Monday, September 7, 2015

Just Say No to "None of the Above"

A graphic showing an example ballot line to vote for none of the above.
Some OpaVote users use a "None of the Above" (NOTA) option when voting to fill an office.  Others call this a "Seek Further Candidates" (SFC) option, a "Reopen Nominations" (RON) option, or an "All Candidates Suck" (ACS) option.  The reason for a NOTA/SFC/RON/ACS option (hereinafter "NOTA") is to allow the voters to decide that none of the candidates are worthy of being elected and that the organization is better off leaving the position vacant for the present time.

In my opinion, organizations are better off not using a NOTA option.  I'll explain my reasoning here. But if you insist on using a NOTA option, you need to make sure you do so correctly and I'll also explain how to do that.

If you disagree, feel free to let us know in the comments or send me an email.  I can post your views in a follow up post.

NOTA is Too Negative

By including a NOTA option on the ballot, an organization is making the statement that it is possible that all of the candidates running for the position are so unqualified that the organization is better off leaving the position vacant.  That is a harsh statement.  Organizations generally include people who are more or less like minded on some issue so their elections should be much less divisive than say the election for president of the United States.  If an organization feels that NOTA is a necessary option for its elections, then perhaps it needs to reevaluate how it operates and work to improve itself.

There are better choices than using a NOTA option.  Instead, the organization could work harder to make sure that it is actively recruiting good people to run for offices.  If there are elections where only one person is on the ballot, perhaps there are too many offices, and the organization would be better off with fewer offices.  If the organization has divisive factions, then learning to understand each other and work together would go a long way to help the organization be more productive.

If, despite my objections, you still want to use a NOTA option, then continue reading to make sure you do it the right way.

The Right Way to Implement NOTA

If you do want a NOTA option, it is easy to do so with ranked voting, and you don't need to add an explicit NOTA candidate to the ballot.  How this works is slightly different for electing a single person (e.g., with IRV) and electing a group of people (e.g., with STV) so I'll explain each separately.

As an initial matter, to implement NOTA in any election (either for a single person or for a group of people), the voters must have the option to rank some but not all of the candidates.  By not ranking a candidate on his or her ballot, the voter is declaring that the voter would prefer to leave the office vacant rather than elect that candidate.  It is very important that you inform voters of this as a voter may otherwise only rank his or her top two or three candidates not realizing the implication of leaving candidates off the ballot.

NOTA for Electing a Single Person

Suppose that candidates are competing to fill an office and IRV (I'm assuming you know how IRV works) is being used to count the votes.  Each voter has the option to rank all the candidates, some of the candidates, or none of the candidates.

When a voter ranks fewer than all of the candidates, it is possible that all the candidates ranked on the ballot are eliminated, and in this case, the ballot is said to be "exhausted."  The simplest example is where the voter ranks only candidate, and that candidate is eliminated.

After concluding an IRV count, there will be a single candidate with the largest number of votes.  An organization has two options for its election rules (presumably specified in advance): (i) the candidate with the largest number of votes is elected regardless of the number of votes received (no NOTA option), or (ii) the candidate with the largest number of votes must be ranked on at least a majority of the ballots to be elected and otherwise the office remains vacant (the NOTA option).

IRV counts are often terminated either when a candidate reaches a majority of the votes or when only two candidates remain.  When implementing NOTA, you may need to go further and eliminate the second to last candidate as well.  For example, suppose there are 100 voters and when only two candidates remain, candidate A has 40 votes, candidate B has 30 votes, and 30 votes have been exhausted.  Candidate A has not yet reached a majority, but that does not mean that A is not elected.  We now need to eliminate candidate B and transfer those votes.  Any vote for candidate B that has a ranking for A will now get transferred to candidate A.  After doing so, candidate A is elected if A has reached a majority.  If not, the office remains vacant.

The principle is similar for Condorcet and approval voting.  A candidate is elected as long as that candidate is ranked on a majority of ballots or has been approved on a majority of ballots.

NOTA for Electing a Group of People

The principle is similar when electing a group of candidates, but it is a little more complicated.

Suppose that candidates are competing to fill N seats on a committee or council and STV (I'm again assuming you understand how STV works) is being used to count the votes.  When counting votes with STV, a winning threshold or a quota is used to determine whether candidates are elected.  The winning threshold is almost always a variation of the Droop quota.

After concluding an STV count to fill N seats, only N candidates will remain in the count as the other candidates will have been eliminated.  The organization again has two options for its election rules: (i) the N candidates with the largest number of votes are elected regardless of the number of votes received (no NOTA option), or (ii) only candidates who have received at least a winning threshold of votes are elected and if fewer than N candidates reach the winning threshold then some of the seats remain vacant (the NOTA option).

There is one more twist for implementing NOTA with STV.  The winning threshold for STV can be "static" or dynamic," but to implement NOTA you must use a static threshold. A static threshold is calculated before the votes are counted and does not change.  This is exactly what you want when using NOTA.

A dynamic threshold is recalculated every round based on the number of exhausted ballots.  At each round, the number of unexhausted ballots (as opposed to the total number of ballots) is used to compute the threshold.  Because the number of exhausted ballots can increase each round, the dynamic threshold can decrease each round.  In fact, the whole point of the dynamic threshold is to ensure that all winning candidates do reach the winning threshold by reducing the threshold as the number of exhausted ballots increases.  Implementing NOTA and using a dynamic threshold are directly counter to one another.

Now that you know how to properly implement NOTA, let me explain a common incorrect way of doing it.

Do Not Put a NOTA Candidate on the Ballot

Some organizations want to explicitly put a NOTA candidate on the ballot.  In my view, this unnecessarily complicates the election and does not provide any benefits.  Here are some reasons.

First, as described above, one can achieve the goals of NOTA without explicitly putting a NOTA candidate on the ballot so there is no need to have a NOTA candidate.

Second, if you do have a NOTA candidate, the NOTA candidate must always be ranked last on the ballot.  This complicates the user interface for electronic voting and invites voter errors for paper voting.  Note that OpaVote does not currently support a NOTA candidate that is always ranked last.

Third, and most importantly, using a NOTA candidate greatly complicates the counting rules because the NOTA candidate is treated differently from other candidates (this is especially true for STV).  I have never seen counting rules that properly describe how votes should be counted when there is a NOTA candidate.  If you know of such rules, please send them to me.  I'll sketch out how I think it could work with IRV and STV.

When you have a NOTA candidate, you need to distinguish between (i) a ballot that ranks a candidate first and ranks the NOTA candidate second and (ii) a ballot that ranks a candidate first and does not rank any other candidates.  In aggregate, we have ballots that support candidates (the ranked candidates),  ballots that explicitly reject candidates (when NOTA is on the ballot), and ballots that take no opinion on candidates (when NOTA is not on the ballot).  This gets confusing very quickly!

As a thought experiment, let's think how one could implement a NOTA candidate with IRV.  The NOTA candidate can't be eliminated.  At each round, the real candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated until only one candidate is left.  If that one candidate has more votes than the NOTA candidate, then that candidate wins.  (That wasn't too bad, but I still believe it is better to not use a NOTA candidate.)

Now let's consider how one could implement a NOTA candidate with STV.  The NOTA candidate can't be eliminated, and I suppose the NOTA candidate also never transfers surplus votes.  

First, let's consider STV with a static winning threshold. As the count progresses, the NOTA candidate will accumulate votes and ballots will be exhausted.  The NOTA candidate can receive more than a winning threshold of votes and any number of ballots may be exhausted.  At the end of the count, how do we determine who the winners are?  We can't require that winning candidates have more votes than the NOTA candidate (as we did above for IRV), because if the NOTA candidate has more than a winning threshold, then no one is elected and all seats are vacant.  That does not seem to be the intent of using a NOTA candidate.  The only thing that makes sense is to require that candidates receive at least a winning threshold of votes to be elected, and thus we are in exactly the same situation as if we did not use a NOTA candidate at all, and we have added all this complexity for nothing.

Second, let's consider STV with a dynamic winning threshold.  Under a normal STV count with a dynamic threshold, the winning threshold is determined by using the number of unexhausted ballots, and thus the winning threshold decreases as the number of exhausted ballots increases.  Now, it is possible to distinguish ballots that rank the NOTA candidate and ballots that do not.  We simply compute the dynamic threshold the same way.  When a ballot is exhausted the winning threshold will decrease, and when a ballot reaches the NOTA candidate, the winning threshold will not decrease because the ballot is not exhausted.  At the end of the count, candidates who reach the dynamic winning threshold are elected.  While this could be done, in my view, it is far too complicated, and you should just say not to using a NOTA candidate with STV.

In summary, I think it is a bad idea to use a NOTA candidate with IRV and it is a terrible idea to use a NOTA candidate with STV.

Although OpaVote does not officially support counting with a NOTA candidate, it may work for you anyway for an IRV election.  As long as the NOTA candidate is not eliminated, the results should reflect a correct implementation of a NOTA candidate.  If you do this, you should closely review the round-by-round election results to make sure the outcome is what you intend.  If it doesn't, then you need to fall back to a hand count.

So that is my tirade.  I suspect people out there will have other views and I would love to hear them.


  1. Bob Richards had some great commentary on the STV-voting Yahoo Group, which you can find here ( and I am also copying below:

    Whether it's possible for an organization to use NOTA depends on the office. To take an extreme example, suppose an incorporated non-profit is electing a treasurer. State or federal law probably requires that there be a treasurer, so leaving the office vacant is not an option. To take a less extreme example, if the office of chair is left vacant, who is allowed to call a meeting? In the bylaws of some organizations, the answer might be "no one". On the other hand, if a board of directors has at-large members, it might be better to have fewer of them than called for in the bylaws, if the alternative is to elect unpopular or unqualified people. I'm not sure the advocates of NOTA think these things through very clearly.

    While your implementation of NOTA makes fewer demands on the software than the more common method you criticize, I suspect it is a lot harder for rank-and-file voters to understand. In particular, voters have a hard time with instructions and advice about how many candidates to rank. Your method of providing for NOTA assumes that voters will rank all of the candidates who are not completely unacceptable to them, but no more than that. That's a steep learning curve. It's much less important in the absence of NOTA. Ranking "too few" candidates increases the odds that your ballot will be exhausted but (most of the time) not by very much. IRV and STV are fairly robust in this regard.

    It's probably better to either (1) add NOTA to STV/IRV software as a feature, or (2) conclude that NOTA is always a bad idea and ignore this feature request from users.

    Bob Richard
    Californians for Electoral Reform

  2. Some great commentary as well from Michael Wheatley from here ( and copied below:

    Over the 8 years I worked with the BC Green Party in Canada, we adopted
    a clear, simple and rational alternative to NOTA, beginning with the
    recognition that NOTA works on a multiple choice question but has no
    place on a preferential ballot.

    We complimented the preference vote with a second "endorsement vote"
    where voters were asked, for each candidate, if they endorsed the
    candidate for the position. It was explained that a "NO" vote indicated
    that the voter would rather see the position left vacant than have that
    candidate fill the position. Abstention was presented as a legitimate
    option. To stand for a position a candidate had to have more "Yes" than
    "No" votes.

    A variation on the endorsement vote would be to include a "None Of The
    Following" candidate on the preferential ballot. This would be ignored
    when counting the preferential ballot but would be used to create the
    endorsement vote ballots described above. Whil it uses more paper, I
    saw it as preferable to make the two votes separate for the voters and
    avoid the work of pulling the info out of the preferential ballots.

    I have left much unexplained. Let me know if you have questions.

  3. Another good comment from Charles Sherrouse:

    I agree that NOTA should not be used instead of a robust election announcement and candidate recruitment process. But NOTA can be used as a failsafe against a flawed or corrupt qualification process (e.g. when the best candidate is dropped due to a technicality). NOTA can also be used to help keep a multi-seat board or committee functioning optimally by allowing some seats to remain empty rather than filled with cantankerous or counterproductive members. Another common use for NOTA is in party nominations, where members might choose not to nominate candidates that do not represent the party's values or platform.

    When using NOTA it is best that it be an explicit choice, with any lower ranked options being ignored. NOTA is counted similarly to other options except that it is persistent (i.e. it is never eliminated). A successful candidate must have more votes than the accumulated NOTA votes. NOTA is distinct from "no vote" or an exhausted ballot. A better term than NOTA might be "None Of The Remaining" or "None Of The Others".

    Thank you for addressing this, as it is not covered in most voting methods discussions.

  4. It doesn't seem to be mentioned, but I think NOTA is appropriate where only one or two candidates exist. It can help identify a flawed/corrupt nomination process, and where a candidate beats no confidence, all concerned should be satisfied that the winner is worthy of their elected position.

    I agree it has little place in elections with more than two candidates.

  5. Our Bylaws require NOTA as a candidate but we also allow NOTA to be eliminated so we list NOTA just like any other candidate.