by John J. Pitney, Jr.
Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College
Policy Insights Number 608, May 1994
Voters should have the option of picking "none of the above," or NOTA. Since 1976, Nevada has had a non-binding NOTA, which has often drawn a large share of the vote. Other states should consider a stronger measure, whereby a plurality or majority vote for NOTA would trigger a special election for the office in question, with the candidates who lost to NOTA ineligible to appear on the ballot. NOTA would hardly cure all the problems of contemporary American democracy, bur it would give voters a better alternative to the bad choices they often find in the polling booth.
In Federalist 10, James Madison voiced his hope that American elections would feature candidates "who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters." When he wrote those words, government was simple, elected offices were few, and the roster of potential candidates was rich with such greats as George Washington, John Adams, and George Mason. Because of the growth of government at all levels, the total number of elected offices has since risen to 497,000---but not all 497,000 elections give voters a choice among candidates of George Washington's caliber. When voters elect members of Congress, state legislators or town councilors, they must often choose from the unworthy, the unknown, or the unopposed.
The Unworthy. Perhaps the worst major election in recent history came in 1991, when the Louisiana governor's race pitted the sometimes-Klansman David Duke against the ethically-challenged Edwin Edwards, a contest that wags dubbed "the wizard versus the lizard." Other elections have included crooks, crackpots, and an occasional corpse. As a teenage campaign worker, I once solicited votes for our local sheriff, who had passed away just after the board of elections had printed the ballots. (He won, thereby allowing the governor to appoint his successor for the full length of his term.) A more common and subtle problem is a race whose contenders are superficially qualified and politically slick, but lack any genuine principle or intimate connection with the people they seek to serve. The "new breed" of poll-driven politicians are neither wizards nor lizards but soulless mediocrities reminiscent of the "pod people" in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Voters sense something wrong, but they cannot quite put their finger on it.
The Unknown. Voters know little about their U.S. senators and House members and even less about the holders of offices such as state comptroller or county treasurer. Although it is fashionable to fault voter inattention, much of the blame belongs to the officials themselves. When they can bank on incumbency or party label to carry them through, they have a strong incentive to keep the electorate in the dark about their beliefs and qualifications. So-called "stealth candidacies," often associated with ideological groups, are actually commonplace among political hacks running for down-ballot offices. And among incumbents at all levels, a favorite strategy is to use the position and perks of office to discourage strong challengers from entering the race. When the discouragement strategy succeeds, incumbents end up with opponents who cannot raise money and lack credibility with the local news media. Voters must then choose between little-known office-holders and utterly unknown challengers.
The Unopposed. In 1988, eighty-one candidates for the U.S. House had no major party opposition, and dozens of these did not even have minor-party challengers. The number of unopposed candidates was lower in the next two congressional elections, but uncontested races remained rife at the state and local levels, particularly in areas where one party is dominant. True, in one-party areas, there may sometimes be strong competition in primary elections, but that is cold comfort to voters who are not enrolled in the party and thus cannot take part in the real contest.
Faced with the unworthy, the unknown, or the unopposed, what can voters do? Under current procedures, they have three unappealing options.
First, they can hold their nose and pick from whatever they see on the ballot. This course can result in rude surprises. In the 1986 Democratic primary for Illinois lieutenant governor and secretary of state, voters wanted to reject the party regulars, so they opted for obscure challengers---who turned out to be disciples of the extremist Lyndon LaRouche.
Second, voters can write in a name, knowing that if their vote gets tallied at all, it will come under the heading "void and scattering."
Third, they can either skip the particular race or abstain from voting altogether. Although non-voting has its advocates, it is a poor method to register protest; after all, the ancient maxim holds that silence betokens consent.
NOTA would be a better alternative. Whenever the names on the ballot are clearly unacceptable, it would offer a way of starting over with new candidates. It would also serve as a safety mechanism in cases where candidates died or sustained a felony conviction shortly before election day. It would certainly be more prudent than voting for a random name on the ballot; unknown choices are fine for "Let's Make a Deal" but could have disastrous consequences in public office.
NOTA would secure the right to say no. If free government is really based on the consent of the governed, it follows that the people should have a clear way of withholding consent from the unworthy, the unknown, or the unopposed.
NOTA would change politicians' behavior. In places without true electoral competition, political elites currently act with impunity in nominating poor candidates; this is one reason why many major cities have such abysmal government. With NOTA, however, even unopposed candidates could lose if the voters deemed them unworthy. The prospect of such a defeat might discourage bottom-feeders from seeking office, and would give party leaders an incentive to consider merit when making campaign endorsements.
In races where NOTA did not carry a plurality, it could still have a healthy impact. If previously unopposed incumbents suddenly started losing twenty or thirty percent of the vote to NOTA, they would be foolish not to reexamine what they were doing wrong. A large NOTA vote would serve as an unmistakable sign of incumbent vulnerability, thereby drawing strong challengers into the next race.
NOTA would foster cleaner campaigns. Granted, candidates have the right and the duty to expose the flaws in their opposition's public record. But they also have the obligation to tell the truth and spell out their own stands. Too many campaigns neglect this obligation and, instead, focus on driving up the opposition's negative poll ratings---by smear, if necessary. NOTA would confront attackers with a different balance sheet. It would not be enough to turn voters against the opposition, since this strategy would merely increase the vote for "none of the above." Rather, candidates would have to give the electorate a reason to vote for them, not just against the other side.
Some people object to this reform because it would cost money to hold new elections every time NOTA won. Although the cost of running elections makes up only a tiny fraction of state and local outlays, lawmakers have to be careful with even the smallest expenditures. Nevertheless, NOTA would still be a good deal. In some cases, at least, it would help prevent the election of unscrupulous and unqualified candidates who would waste public money and make government less efficient.
Some worry about administration of the special elections. Who would choose the new candidates? And could NOTA keep winning successive rounds of special elections? States might try a variety of answers to such questions. For instance, the law could provide that when a party's nominee is disqualified by a loss to NOTA, the nomination would then go to the person who placed second in the party primary. Alternatively, parties could hold special conventions for the selection of the new nominees. And to prevent an endless chain of balloting, the law could specify that NOTA appear only on regular ballots, not in the special elections triggered by NOTA victories.
In any case, these special elections would probably be rare. Politicians would fear the ultimate humiliation of losing to "none of the above," and they would presumably do everything in their power to avoid such a defeat. They might even go so far as to run good candidates and talk about the issues. Like a paddle on a schoolroom wall, NOTA would realize its greatest value not when it actually came into play, bur when its mere presence brought about good behavior.
Finally, some argue that NOTA would diminish respect for the political system by giving voters an easy way to shirk hard choices. This objection lacks merit. If there is anything that diminishes respect for politics, it is a ballot filled with the unworthy, the unknown, and the unopposed. And if Americans want to shirk political choices, it is much easier for them to stay home than to go to the polls and vote for "none of the above." Instead of undermining our system, such an option would give voters another way to carry on the work of democracy.
Voters For "None of the Above"