candidates are equally bad, the candidates are merely puppets, or the election is rigged.

Conscientious Abstention

This is when a single voter decides not to vote at all. For the purposes of this discussion, I am only referring to cases where the voter has a political, social or moral reason for not voting. Recusing oneself to avoid a conflict of interest is a separate matter.

Protest Votes or Blank Votes

In this case, a voter does turn in a ballot, but intentionally chooses an invalid option, such as leaving the ballot blank, marking multiple choices or choosing a candidate that is unlikely, dead, fictional, etc. This is a more “active” choice than conscientious abstention, which in some cases will make it more likely to register.

Sometimes a “none of the above” option is available. There is some question as to whether marking this choice is considered a protest vote, since it is a legitimate option provided by the ballot organizer.

Election Boycotts

These are essentially abstentions on a mass scale. Since many people are involved, often as part of a movement, boycotts tend to have greater exposure.

There have been calls to boycott the current 2016 US Presidential election.

Pros and Cons of Non-Voting


The argument against forms of non-voting is that they do not have any impact, whereas voting does have at least a very small impact.

Conscientious abstention and boycotts are often outwardly indistinguishable from apolitical reasons for not voting, such as apathy or forgetfulness, and thus can easily go unnoticed. Similarly, blank votes can be mistaken for accidents.

Even when noticed, conscientious abstention can take additional information gathering to understand why the voter abstained. Not all voters may abstain for the same reason, which can lead to confusion or incorrect interpretations of the intended message. As such, abstention is unlikely to have any clear impact in isolation.

In isolation, abstention and boycotts, and some forms of protest voting, do not suggest a solution, but only highlight the presence of a problem. For that reason they can be seen as unproductive.

When at least a degree of choice is available on the ballot, as in a “lesser of two evils” case, choosing not to vote can backfire, resulting in the “greater of two evils” winning. Boycotts can also backfire by making victors appear more successful than they would have otherwise.

Advantages and Strategies

Non-voting can be used to undermine the perceived legitimacy of a government, election or the vote winner.

Many non-voters abstain for strictly personal reasons, but if the goal is changing public perception, being effective relies on spreading awareness of your actions (or non-actions). Non-voting should be announced, through either the traditional media, social media, or sympathetic organizations. Celebrities, especially highly respected figures, can be more effective in this regard.

Combining non-voting with other forms of protests, such as marches, rallies and strikes, can also be used to make sure the non-voting is noticed and ascribed to the correct causes. Acting in numbers will typically have more impact than acting alone, so I would rank election boycotts as a more powerful tool than conscientious abstention.

Non-voting is especially effective in elections or referendums that require a result to hit a certain percentage of the eligible voting pool, such as a majority or supermajority. They are less effective in elections that only require a plurality.

Non-voting sends a louder message in cases where voting is compulsory - where refusing to vote is an act of civil disobedience. Parliamentary voting, where voting members must be in attendance and give a verbal response, are also a conspicuously noticeable time to use non-voting.

For more practical advice, see Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Historical Cases of Election Boycotts

To judge the success or failure of an election boycott we need a metric. I would consider any of the following a measure of success:
  • The ruling party changing before the next regular election cycle. For example, if the ruling party vacated leadership, was overthrown, or was deposed by a special election.
  • The leadership adopting specific policy changes in line with the agenda of the non-voter(s).
  • A noticeable, widely-documented authoritarian “thaw” such a reduction in violence, the release of political prisoners or the beginning of peaceful negotiations.
  • Recognition by the international community coupled with related concrete results (beyond official censure) such as successful external political pressure, imposition of economic sanctions, or military intervention.

Below are some prominent historical cases and my evaluation of their success. Please note that I do not intend to lessen the struggles, which can include imprisonment and death, of boycotts whose results I rate as failures. Nor should there be any assumption, unless I specify, that I advocate for or against either the methods used or the political entities involved.

Since my research of historical cases is rather haphazard, I appreciate additions and corrections.

Portugal, 1918

Three of the most prominent opposition parties (Democratic, Evolutionist and Republican Union) boycotted over recent coup victor Sidonio Pais running for president unopposed. As a result the National Republican Party won a two-thirds majority in the House. Pais was assassinated before the year was out and NRP party collapsed.

Verdict: Success

Northern Ireland, 1973

Not an election, but the Northern Ireland Sovereignty referendum of 1973, a vote on whether Northern Ireland should be ceded from the UK to the Republic of Ireland, is a well-known boycott example. Held a little over a year after Bloody Sunday and during the height of The Troubles, it was probably in part a publicity stunt by Prime Minister Edward Heath. Heath was well-aware that the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party did not have the majority they needed for a united Ireland. The SDLP knew as well, and decided to boycott the election. However, the plan backfired, making the decision to stay seem more popular than it was and providing the opposition with propaganda for decades to come.

Verdict: Failure

Jamaica, 1983

The Jamaican 1983 boycott, caused one of the lowest turnouts in the history of democracy. The right-wing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Edward Seaga, stayed in power and now controlled every parliamentary seat. Jamaica’s constitution required an opposition, but Seaga simply appointed 8 independent senators to fulfill this role. JLP’s dominance lasted until 1989 when the left-wing People's National Party (PNP) changed tactics and ran against them on an anti-corruption and hurricane-recovery platform. By 1991, the PNP had made meaningful change, including a reduction in crime, improvements in the economy, a welfare program and housing improvements.

Verdict: Failure

Ghana, 1992

Unfazed by the election boycott, the ruling party, led by Jerry John Rawlings, stayed in power for 9 more years. 

Verdict: Failure

Bangladesh, Feb 1996

In Bangladesh in February 1996, a boycott kept the ruling power in place, but along with strikes, mass protests and international outcry, a second election was held in June in which the Awami opposition party won an election with high turnout. The boycott appears to have helped stimulate an immediate reaction.

Verdict: Success

Slovakia, 1997

The 1997 Slovak referendum was part of a complex, but fascinating, faceoff between outgoing president Michal Kovac and dictatorial prime minister Vladimir Meciar. Referendums in Slovakia require a 50% turnout. Hoping to stir up the necessary votes, the government combined four questions, beginning with joining NATO and ending with a question on switching to direct elections for president, which were otherwise headed for a deadlock via the current parliamentary process. Meciar, who stood to benefit from the resulting power vacuum, had the final question struck from the ballots. Kovac’s party retaliated with a boycott that successfully killed the referendum. Slovakia was conspicuously not invited into NATO two months later, unlike the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, and were passed over for EU membership in favor of Estonia and Slovenia.

Verdict: Success

Algeria, 1999

This was a six-party boycott following unmet promises of a fair election. Violence had been waning leading up to the elections in anticipation of a reconciliation, which were fulfilled by a nationwide referendum in September 2000. Bouteflika, who won unopposed, granted amnesty to the Islamist groups that fought against him over the previous 8 years and won subsequent elections on platforms focused on peace and stability with high turnout (despite smaller boycott efforts) overseen by the OSCE. He remains in power to this day. I suspect the boycott helped Bouteflika realize he had to focus on earning legitimacy through unity measures. Violence significantly fell.

Verdict: Success

The Gambia, 2002

Authoritarian president Yahya Jammeh and his party won in a landslide, helped by the boycott. He remains in power to this day. Conditions in the Gambia have steadily deteriorated.

Verdict: Failure

Iran, 2005

The boycott of the 2005 presidential election is perhaps one of the most clear-cut cases in favor of accepting the lesser of two (or in this case more) evils. Reformists and intellectuals pushed for a boycott over unsatisfactory candidates, the too-powerful position of the supreme leader and voter registration bias. But the opposition was divided on the tactics, with many prominent figures suggesting voting in favor of the least-conservative choices over the hardline military-bred fundamentalist choices. The poorly-coordinated hybrid approach led to a victory by Mohammad Khatami, a serial human rights violator. Outside observers suspected the election was probably manipulated anyway.

Verdict: Failure

Venezuela, 2005

The Venezuelan 2005 boycott was largely considered a disaster, as the OAS and EU were helping oversee what looked to be a fair election that had made important concessions to the opposition parties. Still, the oppositions parties withdrew at the last minute, claiming distrust of the electoral process. The decision was bad PR both internationally and abroad. Venezuela’s international approval remained high. Even Human Rights Watch balked, “It's really hard to understand what exactly the political opposition leadership has in mind. But certainly it is not going to help them to present themselves as victims that deserve solidarity from the international community. With these kinds of tactics I don't think they'll gain any ground." The ruling party stayed in power a 10 further years.

Verdict: Failure

Kosovo, 2007

Serbs boycotted a chaotic, but peaceful, round of mayoral elections observed by the Council of Europe. The boycott led to annulment of the results in 5 Serbian-majority municipalities.

Verdict: Success

Sicily, 2012

The 2012 regional election boycott in Sicily helped outsider-party Five Star Movement gain a significant foothold. Was that the boycott's intention? If so, that's a success. But one would think that if the boycotters wanted the Five Star Movement in power, they would have voted for them. I do credit Five Star as a "3rd party" success (though note that Italy isn't a 2-party system), for effecting concrete aspects of their agenda, including major anti-corruption work, legalizing same-sex marriage and relaxing immigration law.

Verdict: Uncertain

Thailand, 2014

Widespread opposition protests against Prime Minister Yingluck, combined with an election boycott, prevented both the registration of candidates and the election of a valid House of Representatives. The protest movement succeeded in getting Yingluck removed from power a few months later. Unfortunately, the resulting power vacuum paved the way for a coup by the arguably more corrupt Prayut Chan-o-cha and his military junta. Still, the boycott meets my definition of having triggered meaningful change.

Verdict: Success

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