Mumbai: The None of The Above (NOTA) option was introduced by Election Commission of India in electronic voting machines (EVMs) in 2013 to allow voters to signal their discontent with candidates or the electoral process. It is largely being used by caste groups to demand better representation, according to a new research paper by Garima Goel of Kings College, London, published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Goel’s research finds significant regional variation in NOTA voting in India and clear clusters of NOTA votes in certain areas. Drawing on voting patterns of 20 state assembly elections between October 2013 and May 2016, she finds that proportions of NOTA votes are highest in India’s tribal belts (parts of west-central, east-central, and Northeast India) and, within these areas, NOTA voting is highest in the constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST).

Interestingly, it may not be the tribals but the non-tribal population who are driving NOTA voting as a form of protest against the lack of representation for their community.

The author cites anecdotal evidence from Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district and Chhattisgarh’s Bastar where Other Backward Classes explicitly rejected ST candidates, demanding better representation of their own community. The author also finds that NOTA voting is the highest in areas which are strongholds of left-wing extremism, possibly because of the influence of Maoists, who see it as a tactic to discredit the state.

Initially, NOTA voting had been expected to be more prevalent in urban and more literate areas, and correlated with higher turnout and increased criminality. However, the author finds that this is not the case.

NOTA voting is actually higher in rural areas with fewer literate voters, suggesting that mistakes due to ignorance could be driving NOTA votes. There is also no strong association between NOTA voting with either higher voter turnout or increased criminality in elections.

While overall NOTA voting only accounts for 1 to 3% of total votes, it still offers insights into the motivations of ordinary voters in India. For voters, NOTA can be a tool for protest and, for candidates in close contests, it provides an opportunity to gain a marginal voter share by addressing demands of NOTA voters.

Also read: Patterns of NOTA voting in India

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