BEIRUT: This year's parliamentary elections saw 1,349,325 Lebanese go to the polls, with about 1.5 percent of them leaving their ballot completely blank or casting an invalid ballot.
But this was the first time that blank ballots were counted separately from invalid ballots after the polls. Voting blank or voting with a protest ballot that doesn't list legitimate candidates is a popular way for the disenchanted to voice their displeasure with the electoral process or their lack of support for all of the candidates running in their district.
In one race that 1.5 percent could have made the difference. There were 899 blank or invalid ballots cast in Metn, where Greek Orthodox March 8 candidate Ghassan Rahbani lost by 670 votes to Ghassan Mukhaiber, another March 8 candidate. If a majority of the blank and invalid votes had gone to Rahbani, he would have had been the the winner.
But the Metn race proved to be the exception. In the country's 26 other districts, blank and invalid ballots could not have determined the outcome of any race, and the voting was mostly one-sided.
The number of blank and invalid votes were recorded separately for each district and released by the Interior Ministry with the election results. Around 9,731 voters put no marks on their ballots and around 8,455 submitted ballots that were invalid.
The largest percentage of voting blank occurred in Aley, the Chouf and Bint Jbeil, with about 1.7, 1.6 and 1.5 percent blank ballots in those districts respectively. No blank vote or invalid vote totals were recorded for Jbeil, Sidon and Zahle.
According to the election's Official Polling and Counting Handbook, ballots can be deemed invalid if for example, the ballot has identification marks, insults to a candidate, or is not in a stamped envelope. On the other hand, blank votes only account for ballots with no words on them at all.
The decision to count blank ballots is a change that could be a barometer of discontent among voters, especially district minorities, and was one of many steps taken to make the electoral process more transparent.
"It's transparency that hasn't been seen before," said Sean Lee who runs a blog on Lebanese politics and tabulated the blank vote percentage.
Fewer parties boycotted this year's election compared to the 2005 polls, and the country saw a voter turnout of 54.8 percent, higher than in 2005. Despite the high turnout, many voters were marginalized by districts new to this year's election.
These districts were drawn largely on a confessional and party basis and their smaller voting areas meant that many district minorities had little chance of getting their candidates elected. Winning lists in 23 districts were either totally March 14 or March 8 candidates, while only the districts of Beirut II, Aley, and Metn saw candidates from both parties elected.
The decision to count blank votes was one of the many changes that the Interior Ministry made after the Doha agreement in 2008 to refine the electoral system. Despite these and other reforms, the electoral process has been criticized by external observers as being partially flawed, most recently in the post-election report released by the National Democratic Institute on Tuesday.
Even on the first page of the Official Polling and Counting Handbook, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud wrote a note that said: "The election law may not be up to expectations."