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A protest vote (also called a blank, null, spoiled, or “none of the above” vote) is a vote cast in an election to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates or the current political system. Protest voting takes a variety of forms and reflects numerous voter motivations, including political alienation.
Along with abstention, or not voting, protest voting is a sign of unhappiness with available options. If protest vote takes the form of a blank vote, it may or may not be tallied into final results. Protest votes may be considered spoiled or, depending on the electoral system, counted as “none of the above” votes.
Protest voting tends to occur among voters who feel alienated but who have an alternative voting option, such as a third-party candidate in the United States, or who can register their displeasure with the political process by reducing the majority status of a likely winner. Alienation often leads to abstention from voting, but can also generate participation in the form of a protest vote. In the 1992 United States presidential election, for example, 14% of those who voted for Ross Perot said they would not have voted at all if he had not run.
Protest votes can take the form of blank, null, or spoiled ballots. Blank ballots are ballots with no markings on them. Null ballots are ballots that do not result in a valid vote because the ballot was filled out incompletely or incorrectly. Spoiled ballots are ballots that have been defaced, deformed, or otherwise marked in a way that makes the ballot ineligible; spoiled ballots most clearly indicate the presence of a protest vote. Write-in votes may also indicate protest voting; in the United States, Mickey Mouse has historically been a popular choice.
None of the above (NOTA) voting is rarely an option in U.S. politics, although it has been an option on Nevada ballots since 1976. NOTA voting is proposed as a state-legitimized method of allowing voters to signal discontent, although selecting a “none” option does not always indicate protest.
Other types of protest voting relate more to the choice of candidate or party selected for a valid vote than the ballot itself. Voting for a fringe candidate or less preferred party can be a way of signaling dissatisfaction with a leading candidate, party, or policy, or of reducing the margin of victory in an election.
Protest voting organized by political parties or leaders also occurs, but tends to be rare and associated with extreme circumstances.