Abstention is a term in election procedure for when a participant in a vote either does not go to vote (on election day) or, in parliamentary procedure, is present during the vote, but does not cast a ballot.[1] Abstention must be contrasted with "blank vote", in which a voter casts a ballot willfully made invalid by marking it wrongly or by not marking anything at all. A "blank (or white) voter" has voted, although their vote may be considered a spoilt vote, depending on each legislation, while an abstaining voter hasn't voted. Both forms (abstention and blank vote) may or may not, depending on the circumstances, be considered to be a protest vote (also known as a "blank vote" or "white vote").

An abstention may be used to indicate the voting individual's ambivalence about the measure, or mild disapproval that does not rise to the level of active opposition. Abstention can also be used when someone has a certain position about an issue, but since the popular sentiment supports the opposite, it might not be politically expedient to vote according to his or her conscience. A person may also abstain when they do not feel adequately informed about the issue at hand, or has not participated in relevant discussion. In parliamentary procedure, a member may be required to abstain in the case of a real or perceived conflict of interest.[2][3]

Abstentions do not count in tallying the vote negatively or positively; when members abstain, they are in effect attending only to contribute to a quorum. White votes, however, may be counted in the total of votes, depending on the legislation.

Active abstentionEdit

An active abstention can occur where a voter votes in a way that balances out their vote as if they had never voted. This has occurred many times in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. During a division (a process where a yes/no vote occurs to agree or disagree to a motion), a Member of Parliament may actively abstain by voting both "yes" and "no". This is effectively the same as not voting at all, as the outcome will not be changed by the active abstention.[4] However, in the House of Lords of the United Kingdom, active abstention is not possible as a Lord voting both ways will be removed from the list of votes.[5]

In another manner, an intentionally spoilt vote could be interpreted as an active abstention. An intentionally spoilt vote is caused by a voter who turns to an election and invalidates the ballot paper in some way. Because of the nature of an abstention, only intentionally spoiled ballots could be counted as an active abstention.[citation needed]

International and national parliamentary proceduresEdit

Comparative results of Canadian federal election with or without abstention

In the United Nations Security Council, representatives of the five countries holding a veto power (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) sometimes abstain rather than vetoing a measure about which they are less than enthusiastic, particularly if the measure otherwise has broad support. By convention, their abstention does not block the measure.[citation needed] If a majority of members of the United Nations General Assembly or one of its committees abstain on a measure, then the measure fails.

In the Council of the European Union, an abstention on a matter decided by unanimity has the effect of a yes vote; on matters decided by qualified majority it has an effect of a no vote.

In the United States House of Representatives and many other legislatures, members may vote "present" rather than for or against a bill or resolution, which has the effect of an abstention.

In the United States Senate, the Presiding Officer calls each senator's name alphabetically, and, if abstaining, the senator must give a reason for the abstention. Members may decline to vote, in committee or on the floor, on any matter which he or she believes would be a conflict of interest.[6]

When a senator is nominated for a position that needs to be confirmed by the Senate, that senator is expected to vote "present",[citation needed] such as occurred in 2013 when John Kerry was nominated for the position of Secretary of State and voted "present" rather than vote for his own confirmation.


In support for this non-political strategy, some non-voters claim that voting does not make any positive difference. "If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal," is an oft-cited sentiment attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman.[7]

In addition to strategic non-voters, there are also ethical non-voters, those who reject voting outright, not merely as an ineffective tactic for change, but moreover because they view the act as either a grant of consent to be governed by the state, a means of imposing illegitimate control over one's countrymen, or both. Thus, this view holds that through voting, one necessarily finds themselves violating the non-aggression principle. Herbert Spencer noted that whether a person votes for the winning candidate, votes for a losing candidate, or abstains from voting, he will be deemed to have consented to the rule of the winning candidate, if they were to follow the doctrine of Blackstone of which Spencer stated "A rather awkward doctrine this. "[8]


Murray Rothbard, while a libertarian himself, criticized the New Libertarian Manifesto's arguments that voting is immoral or undesirable:[9]

Let's put it this way: Suppose we were slaves in the Old South, and that for some reason, each plantation had a system where the slaves were allowed to choose every four years between two alternative masters. Would it be evil, and sanctioning slavery, to participate in such a choice? Suppose one master was a monster who systematically tortured all the slaves, while the other one was kindly, enforced almost no work rules, freed one slave a year, or whatever. It would seem to me not only not aggression to vote for the kinder master but idiotic if we failed to do so. Of course, there might well be circumstances—say when both masters are similar—where the slaves would be better off not voting in order to make a visible protest—but this is a tactical not a moral consideration. Voting would not be evil but, in such a case, less effective than the protest. But if it is morally licit and nonaggressive for slaves to vote for a choice of masters, in the same way it is licit for us to vote for what we believe the lesser of two or more evils, and still more beneficial to vote for an avowedly libertarian candidates.

Samuel Edward Konkin III responded:[10]

Can you imagine slaves on a plantation sitting around voting for masters and spending their energy on campaigning and candidates when they could be heading for the “underground railway?” Surely they would choose the counter-economic alternative; surely Dr. Rothbard would urge them to do so and not be seduced into remaining on the plantation until the Abolitionist Slavemasters' Party is elected.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about RONR (Question 6)". The Official Robert's Rules of Order Web Site. The Robert's Rules Association.
  2. ^ Hernandez, Raymond and Christopher Drew (7 December 2007). "It's Not Just 'Ayes' and 'Nays': Obama's Votes in Illinois Echo". The New York Times.
  3. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about RONR (Question 9)". The Official Robert's Rules of Order Web Site. The Robert's Rules Association.
  4. ^ Voted both aye and no – from The Public Whip. Published 24 April 2012 and retrieved 4 May 2012.
  5. ^ Recording Abstentions by Lord Norton, from lordsoftheblog.net. Published 20 February 2011 and retrieved 4 May 2011.
  6. ^ "Voting Procedure". Rules of the United States Senate. Archived from the original on 1 June 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  7. ^ Goldman's actual writings expressed a distinct sentiment: "There is no hope even that woman, with her right to vote, will ever purify politics." Goldman, Emma (1911), "The Tragedy of Women's Emancipation", Anarchism and Other Essays (Second revised ed.), Mother Earth Publishing Association, pp. 219–31
  8. ^ Spencer, Herbert (1851), The Right to Ignore the State
  9. ^ Rothbard, Murray (10 November 1980), Konkin on Libertarian Strategy
  10. ^ Samuel Edward Konkin III, Reply to Rothbard