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.
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:
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.
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.
Why Abstention Is Not Illegitimate: An Essay on the Distinction between "Legitimate" and "Illegitimate" Statutory Interpretation and Judicial Lawmaking
Apr 01, 2013; ABSTRACT-When Professor Martin Redish condemned abstention doctrines as violating norms of "institutional legitimacy," he...