Home Coalitions Clean and Fair Elections Reform electoral system to eliminate need for spoiled votes

Reform electoral system to eliminate need for spoiled votes

A ballot paper which allows the voter to tick "none of the above" - Photograph: .asianage.com

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If we don’t even vote, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when things get worse after the 2018 general election, says Maria Chin Abdullah.

The call for spoiled votes is a backlash against our deeply flawed political system but ironically carrying it out in the coming general election will only make the political system more flawed, defeating its own purpose.

A truly democratic political system must include the ballot option to constructively reject all candidates. More importantly, it should be based on a proportional electoral system. But all these are only possible if we first make our votes count in the coming general election.

While intentional spoiled votes and its more likely by-product, low turnout, will make gerrymandering and other electoral frauds work maximally to restore the BN’s two-third majority, mishandling the spoiled votes campaign by political parties and their supporters will only strengthen the cheater’s hand.

The bitter and abusive exchanges between those who support and oppose the campaign may just dissuade more voters from going out to vote.

There is simply no need for self-righteous abuses, sexist remarks, or even death threats from either side. We are mature enough to talk to each other and find solutions.
Instead of slamming, the Electoral Commission and parties must be willing to engage citizens who give up on elections. In a step forward of bold and open leadership, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has responded well by asking for wish lists from the young people.

To eliminate the need for spoiled votes, I would suggest three institutional reforms to be included in Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto: mixed-member proportional (MMP), as well as the ballot options of “none of the above” and “write in”.

Three major structural flaws

For some the reasons for spoiled votes include “no choice in selection of leaders”, “why need to choose between Party A or B only?”, “Mahathir is unacceptable as the opposition’s PM candidate”, “dissatisfied Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters should spoil their votes to teach the Opposition pact a lesson”; and “exercising your voting rights and telling PH and Barisan Nasional that we don’t like the both of you”.

Others feel that whatever mandate voters make will be disregarded given the massive fraud in the electoral system and process.

While some would focus on personalities, all the complaints above can be summed up as three major structural flaws:

(a) Excessive malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies – when a government can be re-elected by a 47% minority and crack down on the majority at whim, how can people get the government and the policies they want or ditch the tax they don’t want?

(b) The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system – the system favours the two largest blocs in most constituencies, which limits policy and programmatic variety. As constituencies have to be allocated to coalition members by negotiation, often voters don’t get to vote for their preferred party. Candidates may even need to change constituencies due to seat negotiations.

(c) A closed ballot structure does not allow voters to choose “none of the above” or to “write in” other candidates.

Solution 1: Mixed-member proportional electoral system

To defeat malapportionment and gerrymandering, Malaysia should consider adopting the German-style mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, a combination of FPTP and Party-List Proportional Representation (List-PR) systems, like New Zealand did in 1996.

Voters are given two ballots, one ballot for constituency representative just like our FPTP elections, and the other ballot for party.

For the party ballot, political parties will have to name many candidates in a list, hence, the name “Party-List”. (Image 1) With two ballots, voters can choose party A candidate for constituency and party B for party-list. Party ballot also allows allied parties to have healthy competition between them. All in all, voters get a greater variety of parties and political programmes in elections.

Two ballots in a single German ballot paper

Legislatures are then divided into two halves: constituency representatives and party-list (non-constituency) representatives. Seats are allocated proportionally based on shares of party ballot. Parties will keep all the constituency seats and the remaining will be made up with party-list seats.

For example, if the parliament has 200 seats in total, and party A wins 30% of the votes, it should be entitled to around 60 seats. If party A wins 40 constituency seats, it will get 20 party-list seats. On the other hand, if party A wins only 20 constituency seats, it will get 40 more party-list seats.

This completely does away with gains from malapportionment and gerrymandering. It also protects parties from exclusion due to multi-cornered contests. Also, party-list representatives cannot defect with their seats, hence, governments cannot be overthrown by the crossovers of “kataks”. As for voters, every party ballot matters, regardless if they live in any party’s stronghold constituency.

Lastly, MMP will also improve the diversity of legislatures and quality of debates, scrutiny and legislation. Parties can introduce gender, minority and other demographic quota and also draw in more experts and activists through party-list representation.

As party-list (non-constituency) members are representing voters based on issues and social grouping, legislatures will be forced to be more professional and serious in debates and law-making.

If the general election after the coming one is conducted under the MMP system, voters will be spoilt for choice, and if the parties supported by the majority run the country, would there still be a pressing need for spoiled votes across constituencies?

Solution 2: Constructive options for protest vote

Spoiling your vote now will only deliver victory to one of the candidates you reject, because our ballot structure is not designed to accommodate intentional protest votes.

Let’s take the hypothetical scenario in Constituency A (Table 1):

Table 1 Spoiling even 51% of the votes won’t change anything


Voters Who Voted

% of Voters Who Voted







Spoilt votes



Total voters




With only 25% of votes, candidate N can claim to represent all voters even if 51% intentionally spoiled their votes and 24% others voted for candidate M. The 75% who oppose N will be complete losers. While N may enjoy little legitimacy, his victory is perfectly legal. What will 51% of voters who spoiled their votes get? What can they do? Nothing.

This needs not be the case. Instead of spoiling votes, we can and should have the options for constructively capture protest votes, through two simple additions to the ballot papers: (a) the none-of-the-above (Nota) option; (b) the write-in option.

With either option, protest votes may make a difference and as the system gives recognition that a) dissent is acceptable; and b) diverse representation can be constructively reinforced.

a) None of the above (Nota)

India is one of many countries with the Nota option. In 2013, the Supreme Court of India made a ground-breaking decision in which it “upheld the right of voters to reject all candidates contesting the elections, saying it would go a long way in cleansing the political system of the country. The apex court directed the Election Commission to have an option of “None of the above” (Nota) on the electronic voting machines (EVMs) and ballot papers in a major electoral reform.”

While Nota in India also has no electoral implications, in 2016 it accounted for 1.3% or 561,244 votes of the total votes polled in the Tamilnadu Assembly elections. A high number of Nota voters gives a moral authority that political parties’ actions or their selections are not supported by voters.

This is in many ways similar to the popular vote which Pakatan Rakyat (52%) gained over Barisan Nasional (48%) in the last general election.

To make rejection votes effective, Malaysia can introduce Nota which mandates a new election if Nota wins the highest vote in a constituency.

b) Write-in votes (WIV)

WIV is practised in some states in the US where there is an option at the bottom of the ballot paper for voters to write who they want to be the candidate if they disagree with all the options given by the political parties.

In the recent Alabama senatorial by-election, where alleged paedophile Roy S Moore was adamantly endorsed by President Trump and stayed on the Republican ticket, some dissident Republicans called upon voters to “write in” the name of a third candidate.

While write-in did not work in Alabama in 2017, it did work in the Alaska senatorial election in 2010. Incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost in the Republican primary to a right wing candidate backed by Tea Party but she won her re-election as a write-in candidate.

A sample ballot in the 2017 Alabama senatorial by-election
Write-in instruction in the 2017 Alabama senatorial by-election – Graphic: https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9763965/Screen_Shot_2017_11_28_at_1.45.46_AM.png

Vote in Election 2018 for reforms in the election after that

I strongly believe in proportional representation especially MMP, and constructive options for protest votes, whether it is Nota or WIV. Our electoral system and process must change after the 2018 general election. People must have a wide range of meaningful choices.

So, to the pejuang – let’s lobby all political parties to commit to these reforms for the next general election after the 2018 polls. Make your views electorally relevant, not irrelevant!

We must advance the debates on MMP, Nota and WIV so that more members of the public would understand the issue. Making our electoral system and process more inclusive and representative should be our focus instead of pure verbal exchanges.

Political parties must give voters positive reasons to go to ballot booths, including the option to constructively reject all candidates in future elections. Given Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s invitations for voters’ input, I sincerely hope the PH manifesto will categorically promise MMP, Nota and WIV for both federal and state elections in the next general election after the 2018 polls.

Before we have these reforms in the next general election after the 2018 polls, let’s remember we are stacked against an unfair electoral system in the 2018 general election, which can only be overcome by a high turnout.

Every spoiled vote will reinforce the flawed system. Every voter who abstains will prolong our disenfranchisement.

Without any spoiled vote campaign, the 2013 general election already saw more spoiled votes than the winner’s margin in 11 parliamentary constituencies. (Table 2)

Table 2: More spoilt votes than majority votes in 11 parliamentary constituencies in the 2013 general election





Spoiled Votes


P025 Bachok





P035 Kuala Nerus





P078 Cameron Highland





P089 Bentong





P093 Sungai Besar





P096 Kuala Selangor





P113 Sepang





P142 Labis





P159 Pasir Gudang





P168 Kota Marudu





P220 Baram






With the help of spoiled votes, BN can easily win 15 more parliamentary constituencies in the 2018 general election and regain its two-thirds majority. Will we then get any reforms? How many elections in future must you spoil your vote in perpetual frustration?

Voting for change is not sufficient to bring about reforms after the 2018 general election. It is only the necessary. We must do more, including advocacy for MMP, Nota and WIV. If we don’t even vote, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when things get worse after the 2018 general election.

Maria Chin Abdullah is the chairperson of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0).

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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4 Feb 2018 7.16pm

The bottom line (well the “top line” in the order of comments here), is that if we want a more representative voting system, we need to make it sweet and simple, visible and easy for most citizens to understand and the systems used in the French and Austrian presidential elections are somewhat like the semi-finals and finals in sports, though they may not exactly qualify as proportional representation (PR) voting systems.

However, any PR voting system, especially more complex ones which involve formulae and algorithms which need to be processed by a computer system are open to tweaking and manipulation of vote tally outcomes which are much harder to detect, so should be avoided like the plague.

4 Feb 2018 10.17am

My student’s union in the UK had a PR voting system where we listed our order of preference for candidates on the ballot paper, the candidate with the least first preferences dropped out and the number of 2nd, 3rd, etc preferences under him were transferred a a fraction of votes to the the remaining candidates according to some formula they used and the candidate with the lowest score after that was dropped out and the process repeated until the winner was determined.

There are many kinds of PR voting methods and formulas and I think that a simpler, more publicly visible and transparent one such as in the French presidential elections would be most suitable for a country like Malaysia.

4 Feb 2018 10.10am

To add, the PR voting systems described seem rather complex. A simpler system might be like those used in the recent French presidential elections where as many candidates run for a seat in the first round and the top two contest one-on-one against each other in the second round to determine the winner of the seat.

This approach will eliminate the problem posed by multi-cornered fights, since the first round of voting decides the top two favourites and in the second round, voters pick their choice between the top two favourites.

4 Feb 2018 10.02am

A proportional representation voting system is a good idea in principle but according to the Malaysian Constitution, it will require a two-thirds majority in parliament to make such constitutional changes and since it looks like the current Barisan Nasional government is unlikely to want to adopt it and neither does it have the two-thirds majority to do so, even if it is in favour; so the onus rests on the Pakatan Harapan to implement a PR voting system if it wins GE14 with a two-thirds majority AND if Pakatan is in favour of a PR voting system.

The Liberal Party (now Liberal Democrats) in the UK have been advocating a PR voting system but neither Labour nor Conservative governments have been in favour so no PR yet in the UK.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x