Abstention

Abstention

[ab-sten-shuhn]
Abstention is a term in election procedure for when a participant in a vote either does not go to vote (on election day) or, in parliamentary procedure, is present during the vote, but does not cast a ballot. Abstention must be contrasted with "blank vote", in which a participant in a vote cast a deliberately unlegitimate vote (drawing pictures on the ballot, etc.) or in which he simply casts a blank vote: a "blank (or white) voter" has voted, although his vote may be considered a spoilt vote, depending on each legislation, while an abstentionnist hasn't voted. Both forms (abstention and blank vote) may or may not, depending on the circumstances, be considered as protest vote.

An abstention may be used to indicate the voting individual's ambivalence about the measure, or mild disapproval that does not rise to the level of active opposition. A person may also abstain when they do not feel adequately informed about the issue at hand, or has not participated in relevant discussion. In parliamentary procedure, a member may be required to abstain in the case of a real or perceived conflict of interest.

Abstentions do not count in tallying the vote; when members abstain, they are in effect only attending the meeting to aid in constituting a quorum. White votes, however, may be counted in the total of votes, depending on the legislation. In some countries, some activist groups advocates the counting of white votes and plain abstentions in the total result of vote as a way of displaying the percentage of people opposed to all parliamentary options.

A specific case: the 2002 French presidential election

During the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, French citizens could vote for either Jacques Chirac (leader of the right-wing UMP) or Jean-Marie Le Pen (leader of the far-right National Front). The left-wing, usually represented by the three main parties Socialist Party, Communist Party and Greens, were beaten in the first turn by Chirac and Le Pen.

Citizens had in fact four different options:

  • either vote for Chirac, as Chirac's party and most of the left-wing parties called for. This is what 82.21% of the people who voted a legitimate vote did, not counting abstention nor white votes;
  • vote for Le Pen, as his followers called for, or as some rare advocates of the politique du pire ("politics of the worst") called for, hoping this would lead to a serious political crisis (17.79% of the people who voted a legitimate vote chose Le Pen);
  • true abstention (not going to vote, which 20.29% of the people did);
  • blank vote (going to vote but deliberately sending a blank ballot or a ballot with drawings, graffiti, etc.: 5.39% of the people who cast a ballot did this).

Thus, during the two turns of the election, some left-wing radicals had called for a massive abstention and/or a massive white votes: instead of giving 82.21% to Chirac against 17.79% to Le Pen at the second turn, they would have rather counted a mass of left-wing "white votes" which would have put into question the whole democratic legitimacy of the election. Under actual French legislation, nothing would have happened since abstentionists and blank votes are not tallied — Chirac wasn't elected with 82.21% support from the French population, but with 82.21% support from the people who went to vote and didn't cast a "white" vote.

National procedures

In the United States Congress and many other legislatures, members may vote "present" rather than for or against a bill or resolution, which has the effect of an abstention.

In the United Nations Security Council, representatives of the five countries holding a veto power (including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and the People's Republic of China) sometimes abstain rather than vetoing a measure about which they are less than enthusiastic, particularly if the measure otherwise has broad support; by convention their abstention does not block the measure, despite the wording of Article 27.3 of the UN Charter. If a majority of members of the United Nations General Assembly or one of its committees abstain on a measure, then the measure fails.

In the Council of the European Union, an abstention on a matter decided by unanimity is in effect a yes vote; on matters decided by qualified majority it is in effect a no vote.

See also

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