The history of the "against all" option and the case for abolishing it

Abolishing the “against all candidates” option will bring us closer to the democratic standards accepted in Europe, where no such option exists. As a result, however, Russian citizens will lose the ability to express protest against the state’s political abuses.

Of late, officials and lawmakers (at the federal and regional level alike) have been talking of the need to remove the “against all candidates” option from ballot-papers. As yet, only second-rank people are making such statements; but all this looks like a gradual preparation for passing legislation to abolish that opinion. Most analysts now believe that the “against all” option won’t be available in the Duma election of 2007. In response to the signals coming from the authorities, opposition activists are launching a campaign to defend this “last bastion of democracy.” All the same, it isn’t just politicians and armchair politicians who are concerned about this issue; judging by the battles that occasionally break out in online discussion forums, ordinary citizens aren’t indifferent about the fate of the “against all” option.

A Soviet system anachronism

Before we evaluate the arguments used by proponents and opponents of abolishing the “against all” option, we need to understand where it came from and how it has functioned.

And here the first surprise awaits us: this option, which is being defended as fundamentally democratic, only exists in contemporary Russia. None of the advanced democracies have ever had an “against all candidates” option in their electoral systems. Essentially, voting “against all” is alien to Western democracy, which is all about choosing from available alternatives. That approach took shape at the dawn of democracy in Ancient Greece. Solon’s laws in Athens stated that people who failed to join any side in disputes would forfeit their civil rights. In “Engaging Greece,” Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov comments on this situation as follows: “It taught citizens to be the masters of their state, in deed as well as in thought: because it’s easy for a cruel tyrant to seize power in a state where everyone has the habit of being discontented but doing nothing,.”

Democracy in England was less harsh (at any rate, no one stood to lose their civil rights), but it was also based on principles that left no room for voting “against all”: voting was structured as free competition between candidates, with whoever got the most votes in favor being the winner.

So where did we get the “against all” option? Oddly enough, it’s a legacy of totalitarianism. More precisely, it’s a consequence of the Soviet electoral system.

The system that took shape in the Stalin era functioned on principles that differed radically from those of Western democracies. In part, it replicated a party meeting – counting the votes for and against a candidate. Soviet voters didn’t check the box next to a candidate’s name; on the contrary, they had to cross out the candidate they didn’t like. Vote-counting was based on the ratio of votes for and against: that is, the number of clean ballot-papers compared to the number with a name crossed out. This system worked perfectly when there was only one candidate. Citizens received their ballot-papers and put them straight into the ballot-boxes, without touching them. But when multi-candidate elections were introduced in the late 1980s, and people actually started crossing out candidate names, a significant proportion of ballot-papers had all the names crossed out. Therefore, when a working group headed by Viktor Sheinis wrote Russia’s new electoral legislation in 1993, it decided to take those votes into account – and that’s why the “against all” option was introduced.

How it has worked

The “against all” vote was immediately assigned blocking status: that is, if the winning candidate got fewer votes than the “against all” option, an election would be declared invalid. But this rule soon had to be waived in Duma elections and Moscow city legislature elections, and for good reason: in the Moscow city legislature election of 1993, the “against all” option won 31 districts out of 35. Muscovites simply didn’t know most of the candidates, and the Duma and Federation Council elections were taking place on the same day; so voters chose “against all” as the least confusing option.

“Against all” only started functioning as a real blocking vote in Duma elections after 1997. Still, it only had real significance in single-mandate districts. In voting for party lists, “against all” votes had practically no impact on the outcome – only via the rule that the parties comprising the Duma must get a combined total of at least 50% of the vote. In multi-mandate districts (few but present) “against all” votes created obvious confusion, and court decisions usually didn’t recognize them as blocking votes.

The “against all” option won elections quite often, at various levels. Almost all such cases followed election campaign scandals. Only a few cases resulted from a complete lack of suitable candidates. The record was set in December 2004, during a local government election in the Kurganinsky district, Krasnodar territory. An entrepreneur candidate, popular among local residents, was disqualified – and as a result, 69.6% of the vote went to “against all.” A valid election was held three months later, but the count was still 42.9% for “against all” and 50.2% for the winning candidate. The story of the Primorye regional election in 2001 is far more well-known. Viktor Cherepkov was disqualified between the first and second rounds – and 33.7% of the vote went to “against all.”

The overall picture shows that the quantity of “against all” votes decreased noticeably after 1993, but has been rising again since 2002. Experts say this is because citizens gradually became accustomed to the procedure of democratic elections and the variety of political competition, but since 2002 the scope of politics has been contracting, and “against all” has essentially become the protest vote.

In the latest series of regional legislature elections (the first using party lists only), the level of “against all” voting was fairly high. The highest “against all” votes in 2005 were recorded in Taimyr (20.1%), the Vladimir region (17.9%), the Kaliningrad region (16.8%), the Magadan region (15.9%), the Arkhangelsk region (15.7%), and the Chita region (15%). The lowest levels were recorded in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Tatarstan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkesia.

Who benefits from abolishing "against all"

Looking at elections using party lists (regional and Duma elections), both pro-Kremlin and opposition analysts tend to say that voting “against all” is a form of protest voting. Citizens choose this option if they don’t want to vote for the United Russia party, but don’t trust the other parties either. If this option is abolished, some of those voters simply won’t vote at all; the rest of them will be distributed among opposition parties. Calculations based on opinion poll results (from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, the Public Opinion Foundation, and the Levada Center) and the Moscow city legislature election of December 2005, where the “against all” option was not available, indicate that if “against all” had been retained, the Communist Party and Yabloko would have lost about 2% each, while a further 1.5-2% of the vote would have gone to parties that didn’t make it into the Moscow city legislature. Actually, judging by the same Moscow election, there’s also another possible scenario: an increased number of informal votes – deliberatly spoiled ballot-papers. The proportion of invalid ballot-papers in the Moscow city legislature election was 5.4% (the usual figures are no more than 1-2%).

Many analysts interpret the idea of abolishing “against all” as a move that would strengthen the United Russia party’s position. However, United Russia doesn’t stand to gain anything here. As well as the abovementioned reason, it should also be noted that “against all” votes are simply discounted – so they don’t increase the number of Duma seats won by the leading party. On the other hand, abolishing the “against all” option would safeguard the authorities against the possibility of a situation where total votes cast for all parties that make it into the Duma add up to less than 50%, invalidating the election. Such an outcome in the Duma election of 2007 isn’t very likely, but it is possible.

Thus, the authorities are clearly intent on abolishing the “against all” option – but the reasoning used by those who maintain that this move would benefit United Russia doesn’t seem too convincing. Claims that this move would roll back democracy even further are also groundless, since voting “against all” bears no relation to classic democracy.

Why the authorities are doing this

Practically all recent initiatives that concern the electoral system, directly or indirectly, are aimed at the same goal: strengthening the party system. Starting from the introduction of elections via party lists for regional legislatures, the authorities have been consistently creating the preconditions for an established party system. These moves also include abolishing single-mandate districts for Duma elections, strengthening the role of legislatures in the regions, and the idea of having parties that win regional elections nominate regional leader candidates. Even the latest proposal to forbid legislators elected via party lists to switch factions is an evident step toward strengthening the role of parties.

What’s more, it’s hard to view all these initiatives as favoring United Russia only. Rather the reverse: all these changes create additional problems for United Russia. For example, United Russia secured its present constitutional majority in the Duma thanks to legislators elected in single-mandate districts; but that achievement will be almost impossible to repeat in 2007, with majoritarian districts abolished. The same applies to regional leaders: almost all of them are already United Russia members or heads of that party’s regional branches, so the proposal to let winning parties suggest regional leader candidates to the president doesn’t really do anything for United Russia. On the contrary, United Russia’s rivals would get a chance to play a real role in the regional leadership selection process, if they can win any regional legislature elections by even a small margin.

There are no romantic ideals in the Kremlin’s concept for structuring the party system. It’s a tough approach aimed at doing whatever it takes to create the shell of a party system in Russia. And the Kremlin is keeping strict control of the process, winnowing out the parties that it regards as not fitting into the system. Whether one likes or dislikes this approach, it’s a clear and consistent policy aimed at developing a party system.

The “against all candidates” option is a consequence of the Soviet electoral system, which counted votes for and against. In effect, abolishing “against all” is another step toward strengthening the party system. “Against all” votes are thrown away. This is inconsistent with the logic of representative government. Besides, as well as competing with each other, parties are also forced to compete with protest attitudes and citizens’ apathy. If these were strong parties, this might not be a problem; but most of our parties aren’t strong, so abolishing the “against all” option would actually help them, if only slightly.

Still "against all"

All these are weighty reasons, certainly. So is the need to part company with our electoral system’s Soviet legacy. However, it’s precisely because the authorities control the process so strictly that voting “against all” does make sense, in its way. Firstly, it provides at least some restriction on administrative abuses, and acts as a counterweight to administrative interference in elections. As we noted, almost all cases of high “against all” vote levels have happened when the authorities grossly interfered with elections: disqualifying a popular candidate or being too insistent in promoting their own candidate. Moreover, voting “against all” is a reaction against the increasing regulation of politics; this option gives citizens a legal opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the overall political situation in Russia, not just with individual politicians. If that opportunity is taken away, citizens will let off political steam via illegal actions, outside the system. The spoiled ballot-papers in the Moscow city legislature election provide an innocuous but revealing example of that.