How many people actually choose the NOTA option? Is it that common? And what’s going on with reservation?

I was so focussed on the implications of my recent discovery that reserved constituencies have the highest proportion of None Of The Above (NOTA) votes cast, that I didn’t get into more basic information about NOTA in that piece. This blogpost is to remedy that.

The five-state assembly elections in December 2013 was the first time that the NOTA option, brought in after a Supreme Court ruling in September 2013, was introduced. (To recap: the NOTA button gives the voter the option to register that she has chosen none of the candidates on the ballot paper. However, it remains a symobolic gesture; irrespective of how many NOTA votes are cast, the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes, and there will be no re-election.)

In the 630 constituencies across the five states which voted – Mizoram, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – 16.9 lakh NOTA votes were cast out of a total of 8.6 crore votes, or just under 2% of all votes. On average, each constituency saw 2,679 NOTA votes (the average constituency polled 1.37 lakh votes).

First of all, this is a surprisingly large number. For an option that was introduced so recently, in a country with limited literacy and awareness, a few thousand people in every constituency choosing this option is in itself quite remarkable.

The range or distribution of NOTA across these constituencies is of course pretty big. The constituency that got the highest proportion of NOTA votes is Bijapur in Chhattisgarh with 10.14%, and the lowest is Mehgaon in Madhya Pradesh with 0.17%. However, the median constituency (the one that lies bang in the middle of the distribution) has just 1.62% or 2,121 NOTA votes. Essentially, a few constituencies at the top got a lot of NOTA votes – 5% and more - and then the rest all got about 1-2%.

I plotted every twentieth constituency of the distribution in a chart to show you what it looks like.

As for absolutes, this is what it looks like:

As for my original point about the over-representation of NOTA in reserved constituencies, here’s another way of looking at it. Each bubble represents a type of constituency by reservation status, and its size corresponds to the average NOTA votes per constituency. ‘General’ seats, which accounted for 400 of the 630 constituencies have the least NOTA votes by both number (2267.70) and percentage (1.56%), then the 90 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes and then the 140 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

Some readers wrote in asking how it could possibly be the case that those from other castes were voting in reserved constituencies. This is a bit of a misunderstanding about reservations. A reserved constituency is by no means one in which 100% of the population belongs to a particular caste or tribe. I looked up the Election Commission’s 2008 delimitation data to compare the percentage of the population that belongs to the ‘general category’ in the ten seats with the highest NOTA proportions. As you can see, there’s a substantial gap between the two lines.

So if non-tribals or non-scheduled castes decide to exercise the NOTA option rather than vote for a tribal or dalit candidate, there’s nothing to stop them. Whether that is what’s happening is at best an informed guess, given that ours is a secret ballot. As we have more elections with NOTA, we’ll have a better idea.