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A protest vote (also known as a blank vote or white vote) is a vote cast in an election to demonstrate the caster's dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates or refusal of the current political system. In this latter case, protest vote may take the form of a valid vote, but instead of voting for the mainstream candidates, it is a vote in favor of a minority or fringe candidate, either from the far-left, far-right or self-presenting as a candidate foreign to the political system.
Along with abstention, which is simply the act of not voting, it is often considered to be a clear sign of the lack of popular legitimacy and roots of representative democracy, as depressed voter turnout endangers the credibility of the whole voting system. If protest vote takes the form of a blank vote, it may or may not be tallied into final results depending on the rules. Thus, it may either result in a spoilt vote (which is the case most of the times) or, if the electoral system accepts to take it into account, as a "None of the Above" vote.
Several possible protest votes
Protest vote can take different forms:
- Voting for a fringe, ineligible, or fictional candidate.
- Spoiling, or marking nothing on, the ballot paper.
- Selecting a none of the above (none) or "blank vote" option, if one exists.
- Selecting a vote in favor of a different voting system based on a condorcet method
Interpretations to each of the methods mentioned above vary.
Sometimes, a person may use even more uncommon, often illegal, methods to protest vote. Examples include physical destruction of the ballot (for example, ripping the ballot apart or eating it), asking other people to vote for them, or selling their ballot (for example, putting their vote on auction sites).
Protest vote and abstention
Abstention may be considered as a form of protest vote, when it is not assimilable to simple apathy or indifference towards politics in general. Henceforth, the anarchist movement which has since its origins rejected representative democracy in favor of a more direct form of government, traditionally calls for abstention in an active and protest gesture. In states where voting is compulsory, abstention may be seen as an act of civil disobedience.
Abstention in compulsory voting systems tends to be somewhat ineffective, as the protest 'message' is likely to be confused with apathy. Voters who do not care who is elected, but are simply voting because they must, may choose to abstain, and the abstention protest votes will be confused with the apathetic abstention votes.
A second problem with abstention is it tends to help maintain the status quo, which may be seen as antithetical to the purpose of protesting in the first place. In a system where one candidate has a majority of support, protesting by abstention will increase that majority in the election results. To illustrate this, consider a group of 10 people voting for two candidates, A and B. Six support candidate A and three support candidate B, and one is wishing to protest, using their vote, against either the system or both candidates. If the protestor votes for candidate A, the results would be 70% to 30% (for A and B respectively); if the protestor abstains, the results would be 67% and 33% (A and B respectively); if the protestor votes for B, the results would be 60% and 40% (A and B respectively). In a larger election, the differences are numerically smaller but act to increase/decrease the proportional vote in the same ways.
The abstain vote actually increases the proportion of votes for the most popular candidate, while voting against the popular candidate(s) (by voting for any other option(s)) would close the electoral margin. In a wider context, closing the margin may result in a hung parliament, or a smaller difference between the parties in government, reducing the chance of a single party having control over the system, which may be seen as beneficial for the sake of protesting against the system or candidates.
Voting for fringe candidates
"Protest vote" also refers, in a more derogatory manner, to specific demographic categories, classifying populations according to the frequency and nature of their vote. Thus, in the US, middle-income families vote more often than the working class or marginalised populations. After the 2002 French presidential election, in which far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen arrived second behind conservative candidate Jacques Chirac, many analysts put the blame of the surprising result on working class, accused of engaging themselves in "protest vote", that is in support of fringe candidates belonging to the far-left or the far-right, or even to people who present themselves as alien to the political world (in France, environmentalist René Dumont in 1974, comedian Coluche in 1981 — but he withdrew his candidacy before the elections — environmentalist Pierre Rabhi who unsuccessfully tried to present himself in 2002, as well as TV showman Nicolas Hulot who almost stood for the election for 2007, before putting aside his idea, thus leaving electoral space for José Bové, a figure of the alterglobalization movement who recently decided to present himself as an independent candidate). This kind of protest vote, where the vote is taken into account but accused of being "useless", is often considered by political analysts to be either a form of populism or, worst, of poujadism. For example, French voters were encouraged by the establishment to make a "useful" vote in the 2007 presidential election, i.e., by voting either for Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement, or for Ségolène Royal, candidate of the centre-left Socialist Party, and not for other candidates considered unlikely to make the second turn of the elections.
Electing a political newcomer
Significant popular support for a person who had never previously been involved in politics may be seen as a form of "protest vote". Thus, when the 37 year-old Director of the Vanuatu National Cultural Council, Ralph Regenvanu, stood for Parliament in 2008, he was a political newcomer. He campaigned on the theme of bringing a fresh face and a fresh approach to politics, and was elected in his constituency with a record high number of votes. This prompted Transparency International Vanuatu to applaud his election and his first days in office: "Port Vila MP Ralph Regenvanu was elected by the “Protest Vote” – essentially by those people who were sick and tired of the traditional politics, and it is encouraging to see him exercising his mandate."
Protest vote in various countries
In the United States, cartoon and other fictitious characters are typically used as protest votes; as Mickey Mouse is the most well-known and well-recognized character in the United States, his name is frequently selected for this purpose. Other popular selections include Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the parliamentary elections in Finland and Sweden, although Finns and Swedes usually write Donald Duck as a protest vote because in these countries Donald is more famous than Mickey. Other characters, both real and fictional, are used as protest votes too. One theory has it that the reason for boxer/politician Tony Halme's popularity in one of the Finnish elections was because he was being used as a protest vote. Somewhat ironically, this might mean that protest votes actually got someone elected.
- Vote of No Confidence
- List of democracy and elections-related topics
- None of the above (when blank ballots are recognized)
- Spoilt vote
- Donkey vote
- Election boycott
- Political alienation
- "Regenvanu, la surprise des législatives", Les Nouvelles calédoniennes, September 4, 2008
- "NATAPEI LEADS BUT FEARS OF INSTABILITY LOOM: Independents offer a fresh new face to Vanuatu politics", Islands Business, September 2008
- "TIV congratulates Regenvanu for letter PM", Transparency International Vanuatu, October 10, 2008