The blank vote explained: Colombia’s biggest electoral gamble

Posted on Mar 7 2014 - 2:18pm by Rico

Perhaps the candidate who has been getting the most attention approaching Colombia’s 2014 election cycle is one that has no face at all: the blank vote. Voting blank has the power to exclude each and every presidential and congressional candidate from achieving office this year. 

The blank vote in Colombia is a bit more nuanced than simply throwing away a vote in protest, and voting blank does have the ability to completely change the landscape of Colombian politics.

But those who promote voting blank must realize that the risks are high in doing so and that they are taking a huge gamble.

So what is the blank vote?

On every ballot, along with a selection of candidates and parties portrayed by identifying numbers and bright graphics respectively — the presidential candidates are given photos on their ballot — there is a box that just says “Voto en Blanco” or blank vote.

It is a “political expression” left for the “abstaining citizen” to voice his/her discontent against the status quo candidates with a valid vote, explained Colombian opinion writer Uriel Ortiz Soto for Semana magazine.

The blank vote does not correspond to any candidate or party. Normally underutilized and mis-understood, the blank vote has surprisingly shown up in an unprecedented way in recent polls.

Having polled around 5% behind most candidates in past elections, “[2014 represents] the highest that blank vote has ever polled in Colombia’s history,” Marcela Prieto, director of the Hernan Echavarria Olozaga Institute of Political Science told BBC Mundo.

In a collaborative March 1 “Great Survey” between various Colombian media outlets, “Voto en Blanco” polled at 24%, only trailing the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos’ 28%. But the blank vote’s 24%, represented three times the amount of the next leading candidate.

For much of February, some pollsters were predicting that the blank vote was well ahead of Santos.

MORESantos leads field but continues to trail ‘blank vote’: New poll

With “Voto en Blanco” emerging as a more popular candidate than at least five other presidential hopefuls, Colombians have started to pay attention to this curious option.

“Revolutionary,” “a huge opportunity,” “a phenomenon,” “effervescent,” “the only option,” “the surprise candidate,”  have all been used to describe the blank vote. But many struggle to understand exactly what is at stake. Colombian media has been scrambling to publish articles explaining what precisely is the power of the blank vote while debating its merits for the country.

Here is a breakdown of what voting blank could mean for this election. For reference, Colombia’s presidential elections are done in two rounds. If in the first round a candidate wins 50% of the vote, they are declared the winner. If not, there is a second round run-off between the top two candidates to determine the winner. For congressional elections, only a simple majority is required.

Can the blank vote win?

The blank vote can win the first round of a presidential election and a congressional election without needing an absolute majority (50% of the vote).

“That, what is referred to as an absolute majority, is absolutely false,” former Constitutional Court President Jaime Araujo told magazine Semana.

Furthermore, if a blank vote wins, that is to say collects a simple majority of votes, an immediate re-election is called.

According to Article 9 of Legislative Act 01 of 2009, “The voting must be repeated just one more time in order to elect [most democratically elected public officials] when blank votes constitute the majority of all of the valid votes.”

Araujo laid out a hypothetical scenario for a presidential election.

“For example, let’s say the candidate Santos gets 30 votes; the candidate [Marta Lucia] Ramirez, 15 votes; [Oscar Ivan] Zuluaga, 10 votes; and the Democratic Poll and the Patriotic Union and the [Green Alliance] together get six votes, but the blank vote gets 31 votes — that is to say just one vote more than those of the other candidates.”

This is enough to trigger a re-election. But Araujo adds what the consequences of a re-election are.

If the blank vote wins, Goodbye Candidates

“This is sufficient for none of those candidates to participate in the re-election,” said the former magistrate.

Once the blank vote wins and a re-election is called, not one of the candidates who initially ran is allowed to run in the re-election. Simply put, if the blank vote wins, the losing candidates are prohibited from participating in a re-election.

According to the aforementioned 2009 law, “[The involved parties] will not be able to present the same candidates [in a re-election].”

If parties wish to participate in the re-election, they must put forth new candidates.

This means that just a simple majority has the power to prevent current President Santos from running for a second term, the power to shut the door on former President Alvaro Uribe’s chances on becoming a senator, the power to wipe the slate clean of the current candidates in protest.

Why is a candidate reset important?

Luis Fernando Parra, civil engineer at Colombia’s National University and long-time contributor to popular Colombian political news website La Silla Vacia, illustrated exactly what this could mean in a January article that has since been referenced in several pro-blank vote articles across the country.

After putting forth a long list of “shameful” problems facing Colombia ranging from continuing inequality and lack of potable water in many areas, Parro said simply: “When all of these things pass in front of congress, the same congress that reinvents itself year after year, the congress that does not value the protests, the strikes, the complaints, the senators and representatives come and return.”

“But there still exists just one thing that we, the common citizens, can do in order to make effective our protest against the ruling class of the country and their parties–those that do nothing to achieve the well being of the majority–the blank vote,” concluded the prolific writer.

The blank vote could single handedly prevent a generation and several legacies of career politicians from returning to office. And it could dramatically upset the status quo, without resorting to violence.

The “Peaceful Revolution”

“For more than 60 years we have resolved our differences through violence, and now, for the first time, Colombians have in their hands a peaceful instrument to change our political habits; a real tool so that the people who have had enough of corruption, false positives, wiretappings, inequality, unemployment or a lack of opportunities can construct a society in peace with social justice and human rights,” said Araujo.

Between the unprecedented popularity for the blank vote in the polls and the inundation of scandals-de-jour leaving few Colombian politicians unscathed — or uncaused — more intellectuals and journalists than ever have come out supporting marking “Voto en Blanco.”

“We [as columnists] denounce the irregularities that the Congress of the Republic commits — we have the ability to inform the public opinion that consists of millions of Colombians that could be willing to vote blank in the March 2014 elections,” wrote Uriel Ortiz Soto.

However, Marcela Prieto perhaps summarized the situation best, “The blank vote is a political fact. It’s going to go in the ballot box, and actively say to the candidates, ‘I don’t like any of you.’”

In spite of all of this, those supporters of the blank vote should not pop their champagne yet. Many experts say that while this outcome is what could happen, it almost definitely will not.

Colombia’s Biggest Electoral Gamble

While the payoff of a blank vote win seems to live up to the “revolutionary” descriptors that some have given it, there are some serious risks to the protest vote.

One challenge with the blank vote is that if it wins, all candidates are thrown out including those who are not the targets of the protest voters.

“Of course, the triumph of the blank vote could mean the sacrifice of the few who are valuable public figures,” admitted Parra.

Current presidential candidate Aida Avella told Colombia Reports that she would prefer to see citizens not vote blank for a similar reason:

“There are many [candidates] on these lists that are good people, honest and committed people. There are political leaders who have never been involved in corruption…The blank vote does not serve for much.”

Another risk is that the blank vote cannot win twice.

“It is not a joke in bad taste; in the second election, the blank vote cannot win,” wrote senior writer Camilo Acosta for online newspaper Las 2 Orillas.

If, after a re-election is called, Colombians still object to the new candidates and win with the blank vote, it does essentially become null, and the process continues normally, starting with the second place candidate, according to Acosta. You cannot re-shuffle the deck twice.

Finally, perhaps the greatest risk about voting blank, is that if the blank vote fails to win the first time and say comes in second, while these votes do not go to any candidate, it is not enough to trigger re-election and wipe the board clean. For the congressional elections, a second place loss for the blank vote just means a win for the first place candidate.

The presidential election would proceed to a second round as usual — but here the rules get complicated. If the blank vote does not come in second, there is no problem, because then the top two candidates will run off as is protocol.

If the blank vote comes in third, it will have done nothing but demonstrate protest.

However, if the blank vote comes in second place, “the blank vote should create lists…and choose a candidate to compete in the second presidential round,” according to former judge Araujo. He added that a tie in a congressional election would see the same result. This would raise many questions about who makes up this list and how a blank vote would choose a candidate to run; even the former president of Colombia’s Constitutional Court admitted, “It is not certain.”

Either way, it seems that in order to produce the designated effect that blank vote supporters are looking for, it’s win or bust: a huge electoral gamble.

So will it happen?

Laura Wills, director of the Visible Congress Project at Los Andes University, does not think it is likely that the blank vote will win.

“The percentage of blank vote supporters has to do with the moment that the polls are made. Now we are still far away from the first presidential electoral round, and I believe that many of those that are defined as people who would vote blank, are actually just undecided voters,” Wills told radio station W Radio.

Even Semana magazine wrote in the same article where it announced the large polling numbers for the blank vote, that this popularity will be short-lived.

“What is most probable is that the blank vote has hit the ceiling [of popularity] and in the coming polls, its weight will be reduced,” predicted the article.

Regardless of the success of the vote, Araujo pointed out that if Colombians do not vote blank this election, there will likely not be another chance to have this power in the future. The former judge believes that after abstention has received so much attention this year, legislators will be sure to change the law once the elections are done.

“For the first time, due to the legislative act of 2009, the Colombians can sweep up this political class. But also, they should know that if we do not use this mechanism now, and turn away from the blank vote, the politicians and the government are going to eliminate it in order to take this power away from the people.”


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