The causes of invalid votes in Nepal

The local-level elections have been completed successfully. Over the past few weeks, we waited for the results and in doing so there were a few reports here and there that suggested the increasing number of invalid votes in Nepal.

A preliminary remark that was made by most experts before the elections was that the number of invalid votes in previous years was concerning. The voter education program has received significant increments in terms of the budget over the years. Yet, at the same time, the count of invalid votes has also gone up. In fact, the number of invalid votes in Nepal is higher than her South Asian counterparts.  The global average of invalid votes is well below three percent. In the previous parliamentary and local level elections, Nepal’s invalid vote percentage hovered around 5-6 percent. This often is a signal that there are particular and urgent problems in the electoral system.

The total number of invalid votes this time around will only be revealed after the Election Commission publishes its final report. There are, however, some preliminary estimates from a few local governments. This suggests that this time around, the count for invalid votes should be higher than on previous occasions. Some local governments are reported to have invalid votes higher than valid ones. This would also mean that representatives in such places would have been elected against the backdrop of several issues that surround invalid voting.

Three factors 

Invalid votes have often been a long-studied phenomenon. The causes for invalid votes are deemed to be threefold. The first is the institutions, the second is the socio-economic condition of the voters, and the third is invalid voting as a symbol of protests.

This time around, the cause for the higher number of invalid votes is likely to be the institutions responsible for conducting the elections. There are a few peculiarities that have come to light over the past week. The institution responsible for conducting elections—the Election Commission—is, to a larger degree, mired with inadequacies. This includes the shortage of staff for counting votes and the constant tussle between the responsible officers. By institutions here we do not just mean the actual entity responsible for conducting the elections. This also includes the participants—the political parties and rules and regulations.

Earlier on, it was hypothesized that forming a coalition across ideological lines at most local levels is likely going to confuse voters. This certainly would be the case, although its gravity is yet to be studied.  Additionally, it was also suggested that the design of the ballot paper itself is a cause of concern. The ballot paper was in no way reflective of the positions that were to be voted on at most local levels. Local governments, by design, are either rural municipalities or municipalities. The fundamental difference in the type of local government gives rise to the number of local representatives to be elected and also the positions of such representatives. Yet, ballots were designed in such a way as if all local governments were municipalities. Caution was cast earlier on that such a move does nothing but only confuse the voters. The faulty design of the ballot paper at the moment seems to be the predominant reason for the significant number of invalid votes.

Second, socio-economic conditions of the voter such as literacy rate, ethnicity, language etc are also known to be a causal factor for the number of invalid votes. A strategy to tackle this issue is to increase the spread of voter education. While the voter education program in Nepal is existent, the results question the implementation of the program itself. Evaluation of the program itself is perhaps the most crucial step that needs to be taken moving forward.

Third, invalid votes are often taken as a symbol of protest. However, this is unlikely to be a causal factor for invalid votes in Nepal. This is primarily because there are no provisions for mandatory voting in Nepal. Countries with mandatory voting often encounter invalid votes since there is no other option. It is suggested that invalid voting is merely a protest by the voter, a protest against the electoral system and the candidates as well.

Of the three reasons that are identified as causal factors in invalid voting, institutions are likely to have the strongest link. This time’s invalid voting percentage will surely be high enough going by some preliminary reports. As a defense, electoral institutions in Nepal will likely require some time before they are completely accustomed to periodic elections and the preparation that an election demands. After all, this year’s local-level election marks the start of timely elections and electoral mandates. But this defense is only as good as the learning curve of the institutions. Only time will tell whether there will be serious reflections on this year’s elections, the challenges and the mistakes made along the way. One thing, however, is certain. Invalid votes in Nepal are a concerning matter and to solve it we first need to identify the cause of the problem. One can hypothesize about the problems like in the preceding paragraph, but ultimately we must turn to the data once it is published by the Election Commission.

This article was originally published in Nepal Live Today by Yatindra KC on May 30, 2022.