NOTA: Cutting the Big Boys Down To Size

Policy Insights Number 806, May 1996
Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, Inc. 

by Ralph Nader 

It is instructive to begin the case for a binding "None of the Above" (NOTA) line on the ballot by noting that probably over 90 percent of all legislators---state and federal---are opposed to this reform proposal. Why? Because NOTA adds up very visibly the protest vote against all the candidates on the ballot---an expression of public "no confidence"---and if the total NOTA vote exceeds that received by the candidates, the elections are nullified, the candidates sent packing and new elections with new candidates ordered. 

Since the majority of electoral districts in the country are dominated by one or another of the major parties, a NOTA win disrupts the shoo-in candidate of the dominant party and its controlling grip on no-choice politics in the region. The single party dominance is worse than tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum candidates from the Republican and Democratic parties. It is de facto monopoly politics that does not take kindly to a competitor on the ballot called NOTA. 

More than in any western nation, American voters stay away from the polls. Presently, anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of eligible voters, depending on the election, stay home and are labeled apathetic. "Politics doesn't mean anything to us" is the usual explanation, elaborated as it is with phrases like "they'll do whatever they want to do," or "they're all corrupt" or "they'll say anything to get elected and then do what the Big Boys want." 

Our present elections are built on giving people only a yes option to a narrow sound-alike field of candidates at best. Common Cause says that only 20 percent or less of elections for the U.S. House are competitive when there is an incumbent running, meaning that either there is no major party opponent to the incumbent or the opponent is grossly under-financed. Parties concede districts to one another. In Connecticut, for example, the Democrats essentially concede the Sixth Congressional District to Republican Nancy Johnson and the Republicans concede the First Congressional District to Democrat Barbara Kennelly---both long-time incumbents. Their opponents are nominal. 

There is no direct NO option, as there is on a bond proposal subject to popular referendum or any other policy issue on the ballot in the initiative and referendum states. 

In the final analysis, politicians understand only one language---voter rejection. They do not like that language so they have maneuvered elections either to be non-competitive, distinctions without a difference or the lesser of the unworthiest. You stay home in order to protest and when you stay home you do not count nor can you send a message that has any effect nor can you set in motion any changes. 

None of the Above that is binding on the candidates allows voters to send a message that they want change in the quality of candidates and in their way of campaigning and sends signals to more fundamental reforms such as campaign finance reforms and direct democracy reforms. NOTA is the tool by which citizens who want change can mobilize an anonymous protest candidacy around agendas that are regularly ignored by the established politicians. The very possibility of a NOTA vote piling up will affect the behavior of the candidates. A NOTA victory jettisons the candidates. 

Whenever I mention political reforms to strengthen our democracy before audiences, the one that receives the most enthusiastic applause is NOTA. The reception is intuitively immediate and the reasons given later in the discussion period are varied and compelling personal reactions. 

I believe that a binding NOTA would pass handily in the nearly two dozen states that have-the initiative and referendum statewide. While federal constitutional requirements regarding the electoral college would prevent a state-passed NOTA to reach Presidential elections, the states could apply NOTA to congressional, state or local offices. 

No state presently has a binding NOTA. Nevada has had a non-binding NOTA since 1976. So there is no domestic experience which would provide grass-root evidence. However, in foreign countries, a binding NOTA in the latter stages of the Communist breakup in Russia and some Eastern European nations was, according to native and western political observers, very effective. 

The opposition to NOTA starts with the argument that it is too negative and that it just feeds the public cynicism that is so widespread. Voters should be more affirmative and vote FOR a candidate. Strangely, they do not pose the same arguments to ballot referendum issues in their state or community where there is a NO option. History has demonstrated that there is a very positive outcome to wholesale rejection by the citizenry of both the bad and the worst choices. 

Another argument against NOTA is the cost of a second election. That cost---occasional as it would be---pales when compared with the lack of substantive choices for quality candidates and "politics as usual" commandeered by cash-register politicians. Nothing is more costly than the unchallenged control of nominations and elections by what Thomas Jefferson called the "monied interests." 

Predictably, several state legislatures have recently blocked NOTA bills from passage. It is time for major statewide initiative drives to let the voters decide. In 1992, the Green Party of California decided to do it for themselves. The Party's by-laws gave its members the right to vote no on its ballot candidates. If the number of blank ballots for a candidate exceeded number of votes cast for any of the Green... [missing text in original] ...Court in Sacramento upheld the Green Party's decision, and ordered state election officials to place that designation on the ballot. 

There is another response against NOTA that inadvertently makes a pro-NOTA point. Responding to my proposal in Connecticut in 1994 that NOTA be enacted, then-state Rep. Miles Rappaport (D-West Hartford), now the Secretary of State, called NOTA a "negative quick-fix response to people disenchanted with politics. It gives people the chance to say 'no', but it's not a constructive response." Trying to increase voter registration and reforming campaign finance laws are better ways to improve the system, he added. 

But NOTA is a self-initiating tool to persuade the candidates to push for such changes, in addition to easier ballot access for independent candidates and small political parties and the very important right to the initiative and referendum process. Instead of playing the disjointed political game of saving "not this, but that," the people should recognize how one tool of democracy can enhance the arrival or strength of other democratic processes. 

When Thomas Jefferson saw the purpose of representative government as counteracting the "excesses of the monied interest," he was recognizing that democracy's central point is to work on the maldistribution of power and make it more susceptible to reordering, challenge, displacement and where, particularly extreme, being outlawed. 

American history has marked this progress by abolishing slavery, expanding the franchise to include women and minorities, applying the anti-trust laws, giving workers the right to bargain collectively with industries and providing access to the courts by wrongfully injured or defrauded citizens who can seek justice against the perpetrators. 

But democracy always needs upgrading and modernizing to give people the edge over new concentrations of power and its abuses. NOTA is a universally accessible tool that, together with other substantive issues for achieving justice, can help change the content and nature of political campaigning. NOTA is one of those simple inexpensive ideas, not a panacea by any means, that has the potential to galvanize the streams of just reforms in a society that needs more democracy, not less, to diminish or solve many of its problems. 

We intend to form a group to press for binding state NOTAs. Since legislators will be overwhelmingly against NOTA at the beginning, the efforts will concentrate on states where citizens have the initiative or referendum authority to bypass the legislatures and place NOTA directly on the ballot. If you know of people willing to volunteer their time for such a reform, write or return the coupon below to: NOTA Advance, 206 Seneca Street, Oil City, PA 16301. 

[First coupon reads: "Yes, I would like to know more about NOTA. Please mail additional information. Free Congress Foundation, 717 Second Street NE, Washington DC 20002.] 

[Coupon reads: "Yes, I would like to participate in NOA campaigns. Please contact me and tell me how I can get involved. NOTA Advance, 206 Seneca Street, Oil City, PA 16301.] 

What is None of the Above?