What Is a Protest Vote?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed March 18, 2020
Protest voting generally occurs when a voter decides to cast their vote for nobody or for a candidate or party that the voter does not expect to win. This vote can be cast with the expectation that it will be one less vote a more popular candidate would receive or as a indicator of political dissatisfaction.
What Is the Definition of a Protest Vote?
One of the great ironies of representative democracies is that, by appealing to a large number of some voters, candidates necessarily alienate a large number of other voters. Because of this political reality, voters are sometimes left to choose between two primary political candidates they do not particularly want to elect.
In an effort to express their discontentment, voters sometimes cast their votes for candidates or parties that are unlikely to win an election, or for no one at all. This is called a protest vote. Even though many voters who vote like this do not expect their chosen candidate to win, they hope their protest vote will send a political message.
Some types of protest votes include:
- Third-party votes
- Blank, null, spoiled votes
- Organized protest votes
- Officially-sanctioned protest votes
Third-Party/Insurgent Party Votes
In many U.S. elections, voters are expected to vote for one of two primary candidates. However, candidates representing third parties — sometimes known as insurgent parties — are also on the ballot, even though the third parties rarely have a chance of winning the election outright.
In such situations, voters sometimes vote for third-party candidates as a form of protest against the political establishment and the candidates who represent it. Because each citizen only gets one vote, a vote for a third-party candidate is one vote less for a more popular candidate.
Tactical Protest Votes
Sometimes voters care more about keeping a particular candidate out of office than electing a particular candidate into office. For that reason, some voters use their vote tactically in effort to prevent an undesirable candidate from gaining office.
In practical application, tactical protest voting usually takes the form of a voter casting their ballot for the candidate most likely to defeat the undesirable candidate, even if the candidate for whom they are voting is not the candidate they most want to succeed.
Blank, Null, and Spoiled Votes
If a voter casts their ballot without marking it, they cast a blank ballot. If a ballot was filled out incorrectly, it cannot be counted and is considered to be null. Although null ballots can be used as a means of protest, it is difficult to differentiate regular blank and null ballots from blank and null protest ballots, as they tend to look identical.
Voters, instead of voting for listed candidates or leaving their ballot blank, will sometimes deface or otherwise mark up their ballots, therefore spoiling it. Unlike abstinence from voting, spoiled votes show active absence from voting for popular candidates.
In addition to blank, null, and spoiled ballots, some ballots include a "none of the above" option. In Colombia, for example, voters are able to submit a blank vote (Voto en Blanco). If the blank vote gains a majority in the first round of Colombian elections, the election must start again with a fresh selection of candidates; candidates from the first round are barred from running again.
Organized Protest Votes
There have been times when large numbers of people have organized to either submit protest votes or to abstain from voting completely as a way of protesting. Although organized and officially-sanctioned protest votes do occur, they tend to happen infrequently and on a relatively small scale.
Arguably the most common form of protest voting, abstention is when a voter has the opportunity to cast a vote and chooses not to do so. This becomes a convenient means of protest, as it requires little activity from voters, i.e., passive protest. However, for voters who live in regions with compulsory voting, abstention becomes a much more active form of protest.
Because abstention from voting as a form of protest looks practically the same as regular abstention from voting, protest by abstention is difficult to quantify.
Considerations Before Casting a Protest Vote
In most of the voting world, casting a ballot is a right and not a mandatory civic duty, and citizens are therefore not legally required to vote in governmental elections. Voters who intend to use their vote as a means of protest are free to do so, but they may want to think about exactly what they want to achieve.
It is worth noting that protest voting can sometimes have negative consequences for voters, and can lead to voter's remorse. In some situations, choosing the lesser of two unfavorable choices in an election can be more beneficial for a voter than letting others choose on the voter's behalf.
Civil participation is a critical aspect of democracy. For many citizens, nothing exemplifies their participation more than their vote. As such, it is important for voters to understand how they can use their votes to affect change, even if that means using their vote to protest.