Could blank and invalid votes change the result of the French election?

As a French specificity, blank vote is counted but not recognised, despite a steady increase of its usage in many elections in the country. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The question of every pollster’s mind this Sunday, during France’s presidential election, will be, “So, how many in total?” – and they won’t be referring to the number of votes for each candidate. Instead, what concerns election monitors this year are blank and invalid ballots.

Blank votes indeed are not recognised in the French system, where voters actually have the option to cast an empty ballot, making it the mathematical equivalent of abstaining. This trend has been slowly growing in France since 1981, including in European Union elections.

In presidential elections, however it has thus far been stable, totalling about 6% in the 1995 and 2013 votes (it peaked at 6.4% after the first president of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, left office in 1969).

The French elections of 1969.

Commentators aren’t so confident that trend will continue this year. Some have suggested blank votes could comprise about 10% of all votes cast on May 7. Abstention also could be high if a substantial number of citizens, heed the recommendations of some political parties and trade unions.

If that happens, the impact could be decisive. Emmanuel Macron, the leader of the En Marche! movement, is by far the favourite to win against Marine Le Pen, according to the latest polls. But he could flounder if turnout is unexpectedly low.

Will “lost” votes determine who leads France?

A spike in blank votes

Indeed, there are widespread fears of an “electoral earthquake” after a campaign that left a good number of voters disoriented; both major parties were crushed in the first round of voting.

The entire range of electoral choice has been called into question by the blurring of the left-right divide, dissatisfaction with current governmental institutions, rejection of government by elites, and challenges to economic and social policies.

The blank vote expresses a citizen’s rejection of electoral platforms and/or of candidates themselves. The issue of blank votes thus seems like an apt summary of the failings of electoral democracy in France.

And, on Sunday, each one is effectively a vote lost for Macron in his battle against the far-right Le Pen.

Peruvian demonstrators march in Lima, 2001, holding signs reading Mariana Bazo

According to a survey conducted just before the first round of voting in late April, nearly 40% of French voters regretted the fact that the blank vote is not, under French law, taken into consideration.

It is fair to say, then, that the results of this election so far have masked the extent – and perhaps the meaning – of widespread voter indecision. One startling figure helps to clarify the situation: on May 7, almost two-thirds of voters will have to choose between two candidates they did not support just a fortnight ago.

This situation is unprecedented. How will such people redistribute their votes? And how many of them will choose not to choose, either by avoiding the polls altogether or by sliding a blank or spoiled ballot into the box?

Counting blank votes

Since the mid-19th century, there have been calls to recognise the electoral significance of the blank vote in France.

Various movements have emerged regarding blank voting across the world. In Switzerland, Spain, Brazil and Colombia, blank voting is either recognised or counted (or both), depending on whether an election is local, legislative, executive or a referendum.

In some of these countries, voting is also compulsory, and non-voters face different sorts of sanctions, usually a fine (though, rarely, imprisonment).

In Peru, for example, where voting is obligatory, two-thirds of voters choose a blank ballots, which gives real veto power to citizens come election time.

In India, voters have enjoyed a None of The Above option at the ballot box since 2013.

In India, people can press the ‘None of The Above’ button on the electronic voting machines carried here by electoral commission officers, March 2017. Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

France’s own resistance to recognising blank votes was set in stone by a February 1852 imperial decree by Napoleon Bonaparte. In 2014 a new law finally allowed blank votes to be counted and separated from null or invalid votes, but they still have no weight among the total count. They are thus as ineffective as abstention.

In France, blank voting is ‘un-republican’

The main argument for not taking blank ballots into consideration, which has been put forward by each successive Ministry of the Interior, is that counting such votes would be contrary to the very principle of Republican elections: the obligation to make a decision.

People may be dissatisfied with their political choices, but, in France, abstaining has long been perceived as morally reprehensible (if not punished by law). That is, while voting is not compulsory in France, choosing is.

This requirement has enabled voting within a party system based on a two-round majority vote. Historically, sacred place given to voting has done the rest, by providing motivation for even for the most puzzled voters.

Today, a majority of voters now feel that they are unrepresented by the electoral choices on offer and distrust the candidates. Thanks to this gap between voters and parties, they are unable to express a real preference or discern differences on the issues.

Paradoxically, if the blank vote were taken into account, as several candidates have proposed, the French people would like their elections more and voter turnout would increase.

That’s because such a reform would make it more difficult to obtain a majority. Politicians would thus be incentivised to develop platforms that actually meet the expectations of French people. If spoiled or blank ballots met a certain threshold (half of all votes, for example), the election would be voided, compelling another round of voting.

This would be one way to increase the number of people who vote out of conviction, and free voters from the restrictions of the available electoral choices. In short, it would make voting a real, rather than a default, choice.

2017 – A turning point

Blank and invalid ballots will not be taken into account for the May 7 election, and abstention in this round has been widely denounced by academics, artists, politicians and civic leaders as a reckless abandonment of duty. But that does not guarantee that people will fall into line.

There are two possible scenarios. First, blank voting will have a direct effect on Marine Le Pen’s rise to office and be held responsible for a political crisis of a scale France has not seen since the end of the Fourth Republic in 1958. This crisis will upset the balance of all Europe.

Alternatively, Emmanuel Macron will win, and his victory will make France forget the unprecedented political instrumentalisation of the blank vote.

The memory of the threat it once posed would remain, though. So the debate on these “votes unlike any other” is just beginning.

For the future of French democratic electoral institutions, odds are high that May 7 will be a date to remember.