John Harris

Journalist & Author

In the absence of a ‘none of the above’ option, I had to spoil my ballot paper | John Harris

The police commissioner elections were a farce, and I thought scrawling across my paper was better than staying at home

When I turned up to have my say in the elections for police and crime commissioners last Thursday, I made a point of asking the people staffing the polling station how turnout was looking. “Busy, I take it?” I said: they replied by way of a grimly ironic giggle. I then took my ballot paper and went into the polling booth – but so quiet was the room that the sound of the pencil rubbing against paper and wood sounded very loud indeed. I would imagine that the sound of lengthy scrawling rather than a couple of Xs gave me away. As I had vowed on Comment is free just a week or so earlier, I spoiled my paper, writing – and sorry, but this will inevitably look pious, and a bit rubbish – “Meaningless, shambolically organised elections, and what’s wrong with local police authorities?”

As the hubbub of pre-election conversation about ballot-spoiling (see, for example, this piece from Liberal Conspiracy) had suggested, I was hardly alone. As Alan Travis reported on Monday, there were more than 120,000 spoilt ballots in the PCC elections, which means they ran at a rate about 10 times higher than that registered at general elections. Alan Renwick, of Reading University, told Travis that “many observers at counts across England and Wales saw ballot papers with mini-essays on them rather than votes”: the biggest number of spoilt papers was 9,190 in Avon and Somerset (where I live). The highest proportion was a remarkable 7.2% in North Yorkshire, from where the Guardian’s inestimable Northerner blog had served prescient notice of why it was worth considering.

Renwick suggests that anyone therefore imagining some huge burst of rebellion – like me, I confess – may be mistaken: confusion about the elections’ chosen system may also have been a factor, something borne out by the fact that in many areas, spoilt papers ran at the same rates as those seen in the comparable London mayoral elections. But we should also bear in mind polling data from the Electoral Reform Society about people who stayed at home: 45% said they didn’t have enough information to vote, and 19% (ie 5.8 million people) said they had not taken part because they objected to the policy.

Add all these numbers to the abundance of people who spoiled their papers, and the huge upsurge of online conversation about doing so, and one thing becomes clear: the PCC elections represented remarkable proof of a dud, appallingly executed policy. And underlying that, I would argue, is something much deeper: the fact that a deep, informed, perfectly reasonable anti-political political sensibility is taking root among the kind of motivated, informationally literate people who any functioning democracy really ought to have on board.

The latter point requires thousands of words to even begin to properly explore, but it highlights something I wrote about at the weekend: even after Iraq, expenses, and now a carnival of abstention, all the parties are nowhere near understanding how bad things are. But after my experience of ballot-spoiling, a few clear points can be made.

This was the first time I’d been to vote and not actually done so. Although I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that there is something Rik-Mayall-in-The-Young-Ones about bothering to go to a polling station just to quietly defy the rules, in its own anti-climactic, slightly crap way, spoiling my paper felt honest, and a little bit liberating. I assume that at some point in the future, I might do it again (in Quebec, they call it the “Parti nul” option). But it also affirms something I’ve believed for a long time: that all ballot papers for political office should include a “None of the above” option, and that in an age such as ours, as many abstainers as possible should use social media and the web to explain why they haven’t cast a vote.

As negative and often nihilistic as that may seem, it needs doing: to provide an index of how bust and broken politics is, why we feel so disconnected from our parties and institutions – and, perhaps, what we might start to do to restore them to health.

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