Lack of Voice in our Voting | Divanshu Sethi

2018 will see many crucial legislative assembly elections in India and the results of them, to some extent, will foreshadow the outcome of the general election of 2019. The results will be decided by voters where everyone is granted one vote, something which is equitable and inalienable in our society.

In Politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value

 – B.R. Ambedkar, 26th Jan 1950

However, the current system of voting presumes that as voters, we have clear preferences or choices among the candidates in an election. Consider the following scenario in the current voting system where Citizen A has to choose among the following candidates to express her vote:

Candidate X                    Candidate Y                 Candidate Z

In a complete preference or choice scenario, where the citizen has no confusion among the choices, the citizen can vote clearly for either of the candidates (X or Y or Z). We get to know the citizen’s clear preference among the candidates. However, what happens when these preferences or choices are not clear to the citizens? What if citizens cannot distinguish their preference among the candidates? What happens when citizens consider the candidates equally bad? How can citizens widely express their voice about the candidates? The current voting system does not capture the quality or the intensity aspect of the citizen’s opinion on the candidates. For a better depiction, consider the following scenarios:

Scenario I

Candidate Y selection for an elected position will negatively impact the life of citizen A. How can the citizen voice this concern? In the current voting process, the citizen can vote for other candidates, but is that enough? Especially, considering if she is a minority in the country?

Scenario II

All the three candidates are equally bad for the elected position. How can voters express this concern? How can they show negatively of the options provided to them by the political parties?

Scenario III

Citizen B cannot decide among the candidates because they are equal regarding the quality and thus, is indecisive. What tool can be there to allow her to vote still?

These scenarios can exist during real-life elections for voters and thus, show how the current system restricts voters ability to express their voice more extensively.

The discussed voting procedure is defined as preferential or rank based voting where voters identify their preference among the candidates. A whole field — social choice theory — is developed to study, but not limited to, the concepts of rank based(ordinal) – preferential voting. Many pioneers include Nicolas de Condorcet, Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, Amartya Sen, etc. One of the most interesting ideas to come out of the field is the Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem or Arrow’s Paradox. Generally stated, it is the idea that no rank based voting system can be developed to satisfy some simple axioms or criteria unless it’s a dictatorship rule. The result has been one of the most interesting discussions in the field and has had a broad impact in the way we discuss voting models.

We see that the preferential voting system not only has the problem of lack of voice for the voter but has many theoretical limitations in its application. One of the recent and emerging solutions to this problem is to allow judgements in the voting procedure rather than preferences to expand the information sets. Judgement deals in the process to define each candidate in its abilities if elected. This is similar to the way wine connoisseurs judge different kinds of wines in a competition or how the employers judge the candidates for a job position. There are particular rules to follow in the process of judgement for each option, bounded by a specific language set. Consider the following list of candidates, where two voters judge each of them for a particular position out of the list – poor, average, good, and excellent:

Voter 1                                                   Voter 2
Candidate X – Poor                             Candidate X – Poor
Candidate Y – Poor                             Candidate Y -Excellent
Candidate Z – Poor                             Candidate Z – Good

Voters judge each candidate by using the words from the list to express their voice about each candidate’s ability to hold the elected position. This allows voters to be more expressive(more information) about the type of candidates in an election and also showcase the intensity of their voice about each of them. It also provides indecisive voters with a tool to express. Like Voter 1, which gave Poor to all the candidates.

Judgement in voting even solves the relative problem we face during voting. When we look at a list of candidates, we compare each of them relatively. Candidate X vs Candidate Y, Candidate Z vs Candidate Y etc. However, a more objective judgement on each candidate will help voters to formulate better ideas about each candidate’s capability – Candidate X’s ability to perform the elected role.

The current preferential system also invokes individualism during voting as it is the voter’s “preference” among the candidates – I prefer Candidate Z. However, judgement can aide in considering the objective societal consideration as it appeals to see, separately, candidate’s capability to do the job. For example, I might not prefer a candidate because of some political ideology difference, but I know the person is good for the society.

One of the models which include judgements in voting is Majority Judgement by Balanski and Laraki. Their median based judgement model has been discussed in depth in the social choice theory field and has also been experimented during the French and American elections with some interesting results. However, the model is not without some of its problems. Especially in the case of formulating a list of language words/grades to judge the options. In our earlier example, voters used words (poor, average, good, and excellent) from the list. But what is “good” can be different for many voters. A solution to this problem can be to formulate, through discussion, standardised meanings of these words/grades to judge choices. We do this in wine tasting competition, school grading etc. But this will require training for people and thus, may only be practical in homogenous groups.

Like any other model, Majority Judgement has to be further tested of its ability as a voting process in different countries and contexts. It does have the promise of fixing the lack of voice problem in our current voting system and has the theoretical capability to avoid many paradoxes in the field of social choice theory. However, until we test such models, an immediate alternative solution is required to expand our voice in the voting process. One existing option in India is — NOTA.

NOTA, or none of the above, is an option introduced by the Indian Election Commission in 2013 to give voters a choice to raise their dissatisfaction with the candidates in an election. The votes cast as NOTA are counted but are deemed invalid ballots. This means that NOTA does not have any say in the outcome of the final results. However, it is a still a powerful choice to voice citizens concern of the lack of good quality candidates. To further make it an impactful tool, the Election Commission can consider taking the NOTA votes in the final tally of the outcome. Maybe considering that after a certain percentage of these votes, there has to be reelection with new candidates.

Democracy is a continuous process of proactiveness by its citizens to raise their voice about the situation of the country. The lack of voice in our voting procedure should be a concern in our democratic discourse. We feel proud of the fact that all citizens are allowed to cast votes. However, it is of no use if it captures the citizen’s voice in a constraint environment. We can start enlarging the options by giving more power to the NOTA choice and further investigating with models like Majority Judgement to change our voting procedure altogether.


Divanshu Sethi is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.

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