Voters in this round of Assembly elections have made or will make, depending on where their constituencies fall in the staggered poll schedule, acquaintance too with a new symbol on the ballot. The last option on the electronic voting machine now carries a symbol of a big, fat cross mark to denote “none of the above”, or NOTA. It was designed by Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design — and its introduction may focus attention on the ways in which this tool is being used by voters to drive home a message. Just recently, women activists in Kerala launched an awareness programme, asking voters to hit the NOTA button if they do not see women candidates in the fray. Of course, should the number of NOTA votes in a constituency of women-less candidates top even those of the highest-polling contestant, he will still get elected. In its >landmark judgment in September 2013 ordering the inclusion of the NOTA option , the Supreme Court had clarified that a high NOTA count would not invalidate an election and the highest-polling candidate would be declared elected. The voter essentially got a method to register discontent, a protest that became unavailable to her with the shift to EVMs. Earlier, voters could deface the ballot paper or leave it unmarked to cast an invalid vote. With EVMs, a vote is deemed to have been taken place only when a button is pressed. Voters can still fill a form under Rule 49-O of the Conduct of Election Rules to invalidate votes, but the process is not anonymous.
Unlike invalid paper ballot votes, there is nothing ambiguous about choosing the NOTA button. There was no way to determine if a paper ballot had been rendered invalid unwittingly or by design. Voting NOTA is a statement of intent. And less than three years into its existence, perhaps we are still to distil the messages in its tally. For starters, the fact that on average NOTA votes tend to be just over 1 per cent of total votes cast, suggesting that cynical lump-all-politicians attitudes are not exactly prevalent. Voter turnouts in Indian elections continue to be staggeringly high, and the voter clearly does not go through the trouble of getting to a polling booth just to reject everybody. But there are cases where spikes in the NOTA tally may tell a story. In the 2013 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, for example, it was more than 3 per cent of total votes cast — indicating possibly coercion (whereby a voter forced to cast her ballot beats the effort by invalidating it) or relatively higher alienation. Or consider an analysis in this newspaper that found NOTA votes are disproportionately higher in reserved constituencies, at the Lok Sabha and Assembly levels, revealing an undercurrent of social prejudice. For most candidates, however, it will remain an exercise in getting every potential NOTA vote — so that like Kannur’s runner-up in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, they are not hit by a margin of defeat that is less than the NOTA count.