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Increasing invalid votes cause for concern

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Increasing invalid votes cause for concern

Experts suggest adopting against-all voting choice and EVMs, but political parties are not ready to do so

Over the past three-decade, there has been a sharp increase in political awareness among Nepali citizens. This is largely due to rapid expansion of information technology. But there is a contradiction when it comes to the information related to elections. Despite the voter education campaign launched by the Election Commission (EC), the number of invalid votes has been increasing.

In the 1991 parliamentary election, the first one after the restoration of democracy, the number of invalid votes was 2.75 percent of the total vote cast. In the 2017 national elections, there was a sharp rise in invalid votes at 14 percent (see chart). There is a concern that the number of void ballots could go up in the November 20 elections.

Former election officers and political analysts attribute various factors behind the high number of votes getting disqualified. Invalid votes went up mainly after the 2017 local and parliamentary elections, first polls conducted under the federal set-up.

One reason behind the high number of invalid votes in 2017 could be that voting for the federal parliament and provincial assemblies took place on the same day. The number of ballot papers increased, and, as a result, many voters were confused. And it was not just in rural areas where the invalid ballot numbers were high; many urban votes and those particularly those cast in the Madhes province failed to qualify for count.

Similarly, in the local elections held in May this year, the ratio of invalid votes was higher in key metropolitan cities than in the hill and mountain region.

For the upcoming polls, too, the EC has finalized four ballot papers and separate ballot boxes. Any small mistake while stamping the ballot or dropping the ballot could make it invalid.

Another reason behind increasing invalid vote numbers could be electoral alliances among many parties.

Dolakh Bahadur Gurung, former election commissioner, says while there is no one single reason behind the increasing number of invalid votes, poll alliances among multiple parties could be one.

“Poll alliances have definitely left the voters in a quandary,” he says.

Gurung suggests making the voter education campaign more effective and result-oriented to reduce the number of invalid votes.

Billions of rupees are being spent in the name of voter education, but the results remain dismal.

The election body hasn’t been able to reach out to all voters. When its officials reach the doorsteps of voters, in most cases, most family members are out in their jobs. And in the case of rural voters, they are working in their fields.

Similarly, the Election Commission has also failed to clearly explain the voting process to voters.

Meanwhile, political parties are also creating confusion among voters by focusing their voter education drive on how to vote for their candidates.

Gurung says after 2017, there has also been an emergence of a new trend, where grassroots party cadres who are unhappy with the electoral alliance intentionally cast invalid votes instead of just abstaining from voting.

The lack of electoral laws giving voters the option to reject all candidates if they do not like any of them is also contributing to invalid votes.

Gurung says the NOTA (none of the above) option on ballot papers can fix this problem. NOTA enables voters to officially register a form of protest over the candidate-selection process.

People who do not want to vote for any of the candidates are likely to intentionally cast invalidate votes. “The against-all voting option can resolve this problem,” says Gurung.

It has been eight years since the Supreme Court’s order to implement the NOTA option, but major parties are reluctant to do so. Following the court’s order, the EC in 2016 had incorporated this provision in the drafts of the election-related laws. But the parties opted to remove it after parliamentary deliberations in 2017.

If such provisions are made, the number of NOTA , which is a basic democratic right, may increase, but it will also reduce the invalid votes, says Pradip Pokhrel, an election expert.

“Increasing invalid votes could be a reflection of people’s frustration that they do not want to vote for any candidates fielded by the political parties,” says Pokhrel. “The same old faces have been contesting the elections since 1990, and there is a growing resentment among the voters.”

Another way to reduce invalid votes could be the introduction of an electronic voting machine (EVM). But again political parties are against it.

In the previous elections, the EC had launched EVMs in some constituencies, but it was opposed by political parties, claiming that the machines could be rigged.

Gurung disagrees with the parties.

“The use of EVM will be cost- and time-efficient. It will also grant voting rights to those Nepali living abroad.”

Invalid votes

1991: 4.42 percent

1993: 3.16 percent

1999: 3.16 percent

2008: 6 percent

2013: 4.96 percent

2017: 14 percent