By Maria Chin Abdullah
The call for spoiled votes is a backlash against our deeply flawed political system but ironically carrying it out in the next general election (GE14) will only make the political system more flawed, defeating its own purpose.
A truly democratic political system must include the ballot option to constructively reject all candidates.
More importantly, it should be based on a proportional electoral system. But all these are only possible if we first make our votes count in GE14.
While intentional spoiled votes and its more likely by-product, low turnout, will make gerrymandering and other electoral fraud work maximally to restore Barisan Nasional’s two-third majority, mishandling the spoiled votes campaign by political parties and their supporters will only strengthen the cheater’s hand.
The bitter and abusive exchanges between those who support and oppose the campaign may just dissuade more voters from going out to vote.
There is simply no need for self-righteous abuses, sexist remarks, or even death threats from either side.
We are matured enough to talk to each other and find solutions.
The EC and political parties must also be willing to engage citizens who give up on election, instead of just slamming them.
Demonstrating bold and open leadership, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng responded well on the #UndiRosak issue by asking for wish-lists from youths.
To eliminate the need for spoilt votes, I would suggest three institutional reforms be included in Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto: Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), and two new ballot options in the elections, that is, “None-of-the-above” and “write-in”.
Three major structural flaws
Some voters give their reasons in supporting the #UndiRosak movement as “no choice in selection of leaders”, “why need to choose between Party A or B only?”, “Mahathir is unacceptable as the opposition’s PM candidate”, “dissatisfied Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters should spoil their votes to teach the Opposition pact a lesson”; and “exercising your voting rights and telling PH and Barisan Nasional that we don’t like the both of you” and so forth.
Others feel that whatever mandate voters make will be disregarded given the massive fraud in the electoral system and process.
While some would focus on personalities, all the complaints above can be summed up as being part of three major structural flaws:
(a) Excessive malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies – when a government can be re-elected by a 47% minority and crackdown on the majority at whim, how can people get the government and the policies they want, or ditch the tax they don’t want?
(b) The First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system – the system favours the two largest blocs in most constituencies, which limits policy and programmatic variety.
Also, as constituencies have to be allocated to coalition members by negotiation, often voters don’t get to vote for their preferred party.
Even candidates may need to change constituencies due to seat negotiation.
(c) A closed ballot structure that does not allow voters to choose “none-of-the-above” or to “write-in” other candidates.
Solution 1: Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) Electoral System
To defeat malapportionment and gerrymandering, Malaysia should consider adopting the German-style Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, a combination of FPTP and Party-List Proportional Representation (List-PR) systems, like New Zealand did in 1996.
Voters are given two ballots, one ballot for constituency representative just like our FPTP elections, and the other ballot for party.
For the party ballot, political parties will have to name many candidates in a list, hence, the name “Party-List”.
With two ballots, voters can choose party A candidate for a constituency and party B for party-list.
Party ballot also allows allied parties to have healthy competition between them.
All in all, voters get a greater variety of parties and political programmes in elections.
Legislatures are then divided into two halves: constituency representatives and party-list (non-constituency) representatives.
Seats are allocated proportionally based on shares of party ballot. Parties will keep all the constituency seats and the remaining will be made up with party-list seats.
For example, if the parliament has 200 seats in total, and party A wins 30% votes, it should be entitled to around 60 seats.
If party A already wins 40 constituency seats, it will get 20 party-list seats. On the contrary, if party A wins only 20 constituency seats, it will get 40 more party-list seats.
This completely does away gains from malapportionment and gerrymandering. It also protects parties from exclusion due to multi-cornered contests.
Also, party-list representatives cannot defect with their seats, hence, governments cannot be overthrown by crossover of “kataks”.
As for voters, every party ballot matters, regardless if they live in any party’s stronghold constituency.
Lastly, MMP will also improve the diversity of legislatures and quality of debates, scrutiny and legislation.
Parties can introduce gender, minority and other demographic quota and also draw in more experts and activists through party-list representation.
The very fact that the party-list (non-constituency) members are representing voters based on issues and social grouping, legislatures will be forced to be more professional and serious in debates and law-making.
If the 15th general election is to be conducted under MMP, voters will only be spoilt for choices and the parties supported by the majority will run the country, would there still be a pressing need for spoilt votes across constituencies?
Solution 2: Constructive options for protest vote
Spoiling your vote now will only deliver victory to one of the candidates you reject, because our ballot structure is not designed to accommodate intentional protest votes.
No matter how many spoilt votes registered in a constituency, it doesn’t make a difference to the result that only takes into account the votes received by the parties/candidates involved
So, instead of spoilt votes, we can and should have the options to constructively capture protest votes, through two simple additions to the ballot papers: (a) None of the Above (Nota); (b) Write-in.
With either option, protest votes may make a difference, as the system gives recognition that a) dissent is acceptable; and b) diverse representation can be constructively reinforced.
a) None of the Above (Nota)
India is one of many countries with the Nota option.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of India made a ground-breaking decision where it “upheld the right of voters to reject all candidates contesting the elections, saying it would go a long way in cleansing the political system of the country.
The apex court directed the Election Commission to have an option of “None Of The Above” (Nota) on the electronic voting machines (EVMs) and ballot papers in a major electoral reform.
While Nota in India also has no electoral implication, but in 2016 it accounted for 1.3%, or 561,244 votes of the total votes polled in the Tamil Nadu Assembly election.
High Nota voters gives a moral authority that political parties’ actions or their selection are not supported by voters.
This is in many ways similar to the popular vote when Pakatan Rakyat (52%) gained over BN (48%) in GE13.
To make rejection votes effective, Malaysia can introduce Nota and mandate that a new election be called if Nota wins the highest vote in a constituency.
b) Write-in Votes (WIV)
WIV is practised in some states in the United States where there is an option at the bottom of the ballot paper for voters to write who they want to be the candidate if they disagree with all the options given by the political parties.
In the recent Alabama senatorial by-election, where alleged paedophile Roy Moore was adamantly endorsed by President Donald Trump and stayed on the Republican ticket, some dissident Republicans called upon voters to “write in” the name of a third candidate.
While write-in did not work in Alabama in 2017, it did work in the Alaska senatorial election in 2010.
Incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost in the Republican primary to a right-wing candidate backed by the Tea Party but she won her re-election as a write-in candidate.
Vote in GE14 for reforms in GE15
I strongly believe in proportional representation especially MMP, and constructive options for protest votes, whether it is Nota or WIV.
Our electoral system and process must change after GE14. People must have a wide range of meaningful choices.
So, to the “pejuang”, let’s lobby all political parties to commit to these reforms for GE15. Make your views electorally relevant, not irrelevant!
We must advance the debates on MMP, Nota and WIV so that more people understand the issue.
Making our electoral system and process more inclusive and representative should be our focus instead of pure verbal exchanges.
Political parties must give voters positive reasons to go to ballot booths, including the option to constructively reject all candidates in future elections.
Given’s Lim Guan Eng’s invitations for voters’ inputs, I sincerely hope the PH’s manifesto will categorically promise MMP, Nota and WIV for both federal and state elections in GE15.
Before we have these reforms in GE15, let’s remember we are stacked against an unfair electoral system in GE14, which can only be overcome by a high turnout.
Every spoilt vote will reinforce the flawed system. Every absent voter will prolong our disenfranchisement.
Without any spoilt vote campaign, the last general election (GE13) already saw more spoilt votes than the winner’s margin in 11 parliamentary constituencies.
With the help of spoilt votes, BN can easily win 15 more parliamentary constituencies in GE14 and regain its two-third majority.
Will we then get any reforms? How many elections in future must you spoil your vote in perpetual frustration?
Also, voting for change is not sufficient to bring about reforms after GE14. It is only the necessary. We must do more, including advocacy for MMP, Nota and WIV.
If we don’t even vote, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when things get worse after GE14.
Maria Chin Abdullah is chairman of electoral watchdog Bersih 2.0.
* The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.