Is it Okay to Abstain?


By: Assistant Professor Francis Joseph Dee

TL;DR [1]

Sometimes, but if in doubt, don’t.

Electoral Systems in Philippine General Elections

An electoral system is a procedure by which a group decision is made from a range of options based on the choices of the group’s individual members. The Philippines makes use of three electoral systems during its general elections. First, the single-member plurality (SMP) is used for elections for president, vice-president, district representative, governor, vice-governor, mayor, and vice-mayor. SMP selects one winner who is the candidate with the most votes. Second, the plurality-at-large (PAL) system is used for elections for senator, provincial board member, and city councilor. PAL is used when more than one seat is being contested for a position. For example, in senatorial elections, twelve seats are being contested, so PAL allows each voter to vote for up to twelve candidates and selects the twelve candidates with the most votes as winners. Finally, ask someone else to explain the Philippine party-list system. Crucially, abstention is allowed for all three of these systems.

Abstention, Defined and Measured

Borrowing from non-response theory in survey methodology (Groves et al 2004: 169), I define two types of abstention that apply in Philippine general elections. First, unit abstention is when a registered voter does not submit an accomplished ballot. Usually, this means not showing up at the polling place, or for absentee voters, not mailing in their ballot. In this case, the abstaining voter does not have input on the choice for any of the positions for which elections are being held.

On the other hand, item abstention, is when a voter does submit an accomplished ballot but does not specify a preference for at least one of the positions being contested. Unfortunately, unlike electoral systems in some other countries (and in my high school), voters cannot explicitly select “abstain” on the ballot in Philippine general elections. Instead, those abstaining for a position may simply refrain from shading any candidate in the section for that position. For positions using the PAL system, voters are not required to use all of their votes, meaning that one can vote for less than twelve senators, for example [2]. In the case of item abstention, voters may decide which positions to have input on and which positions to abstain for.

Voter turnout for the last three Philippine general elections involving the president (2004, 2010, and 2016) is around 73% (International IDEA 2021b), which is high for a country where voting is not mandatory. This suggests an average unit abstention rate of around 27%, though keep in mind that this includes those who may have wanted to vote but were unable to do so before precincts closed on election day.

In the absence of an explicit “abstain” option on the ballot, historical rates of item abstention are murkier. What can be counted is the number of invalid votes, which for the presidential election is the difference between the total number of votes cast for the election and the number of valid votes for a presidential candidate. For example, based on the total number of voters in the 2016 presidential elections (Commission on Elections 2016; Abad 2021) and the total number of votes cast for presidential candidates (Pimentel 2016), about 5.4% of votes were invalid. However, this percentage includes those who may have voted for more than one presidential candidate by mistake, shaded their single vote unclearly, or voted for candidates who withdrew from candidacy or were disqualified by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) after ballots had been printed.

Voting as a Duty and Unit Abstention

While the right to vote is uncontroversially recognized as an essential component of procedural democracy, more debate surrounds the issue of voting as a duty. For example, democratic theorists continue to make arguments for and against compulsory voting laws (Chapman 2019; Volacu 2020), which, as the name suggests, are laws that sanction unit abstention, usually with a fine. Such laws are enforced in 27 out of 199 countries that hold elections around the world (International IDEA 2021a).

In the Philippines, voting is not compulsory. Voters who do not vote for two straight elections (including barangay elections) are dropped from rolls of registered voters but may re-register without sanction. Nonetheless, the questions remain: Is voting a duty, and is unit abstention a dereliction of this duty?

From a purely rational choice perspective, self-interest is rarely seen as a sufficient motivation for an individual to vote because the cost of voting, which includes making the effort to gather information on candidates, go to the polling precinct, and so on, outweighs the benefit, which decreases as the number of voters increases and the probability of an individual vote affecting the outcome of an election decreases [3]. This makes a norm or sense of duty necessary to explain why voters go out to vote, and some scholars have found empirical evidence for such a norm (Whitely 1995).

Would it be so bad if only a minority go out and vote? Scholars problematize low voter turnout as an issue of inequality (Lijphart 1997). This leads me to believe that voting per se shouldn’t be a duty. Rather, I think that anyone who believes that injustice exists in their community, which can be solved or prevented by the political system, has a duty to vote, and it would be hard to argue that no injustice exists in the Philippines.

What then of unit abstention? I propose three common motives for unit abstention and discuss whether each is a dereliction of the duty to vote [4]. First, one might engage in unit abstention as a form of protest. Here, the voter aims to express dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates for a particular election or the electoral or political system as a whole. In this case, I don’t think unit abstention is a dereliction of duty; it is at least as valid a form of political expression as voting for one who has no faith in the political system.

Second, one may unit abstain due to material constraints. As discussed above, voting is a costly activity as at the bare minimum, one needs to spend time, which can otherwise be spent earning a living, to show up at a voting precinct and cast a vote, while the COVID-19 pandemic presents a new cost of voting in the form of the risk of infection. On the one hand, the Philippines does a bit more to mitigate the monetary opportunity cost of voting than do some other electoral democracies, including some older ones, by making election day a holiday, as well as setting up special precincts for disadvantaged groups (e.g. PWDs, senior citizens, persons deprived of liberty, and indigenous peoples) [5]. On the other hand, it is undeniable that these costs are borne disproportionately by lower income groups for whom the additional income earned from working on a non-working holiday is a necessity and who have less access to vaccination and other means to prevent infection. Thus, is it a dereliction of duty to abstain in light of material constraints? Strictly speaking, yes, but those looking to cast stones should keep in mind that it is easier for some people than it is for others to fulfill the same duty and that an unprecedented pandemic would be a time for kindness rather than condemnation if there ever was one.

Third, one may unit abstain purely out of self-interest without any consideration of a sense of duty, protest motives, or material constraints. If then there is a duty to vote, as I believe there is in the Philippines, then such a voter is by definition abandoning that duty. Interestingly enough, some even argue that it is actually better for the community to abstain if one is unmotivated to make an informed vote (Brenan 2009). For the purposes of a single election, I agree, but in the long run, I think that people should be challenged to better equip themselves to vote well in future elections, though this is easier said than done. That being said, because what separates this type of unit abstention from the other two is ultimately an unobservable internal characteristic, I would refrain from calling out specific people whom I suspect to be lazy voters. Philippine politics has far more nefarious villains than they.

Can Abstention Influence Candidates?

We cast votes to steer the outcome of the election towards what benefits us and, I hope, the community. In general, one should really hesitate before deciding to abstain because that would mean giving up the ability, however small, to affect that outcome. But this begs the question: Can abstaining affect the outcome of an election as well? If you’re planning to abstain in the coming election, that decision will disadvantage whoever you would’ve voted for otherwise. In other words, in the immediate election, yes, your abstention can affect the outcome, but it’s hard to imagine how that effect will be to your advantage. However, things get a bit more interesting when thinking of the elections that follow.

Despite having a mixed record empirically, the spatial voting framework is a popular way for political scientists to think about voting behavior. Most spatial voting models predict that candidates are incentivized to campaign on platforms that don’t differ too much from their opponents’ to attract votes from their opponents’ supporters (Ezrow 2005). When there are only two candidates, this tendency yields the famous median voter theorem, which predicts that whoever the most moderate voter votes for will win the election (Downs 1957).

Abstention throws a wrench into these predictions. Candidates feel safe shifting closer to their opponents because they assume that their base supporters won’t shift their votes elsewhere. However, voters who feel that their concerns aren’t sufficiently being addressed by the candidate to whom they are closest may threaten to abstain, which in turn may attract candidates to them (Llavador 2006). If no candidate budges, then the abstainers may lose out in the immediate election as a candidate even further away from them may end up winning, but in future elections, candidates may be less willing to move away from the abstainers. Indeed there is empirical evidence that abstention rates go higher as the number of voters who feel that no candidate appeals to them increases (Lekofridi et al. 2014) and that candidate positions are more likely to reflect a polarized society when abstention is high (Dreyer and Bauer 2019).

All that being said, the prospect of abstention inducing candidates to take on more radical positions in the Philippines seems low for two reasons. First, individuals cannot just unilaterally threaten to abstain and expect candidates to respond. An actual abstention campaign has to be organized for candidates to take notice, but such a tactic might not be appealing to Filipino activists in light of the pivotal 1986 snap elections leading to the EDSA Revolution in contrast with the failed boycott campaigns during the Martial Law period and the success of leftist groups in the 2001 partylist elections in contrast with their boycott in 1998.

Advocating item abstention rather than unit abstention may assuage those for whom boycotts have left a bad taste in their mouths, but this leads to the second issue: the absence of an explicit “abstain” option on the ballot makes item abstention a messy signal to candidates. Even if a sizable chunk of the electorate was to participate in an abstention campaign, candidates could attribute an increase in invalid votes to voter error rather than intentional abstention and continue to ignore the campaign’s demands. One might take this as a call for ballot reform to include an “abstain” option, though given that abstention has been linked to increased polarization (Dreyer and Bauer 2019), I worry that such a reform may worsen the country’s already toxic political climate.

Long story short, if you decide to abstain, don’t expect the decision to improve things after this coming election or even in future ones.

Parting Thoughts

Abstention can be a valid way to fulfill one’s civic duty, but just like voting, it should be the conclusion of a decision-making process that involves a lot of hard questions. Can I afford to risk getting sick by going to a crowded polling place? Have I done my due diligence in evaluating all the different candidates for a given position? Will someone much worse than the least evil candidate emerge victorious if I abstain? Can my abstention send a stronger message to our political leaders than my vote can?

I don’t think I’ve answered any of these questions, but I hope the main takeaway here is that it’s hard to be a citizen. Indeed, the difficulty of being a citizen in a democracy is often understated in political discourse, which tends to treat the issue of voting with vitriol and condescension rather than kindness. Especially if it’s your first time voting, you’ll be bound to make mistakes ranging from forgetting to register, shading improperly, missing a damning piece of information about a candidate, and so on. I can’t say that the consequences of these mistakes are negligible, but even so, when you catch yourself or others making them, be kind. As flawed as it is, the beauty that makes democracy worth fighting for is that there’ll be a chance to do better next time.

[1] I’d like to thank Vivien de Guzman and Mary Ruth Atara whose work in various classes exposed me to some insights and literature discussed here.
[2] In-person voters who choose to do item abstention should keep their eyes on their accomplished ballots at all times until they are fed into the vote-counting machine (VCM). This is to make sure that no one fills in a vote in sections that the voter intentionally left blank. In elections for positions using SMP, an alternative method of abstention is to vote for more than one candidate. When the VCM scans multiple votes in a section of the ballot for an SMP election, it will not count any vote for that section. However, the entire ballot isn’t “spoiled” when this is done, meaning sections with the correct number of votes filled in will still be counted by the VCM. In elections for positions using PAL, filling in more votes than allotted will result in no votes being counted for that section. For example, if one votes for thirteen candidates for senator, none of the thirteen will be counted. This means that voters worried about ballot integrity in their precincts cannot prevent extra candidates from being filled in when they do not use all allotted PAL votes. In this case, the only recourse is to take note of any discrepancies between the votes you cast and the names reported for your vote by the VCM and report them to election watchdog groups.
[3] Of course, this probability shouldn’t be discounted as demonstrated by stories of coin-tosses being used to break ties in mayoral elections that abound every election year ( 2013; 2019).
[4] This enumeration isn’t exhaustive. I once heard of a person who refrained from voting on moral grounds because they believed it was wrong to make decisions that impact others more than they do themselves, an interesting view but not one this piece is prepared to discuss further.
[5] Legislation mandates COMELEC to provide special precincts for the first two sectors, while COMELEC passed resolutions to provide them for the latter two on its own initiative.

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