# What is the difference between nullifying your vote and not going to vote at all?

When there are multiple parties to vote with (let's say `A`, and `B`), what difference does it make when one nullifies their vote compared with another person that does not vote at all?

I heard some people saying there is a difference in the way they count the votes, but I don't understand it. If I'm not wrong they suggest the following scenario:

If in 100 people with right to vote:

• 50 people go to vote:
• 25 vote for `A`
• 15 vote for `B`
• 10 nullify their votes (e.g. not putting the stamp anywhere etc.)

Then, does that mean that:

• `A` gets 50%
• `B` gets 30%
• and the rest of 20% is... like an empty space - the people that decided to abstain, but still go to vote?

If those 10 people would not go to vote at all, the parties would get `62,5%` (25/40) vs `37,5%` (15/40).

How is this different, except the obvious difference in percentages?

When talking about voter fraud, is it easier to register fake votes in the name of the people that did not go out and vote compared to nullifying votes of people who actually went and and cast their vote?

What other differences (from any point of view) are between someone that does not vote at all and someone who nullifies their own vote?

• "multiple parties " would imply more than two.
– vsz
May 27, 2019 at 6:14
• @vsz Well, I tried to keep my example simple enough. May 27, 2019 at 6:58
• There might be many answers depending on the jurisdiction and kind of thing you're voting on. If there is one particular thing you care about, like an American presidential election, you might want to specify that in order to get better-tailored answers and spare your question from being flagged as too broad.
– John
May 28, 2019 at 18:15
• @vsz According to you? Just you? It's perfectly reasonable to use multiple to mean "more than one". May 29, 2019 at 14:31

In countries where voting is compulsory the first option (nullifying your vote) will probably let you abide by the law, while the second might not. E.g.

Former Australian opposition leader Mark Latham urged Australians to lodge blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine. At the 2013 federal election, considering the threat of a non-voting fine of up to \$20, there was a turnout of 92%, of whom 6% lodged either informal or blank ballot papers.

If the voting is electronic you probably won't be able to nullify your vote though. Also in some countries with "compulsory" voting you just have to show up, you don't have to actually vote... which again makes the choices equivalent, except that you have to show up to just not vote.

Also even in countries with non-compulsory voting some just write/draw stuff on the ballot as a protest, perhaps also hoping it will get picked up by the press [NSFW!].

• You do actually have to vote but because of the secret ballot they can’t check if you actually did. legislation.gov.au/Details/C1924A00010
– user8430
May 26, 2019 at 23:16
• Also in some countries with "compulsory" voting you just have to show up, you don't have to actually vote..., are there any democratic countries where you actually have to show up and vote, with blank vote being impossible? May 27, 2019 at 12:11
• Why would electronic vote not allow for invalid votes? electronic vote systems are designed according to the requirements of the election they have to fulfill. If the law requires a blank/invalid vote they will simply add that option in the software. Source: I used such machine a couple years ago and the list of options included both "blank" and "invalid". May 27, 2019 at 18:59
• @Bakuriu you're certainly right, but if the intent of compulsory voting was that people did indeed vote then they would have no incentive to actually add that option. At the moment invalid votes in Australia (or other countries that mandate secret ballots) could be seen as a side effect of a secret ballot rather than an intended option. May 28, 2019 at 6:25
• @Shadow in Belgium voting is compulsory and when you have to vote electronic there is a option 'blanco'. It's only after you press the blanco option or vote for someone that the system will print out the ticket that has to be registered. May 28, 2019 at 10:38

I will provide a complementary answer for the more general interpretation of the question in your title:

What is the difference between nullifying your vote and not going to vote at all?

If the voting refers to a referendum it might actually make a difference. E.g. Today Romania also held a referendum (along with the EU Parliamentary elections). By law in order for it to be validated it must have:

• a voter turnout >= 30% registered voters
• valid votes >= 25% registered voters

Let's assume about 71% of the voters are acting consistently:

• if they all come and nullify their votes, the referendum is valid
• if they do not come to vote at all, the referendum is not validated
• Yes - this is referred to as a quorum. However, note that usually only "valid votes" count for the quorum. The law in Romania is a bit unusual in that respect, in that there are two quorums - 30% counting all votes, and 25% counting valid votes. In German referendums, for example, only valid votes matter. May 27, 2019 at 7:14
• In this example, why would the 71% who were uninterested in the referendum take the time to go and cast a nullified vote? May 27, 2019 at 14:51
• @BrianR - yes, I have fixed that paragraph. Thanks. May 27, 2019 at 15:04
• So are you saying the primary purpose of nullifying your vote is to validate referendums? Is this really that common? It very much seems like an edge case to me. Or it's common, but this rule was presumably added as a result of people nullifying their votes, not the other way around, in which case: why were votes nullified before this rule was added? Also, what's the motivation for doing this instead of just voting normally? May 27, 2019 at 15:52
• @NotThatGuy - I would say it is a theoretical situation only. I would not expect to ever see something like this in practice. May 27, 2019 at 16:00

When you do not vote, you are basically saying "everything is fine, no matter who wins."

When you spoil your vote, you are either saying "none of the above, and things are not fine" or "oops, didn't read the instructions." Unfortunately the last two can be hard to tell apart from the published election percentages, but if there is a significant movement before the election that tells people to spoil, the percentages will reflect this.

In some jurisdictions the counting is public, so a group of interested citizens could watch and count how many spoiled votes appear deliberate.

• Actually, I think vote counting is public in most democracies - it's an important oversight mechanism. At least in Germany, vote counting is public by law (§10 Bundeswahlgesetz , among others). Of course, with (electronic) voting machines this becomes difficult - which is one criticism of voting machines. May 27, 2019 at 7:20
• I'm not sure I agree with your first statement. Not voting could equally be viewed as "everything is not fine, and will remain not fine, given the available options". May 27, 2019 at 12:04
• @Mohirl, not voting is passive, spoiling the ballot is active. Deciding not to vote is indeed ambiguous, but less so than spoiling.
– o.m.
May 27, 2019 at 12:26
• Vote counting in public is also manditory in the United States. The little known "Battle of Athens, Tennessee" (1946) was initiated in response to corrupt politicians stealing one of the ballot boxes and counting without public witnesses in the County Jail. May 28, 2019 at 16:42

In most systems there is no substantial difference.

In the UK system, blank ballots (along with other invalid ballots, such as people who vote twice, or sign the ballot paper) are counted as "spoiled" and when the result is announced the number of votes for each candidate is read out, along with the number of spoiled ballots. The percentage isn't particularly important, it is the candidate with the greatest number of votes who wins.

Even if there are more spoiled ballots than valid ones, it doesn't affect the result. The spoiled ballots are counted, but not counted for or against any candidate.

Political analysists may later calculate the percentage of valid votes, or the percentage of all votes, or the percent of the registered electorate, usually to form a particular narrative.

Scenario 1 (100 registered voters)

A 40 B 35 C 15 Spoiled 10

Candidate A has 40% of the electorate and 40% of all votes, but 44% of valid votes

Scenario 2 (100 registered voters)

A 40 B 35 C 15 Spoiled 0

Candidate A has 40% of the electorate but 44% of all votes, and 44% of valid votes.

The outcome is that candidate A is elected. The end result is exactly the same, and so there is no substantial difference.

• Thank you for the answer! However, aren't there cases when the percentage does matter? If I am not wrong, in Romania the elected president should get >50% of the votes. May 26, 2019 at 16:35
• A common theory goes that non-voters are seen as just too lazy or disinterested, but a large percentage of spoiled votes would "send a message" of active disapproval of all candidates. May 26, 2019 at 16:38
• There might be systems in which the winning candidate is required to get the votes of more than 50% of the electorate, or more than 50% of voters. However these systems all run the risk of not electing anybody, if spoiled ballots are possible. If you know, or can find out, the romanian system, you can add your own answer. May 26, 2019 at 16:45
• However I think the Romanian president is only required to get 50% of valid votes on the second round of voting, so spoiled ballots have exactly the same effect as not turning up. May 26, 2019 at 16:47
• @Sean - interesting question, but virtually impossible scenario as we expect at least party members to vote. You might check Jose Saramago's Seeing which deals with something similar. May 27, 2019 at 4:36

Maybe those people were talking about blank vote, not null vote.

There are two main types of protest voting: null voting and blank voting.
Null voting is when your ballot has drawings on it, is defaced in some way, has more candidates selected than it should, is not an actual ballot (e.g. you put a picture of Donald Duck inside the envelope), etc.
Blank voting is when your ballot has no marks, or a "None Of The Above" mark where available.

In most electoral systems, a null vote is not taken into account, so it is the same as not voting. The difference lies in null vote vs. blank vote, and it depends on the electoral system.

There are basically three types of electoral systems:

• Plurality systems, where the winner is the one who gets more votes (not necessarily a majority).
• Majority systems, where the winner is the one who gets a majority of the votes.
• Proportional systems, where the amount of representation of each candidate is calculated based on the amount of votes they get.

For plurality systems, it doesn't make a difference: if candidate A got 10 votes, candidate B got 9 and candidate C got 8, then candidate A wins because that was the candidate with more votes. Votes not going towards a candidate are ignored.
This system is the one used in the US, the UK and countries influenced by them.

This system is used in e.g. France, where blank votes are not valid votes and thus ignored (candidate A would win in both scenarios).

For proportional systems, null votes are ignored, but blank votes are usually not: they are valid votes and so are taken into account when calculating representation. Blank votes in proportional systems tend to work against candidates with less votes, by making it harder to reach the minimum % of total votes needed for a seat, or by altering the coefficients used when assigning seats, resulting in candidates with a higher number of votes being assigned more seats than if no blank votes had been cast.
This is the system used in most European countries.

TL;DR: Null votes usually don't make a difference, but blank votes can do a big one (in most of Europe at least). Maybe that't what you heard some people talk about.

• «In most electoral systems, a null vote is not taken into account, so it is the same as not voting.» Yes, but it's not counted as an abstention either. It's interesting. May 28, 2019 at 18:10
• @ANeves Indeed. I guess they do so to detect problems in the voting process. May 29, 2019 at 8:32

A person who did not vote for A or B may be:

• Opposed to both A and B
• Not aware there is a vote
• Too busy or lazy to go vote

Ordinarily, it is not easy to decide on the proportions of these. But nullified voters are clearly aware of the vote and care enough to show up. Therefore they can be an indication of whether both choices in a vote were poor. For instance, if you have 10 million people, of whom 2 million vote for Alice, and 1 million vote Beatrice, you might conclude that the population favors Alice. However, if you also get 6 million null votes, it is clear that Alice would not make people much happier than Beatrice, so maybe it's worth re-doing the vote and include Charles this time.

It also makes fraud a bit more difficult, of course. Once somebody casts a vote, it's pretty easy to detect a false vote in their name - there would be duplicate votes. The easy way to do vote fraud is to find people that won't vote (whether because they don't care, or you paid them not to, or you destroyed their ballot box, or they're dead) and then vote in their name. If somebody doesn't want to support either option, but also wants to make life harder for frauds, then a null vote makes sense.

• If the vote is not on parties but laws (or changing the constitution, or a referendum), there is usually a minimum required turnout for the voting to be taken into consideration. An invalid vote can increase turnout (depending on jurisdiction), while not voting does not.
• Regions or neighborhoods with distinct socioeconomic or ethnic makeup might find that if they have lower turnout they will be ignored by the central government (less investments, less roads being maintained, etc.), as they "matter less". Therefore, someone who is dissatisfied by all of the parties and doesn't prefer any candidate over others, might still go to vote and submit an invalid vote, just to increase turnout in the region/neighborhood.
• If there is suspicion of election fraud, people who don't favor any candidate might be incentivized to show up and submit an invalid vote, in order to make it more difficult for others to submit a fake vote in their name.
• "An invalid vote increases turnout, while not voting does not." - usually not. The quorum (minimum required turnout) usually only counts valid votes (depends on jurisdiction, of course). May 27, 2019 at 7:22
• If someone's cooking the election, showing up and submitting an invalid vote won't make any difference, since the ballot'll get torn up anyway. May 28, 2019 at 0:56
• @Sean : Nope, it's much more difficult to "tear up" the ballot, at least in a developed country. What's easier to do is to insert votes in the names of people who didn't show up.
– vsz
May 28, 2019 at 4:00
• @vsz: How so? It's not like the ballots have some sort of magic spell on them that'll zap the corrupt election official if they (the election official) try to tear them up... May 29, 2019 at 1:00
• @Sean : The process is the following: you hand over the ID, sign the register, get the ballot and the stamp, and go behind the curtain while the ID stays behind, and you only get it back after you placed the ballot into the box and returned the stamp. Taking the ballot paper outside is illegal. You might theoretically just not stamp it and throw it on the ground, but then it will be marked as invalid. Signing the register will lead to a ballot being placed inside the box. If you don't stamp it, it will be regarded as invalid at the counting.
– vsz
May 29, 2019 at 21:24

Technically they are the same: Invalid votes are the same as no votes at all.

There is still a subtle difference: Both, a valid and an invalid vote, produce the same workload for the poll clerks. They have to open the letter and look what's written on it. If they see that it is a vote that is intentionally made invalid, it just increases frustration for spending time on some nonsense. In this case it would be more fair to not vote at all.

• Having attended a count in the UK, I can assure you that spoiled ballot papers did not increase frustration. May 27, 2019 at 13:04
• @MartinBonner: Having counted balots in Denmark, I'd say that conspicuously spoiled ballots are not a source of frustration, but blank votes are -- especially if the ballot paper is large you need to spend a long time looking meticulously for a cross that isn't there, checking and cross-checking, before it can go in the "blank" pile. May 28, 2019 at 18:03

I have spoiled my ballot paper (by writing "None of the above") just once. I did so because I wanted to actively make the point that I believed the election should not be taking place at all.

(It was for the position of elected Police and Crime Commissioner in the UK. I felt the old system where the police was responsible to the local authority was better.)

Most people are getting hung up on laws. But elections are not about laws.

The purpose of an election is to confer a form of legitimacy on the winner of the election -- democratic legitimacy.

The laws and procedures around the election are setup to make the election seem legitimate. In some cases and systems, this also makes the election an actual reflection of people's votes.

Now, not voting is relatively common in wealthy western democracies. It is usually interpreted as apathy -- not caring who wins. A turnout of 40% or 60% or 70% of those eligible to vote may make the news, but as a minor point. Only drastic swings away from a previous vote total are really news worthy.

A massive campaign to not-vote, protesting the election itself as being illegitimate, can undermine the democratic legitimacy of the result of the election. This is done when a portion of society feels that the rules of the election have tipped the scales in favour of one result or another to an unfair degree.

Spoiling your vote sends a different message. Many systems record votes as being spoiled, and in some cases record refused ballots separately.

Spoiled ballots are usually interpreted as the voter making a mistake. In some cases, mass spoiled ballots are used as a sign that the vote counting wasn't legitimate, and triggers a recount.

Mass refusals of a ballot haven't happened as far as I know. But, in a system where it is or can be tracked separately, it would be a really clear indication that the ballot wasn't considered legitimate by the people getting ballots.

An example of where that might be used is when the people writing the ballots have eliminated an option that would win. Not showing up would be one option, but showing up and declaring the ballot illegitimate by declining it en-mass might make the result of the election seem extremely illegitimate.

The down side is that the people setting a ballot are usually those who count the ballots, and often have control over the media messaging around the vote. Getting the message out "show up, decline your ballot" and having that accurately counted to the point where the election is clearly illegitimate would be quite a challenge.

TL;DR - voting is a form of power and expression. Not voting and spoiling and declining and voting are all different expressions, and can be interpreted differently. Under most voting systems, only those who vote are counted for the "winner", but the purpose of winning an election is to claim democratic legitimacy.

A country with 30% turnout can have the winners of the elections claim democratic legitimacy.

A country with 60% turnout, where half of the ballots are refused or marked "none of the above", is going to have a democratic legitimacy deficit, even if it picks the same winners.

• "A country with 60% turnout, where half of the ballots are refused or marked "none of the above", is going to have a democratic legitimacy deficit, even if it picks the same winners." This may be true on mature western democracies. But in coutries that had dictatoriships ruling at some point in the 20th or 21st centuries, democracies are still in their infancies and high turnouts mean nothing. It's dangerous to measure all democracies with European or American metrics. Jun 6, 2019 at 13:52
• @Henrique I don't understand what your quote has to do with the rest of your comment. Possibly you meant to quote something different? Or more than that sentence? A dictatorship with 90% turnout, but half of the ballots said "none of the above", isn't going to use that information to buttress its democratic legitimacy. It would look worse than a 45% turnout with no "none of the above" votes. (Now, the dictatorship is likely to not report honest vote results, but that has nothing to do with that sentence or this comment)
– Yakk
Jun 6, 2019 at 13:58
• I meant a country that has been in the past under a dictatorship and only recently achieved democracy. Even though they are now "free", such countries with young democracies still have to evolve a lot so that nullifying votes would mean something. This is true in latin américa, where voting is mandatory, so a high count of null votes would not mean "this is a fraud, i don't agree", but, instead, "yeah, whatever, do as you please". And, of course, I may have interpreted the word "turnout" wrong... Jun 14, 2019 at 22:38

EDIT: Short answer: it depends on the regulations and law in your country.

In my country, it does not make any difference at all, regarding the ballot itself. Blanks, nulls and abstentions are thrown in the same "invalid" basket and do not elect (or avoid election) of any party or candidate. But, also in my country, if you stay at home you are breaking the law. If you go and nullify your vote, you are a respectable law-abiding citizen.

--

In Brazil you have to vote - not voting is against the law. And the voting is almost 100% electronic, with only some remote areas in the Amazon jungle having to revert to the old paper votes due to malfunction of the machinery involved.

But even so, you have the option of nullifying or casting "blank" votes. Every candidate has a number, you vote on them entering that number in that specific question. The presidential, governor and mayor candidates have two-digit numbers, the senators three-digit, congress representatives four-digit, state-representatives five-digit and city council candidates have six-digit numbers. You can nullify a vote if you enter a number that does not belong to any candidates (and they save the "all nines" number for that). AND, if you want to cast a blank vote instead of nullifying it, there is a special "blank" button in the electronic ballot that you press. They tabulate blanks and nulls in separate collumns for statistical purposes, but under the law they represent the same thing.

Under Brazilian law, only the valid votes are considered for electing someone, nulls and blanks are invalid and have absolutely zero influence on election results. Even if 99% of voters stay at home or blank/nullify their votes, that 1% that went to vote and chose a valid candidate decides the election. But abstentions (which are illegal), blanks and nulls are counted and registered for statistical purposes, and appear on the authorities' reports about the election.

This link brings a Picture of the electronic ballot used in Brazil. It's very simple and quite clever, despite the (unfair) concerns about the data Security of the whole system. http://www.omorungaba.com.br/upload/fotos/not_1502108394.jpg

• It's certainly an interesting answer, but I'm not sure if this answers this question.
– JJJ
May 27, 2019 at 17:53
• I should have clarified it, I see. His original question was "What is the difference between nullifying your vote and not going to vote at all?". May 27, 2019 at 21:40
• My answer, in short, is: it depends on the regulations and law in your country. Then, I proceeded to show that, in my country, it does not make any difference at all, regarding the ballot itself. Blanks, nulls and abstentions are thrown in the same "invalid" basket and do not elect (or avoid election) of any party or candidate. But, also in my country, if you stay at home you are breaking the law. If you go and nullify your vote, you are a respectable law-abiding citizen. May 27, 2019 at 21:48