There is a growing grass roots movement to standardize election ballots to include a N.O.T.A. option for each race. While it might not seem like a significant change, giving disenfranchised voters the opportunity to officially state their positions of no confidence might be the first step in creating much-needed reform in the electoral process. The perception of a mandate that often comes with receiving a wide margin of a poorly-attended election could start to dwindle as winners take office with only 20 or 30 percent of the vote. That might also pave the way for breaking up the two party system, which has become so dysfunctional.
The None of the Above option has worked well in other countries, some of which require incumbents to get more votes than N.O.T.A. or be forced out of office, with a new election held to find a replacement – an election they are not allowed to participate in. In this form, it helps to counter the often insurmountable financial and name recognition advantages of incumbents. Even when it doesn't contain this component, such as in Nevada, N.O.T.A. can help show the amount of discontent that exists with the status quo. When someone wins with less votes than None of the Above, it not only forces them to reexamine their positions, but inspires more quality grass-roots candidates to come out next time.
Voter turnout in the United States is terrible compared to most developed nations. How much of that is laziness or disinterest compared with apathy born of genuine disgust with the candidates offered is hard to say, mostly because our best information on voting trends comes from exit polls, which obviously only include the participation of those who show up to vote. Having the N.O.T.A. option would give us a better handle on that dynamic.
Many voters are also currently reluctant to vote for minor-party or independent candidates because they fear that they are to some degree throwing their vote away if the candidate is unlikely to garner more than single-digit returns and could swing the race between the major-party candidates. Many pundits point to the 2000 election and assert that Ralph Nader gave the election to George Bush in this manner. This thinking is flawed for several reasons.
First, it's presumptuous to assume a vote for Nader would have been a vote for Gore, especially since exit polling suggested most Nader voters wouldn't have participated had he not been on the ballot. Data suggests that, especially in presidential elections, candidates outside of the two major parties help turn out voters who would otherwise stay at home, while very few partisan voters switch teams. Second, even if you do subscribe to the former line of thinking, it would then be reasonable to assume that Pat Buchanan's votes would have gone to Bush in 2000 had it been one-on-one, which would have pretty much offset the difference. The bottom line is that additional candidates seem to recruit new voters into the pool, while most seasoned voters remain reluctant to vote for one.
However, I do think that a N.O.T.A. option would be likely to pull down the straight-ticket, major-party vote, lowering the threshold of votes needed to become competitive. Once we started seeing elections in which N.O.T.A. received 30 or 40 percent of the vote, while the major party candidates each got somewhere in the 20's and another candidate came close to 10, voters might look at non-major party candidates differently, providing the catalyst to break the two-party stronghold first on a local and state level, then nationally.
More voices on the trail might broaden the scope of issues debated in an election and candidates might also think twice about engaging in so much negative campaigning once the voters have another way to vote against them, short of voting for an opposition party. A progressive liberal or staunch social conservative might view their party's candidate as too far toward the center. While they almost certainly are not going to vote for the other party's candidate, who would be even further from their position, they might be more likely to check the N.O.T.A. block in protest than support the status quo.
A more popular reform has been the Top-Two Primary, which California implemented this year and Arizona is voting on by referendum in November. This system throws all candidates into an open primary in which any voter can participate. The top two vote getters (regardless of party affiliation) then compete in the general. The hope is that it will increase primary turnout and give grassroots candidates a better chance on a bigger ballot, where they would theoretically need less total votes to win.
The results have not been promising. In California's first primary using the system earlier this year, turnout suffered. Also, there's an inherent flaw in that a district which is say, 70 percent Republican, would be more likely to yield a greater number of Republican primary candidates, let's say 7, who could then split the Republican vote, while two Democrats end up narrowly earning the top two spots, forcing a heavily Republican district to choose only between two Democrats in a general election, who are obviously unlikely to be representative of most of the district's citizens – a dynamic that will already present itself on California's November ballot.
I'm not suggesting that N.O.T.A. is some sort of silver bullet, but it does seem like a much more achievable goal in the short term than something like campaign finance reform or Congressional term limits (the problems of which I've also written about). Special interests clearly have their way of getting the ears of our leaders. A clear message that even if they are able to buy their way through the party's primary and into victory in a gerrymandered district, they still don't have the support or approval of a majority of their constituents, might be the best way to embarrass them into listening to us as well.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.