The blank and invalid vote, a megaphone with little resonance

In view of this atypical and eventful election, both in terms of its campaign - marked by a succession of twists and turns with domino effects - and its outcome - the disqualification of the traditional parties and the arrival in power of a new political movement, foreshadowing a reshaping of the political landscape - the attention paid to blank and invalid votes (VBN) may seem out of place.
Aurélia Troupel, University of Montpellier

Xavier Buaillon/Flickr, CC BY

However, with more than 4 million blank or invalid ballots cast, this phenomenon was not such an anecdotal element of the election. For the first time, the figures for blank and invalid ballots were very quickly included in the commentary on the election night; for the first time too, they were announced shortly after the abstention rate, thus completing the overview of electoral (non)participation.

Out of the shadows

There are several reasons why the VBN has emerged from the shadow of abstention. First of all, there's the cyclical aspect. The call for a blank vote, or at least the discussions within certain political parties and movements following their elimination in the first round, reminded us that the blank vote could constitute an alternative, even when the second qualified candidate belongs to the Front National. This alternative was confirmed, or at least chosen, by a large number of voters, as demonstrated by the record turnout recorded on May 7, despite an intense campaign between the two rounds urging voters to "use" their ballot paper "well" and block the way to the extreme right.
Secondly, important as the percentage of VBN was in this second round, the theme of the blank vote was already benefiting from media exposure, albeit very modest. Since the law of February 21, 2014 leading to the separate counting of blank and invalid ballots, a few articles have addressed the issue of its true recognition (so that they are considered as votes cast and weigh in the calculation of candidates' scores), fueled by a more general reflection based on the work of Jérémie Moualek.
But this is the first time that, in order to understand what happened in the second round, the blank and invalid vote seems to have to be taken into account to such an extent, alongside abstention and other electoral choices. While the electoral offer, in the first and a fortiori in the second round, can go a long way towards explaining the volume reached by the VBN, the motivations as well as the meanings of the blank vote remain relatively unknown.
The aim of the current research project entitled "The ignored voter: the blank and invalid voter", which aims to draw up a quantitative sociology of these voters, and of which we briefly present some results here, is precisely to lift the veil on these elements.
For the time being, the presentation of three questions from the survey carried out after the first round by Respondi already enables us to highlight some elements on how the blank and invalid vote are perceived by the "voters" questioned below. Despite the methodological precautions taken, the results presented here are not representative of the French population, insofar as only registered panellists who voted in the first round were questioned. This means that our survey does not include those who abstained from voting in the first round. Nevertheless, this is currently the only way to capture these voters and, more generally, to gather data on VBN.

The blank vote, a means of expression...

What meaning should be given to blank ballots? And invalid ballots? If dissatisfaction seems obvious, or even contestation, how can we refine the analysis? How do they position themselves in relation to other forms of electoral behavior?
To find out, two separate questions were put to panellists. The first had a rather positive connotation:

"What do you think is the best way to make elected officials understand your expectations for change?"

The other, on the contrary, is rather negative:

"And how do you express your frustration? What's the best way?"

In order not to bias responses, precautions have been taken regarding the order and wording of questions and answers. First of all, the order of the questions: the questions presented below are the first to evoke, through the possible answers, the blank vote and the invalid vote; and they appear after questions on the campaign and a more traditional question on voting. Particular attention was also paid to the wording of the questions: they come from verbatim, i.e. sentences formulated by other respondents during a previous study.
The same concern guided the choice of the proposed answers: on the one hand, the blank vote and the null vote were separated in order to evaluate their respective importance; on the other hand, they appeared in the midst of other propositions such as "vote for a minor candidate", "abstain", "you don't want change/you don't feel fed up".
In both cases, the blank vote is the modality that comes out on top (table 1 below). It even eclipses abstention and voting for the extreme right. To convey their expectations of change to elected representatives, the majority of respondents chose the blank vote (24.9%), followed by a vote for a minor candidate (20.3%) and a vote for the extreme right (17.9%) - accounting for almost two-thirds of all responses. The "other" category, also often chosen, has been reworked thanks to the details requested from panellists.
Grouped into these sub-themes, the qualitative responses highlight the spontaneously expressed attachment to the act of voting (for 53% of those who answered "other"), as well as to voting for the candidate of their political persuasion (12.2%). As far as change is concerned, it seems more likely to be perceived as taking place at the ballot box - whether it's a blank ballot, a vote for a minor candidate, a vote for one's political camp or a vote for the extreme right. Indeed, abstention does not appear to be the best way to get this message across.
On the other hand, the trio of "white vote/vote for the extreme right/vote" for a minor candidate is somewhat shaken up, as a way of expressing their fed-up feeling towards elected representatives. The white vote continues to stand out very clearly from the other proposals, but this time it's the vote for the far right that takes second place. More distantly behind are voting for a minor candidate and abstention.
The differential between the expression of change and that of fed-upness shifts the lines for these modalities: voting for small candidates loses several points, while abstention gains some. Even the "other" proposition declines (- 5 points); the act of voting - whatever its form - being less often spontaneously mentioned by the "other" than previously. Only 50.8% of panellists who chose this answer referred to voting.
On the other hand, proportionally more of them chose a more direct and less conventional form of expression (dialogue with elected representatives, demonstration, revolution, etc.). Finally, almost 10% of these "others" express a form of defeatism, with answers such as "none", "they don't understand us", "I don't see how to do anything" or advocating widespread abstention.

... yet little heard

If, for the respondents, the blank vote appears to be the main way of expressing their expectations for change or their exasperation, it is not, however, perceived as being audible by elected representatives. Asked immediately afterwards, the question "What do you think has the greatest impact on politicians? Thus, for over a quarter of panellists, voting for the extreme right has the most resonance with elected representatives, followed by "nothing". Abstention, hitherto fairly low - probably due to the recruitment of respondents who voted in the first round - is on the rise, while the blank vote is relegated to fifth place, behind demonstrations.
Once again, voting for the extreme left and, above all, the null vote are far down the list of responses recorded. Surprisingly, the white vote completely supersedes the null vote. The latter doesn't really manage to gain a foothold alongside the white vote, despite its more assertive protest dimension (whether in terms of shelving or in the annotations to which it is sometimes subjected). Although it increased slightly in response to the question about being fed up, the null vote had virtually no audience with elected representatives (1.9%). More channeled, more in line with democratic expectations, the blank vote appears more legitimate, in the eyes of respondents, in expressing their expectations on the two dimensions tested.
Another lesson to be drawn from these initial results: voting for smaller candidates. In these times of calls for useful votes, these "small" ballots, which have hardly ever been studied either, are seen by respondents as a way of getting a message across. And yet, on the evening of the first round of the presidential election, the votes spread between Jean Lassalle, Jacques Cheminade and François Asselineau totalled almost 830,000... almost as many as the VBN, without a campaign (950,000).
All these elements argue in favor of broadening the focus from which electoral behavior is apprehended. While the importance and stakes of abstention and the frontist vote must obviously continue to occupy a central place in analyses, other forms of voting behaviour - and in particular the blank vote - also merit attention. On the one hand, to better grasp the different nuances of contestation of the political system, and to see possible shifts from one form to another. Secondly, to fuel the increasingly recurrent debate on the recognition of the white vote.

The ConversationMethodological note: The survey was carried out in partnership with Respondi (thanks to J. Ruiz for offering me this access to the field and to the Respondi team), which distributed the questionnaires to its online panelists (of the 4,706 people questioned, 4,424, registered on the retained lists, were retained). The first-round survey was administered between May 3 and 6, 2017, in order to obtain enough blank and invalid voters (151 for the April 23 ballot). The remaining respondents were then recruited proportionally, in order to approximate the1st round results as closely as possible.1st round vote: blank/invalid: 3.4% (+0.9 on official results); Emmanuel Macron: 21.1% (-2.3); Marine Le Pen: 19.3% (-1.4); François Fillon: 13.9% (-5.6); Jean-Luc Mélenchon: 19.6% (0.5); Benoît Hamon: 7.1% (0.9); Nicolas Dupont-Aignan: 5.0% (0.5); Minor candidates: 4.5% (0.5).
Aurélia TroupelSenior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Montpellier
Visit original version of this article was published on The Conversation.