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San Francisco Chronicle

None of the Above: Voters dissatisfied with Davis and Simon do have other options
By Jonathan Curiel
October 6, 2002

Voters frustrated by the two major candidates for governor -- and judging by the polls, millions of people are turned off -- would be able to pick "none of the above" on their ballots if Al Shugart's measure had passed two years ago.

His Proposition 23 would have given state voters the "none of the above" option for all elective offices, but it was soundly rejected, leaving discouraged voters with a what-could-have-been feeling as they ponder the current California governor's race between incumbent Gray Davis and challenger Bill Simon.

"Nobody likes Davis or Simon, and I don't either," says Shugart, the co- founder of Seagate Technology who once ran his dog for office. "I have people saying, 'Where is "None of the Above" now that we need it?' "

The degree of dissatisfaction this year with the major candidates seems unprecedented -- and particulary bitter. Both candidates' disapproval ratings far outstrip their approval marks.

For dissatisfied Democrats, Republicans, independents and decline-to-states, there are other options in the race for the state's highest office. Four other candidates who will appear on the ballot, plus perhaps a write-in or two, may prove more compatible politically. And, who knows, one of them might even have an outside chance of winning -- at or least of influencing the debate between the major players.

The obvious alternative for liberals is Peter Camejo, the Green Party's candidate for governor, who advocates living-wage laws, universal health care, marijuana decriminalization and abolishing the death penalty. A longtime advocate of gay and lesbian rights, Camejo, 61, marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama and opposed the Vietnam War.

Unhappy Republicans may not have an office-seeker to whom they can immediately turn, but they do have two potential candidates (former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan and Secretary of State Bill Jones) who are sitting on the sidelines and could still mastermind write-in campaigns.

Veteran political observers say anything is possible, although the odds are against an upset on Election Day, which is just 30 days away.

"These things do happen, but it's very, very rare," says Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford.

The last time a major gubernatorial upset happened was in the 1998 Minnesota governor's race, when Jesse Ventura -- seeking a victory for "ordinary people" -- surged suddenly in the polls and beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey III and Republican Norm Coleman. Even Ralph Nader, the Green Party's 2000 candidate for president, praises Ventura's upset, although Nader and Ventura are miles apart on many issues. (It's doubtful, for example, that Nader would ever advocate eliminating government funding for public television and radio, as Ventura did early in his tenure.)

"People didn't think Ventura could win," Nader said in a phone interview from Washington. "He was at 9 percent in the polls when three things happened. He got into 10 debates with the other parties, there was same-day registration, and he got substantial public funds."

Those conditions can't be replicated in California. The most populous, most progressive state in the country doesn't have same-day voter registration, and the most populous, most progressive state in the country has an incumbent governor who refuses to be seen with non-major candidates in public, let alone at televised debates that invite viewers to compare the contestants' political personalities and platforms.

Not Easy Being Green

Camejo is understandably angry that Davis has excluded him from a chance to reach voters through a medium that can be a great equalizer.

Personable, knowledgeable, funny and effusive about every issue he addresses, Camejo -- a successful businessman who speaks fluent Spanish -- is the sort of candidate who would benefit from more exposure. Simon debated Camejo last month, fueling Camejo's frustration that Davis won't follow suit. Camejo wanted to be included in Monday night's debate between Davis and Simon. He points to a poll by a Sacramento television station in which 69 percent of respondents said he should be invited.

"I consider the poll confirmation of what I've been advocating -- that Davis shouldn't be allowed to determine who is involved in debates," Camejo says. "Davis is preventing the will of the overwhelming majority of people in California. It's insulting."

Camejo may have an unlikely ally in John Anderson, the former presidential candidate who, as an independent, challenged Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. Now a law professor and head of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a think tank in Maryland, Anderson says polls should be taken several weeks before major political debates to determine if non-major candidates are invited. An independent or third-party candidate should be invited if he gets 50 percent of the respondents saying he should be included, Anderson says.

Ranking Candidates

Instant runoff voting should also be implemented at the state and national level, which would attract more voters to elections, Anderson says. With instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order of choice; candidates advance to a runoff if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

"Instant runoff would be the most positive boon that could encourage independent and third-party candidates," Anderson says. "You get rid of the 'spoiler' label by knowing that a second choice counts."

Nader detests the "spoiler" accusation, saying it's the product of Democrats and Republicans who try to marginalize the Greens and other parties. "The whole use of the word 'spoiler' assumes the country belongs to two parties, and that everyone else is a spoiler," Nader says. "We can't have a country like that -- that's why I turn it around and say that (in the 2000 presidential election) Gore took votes away from me. Speaking metaphorically, how can you spoil a political system that's spoiled to its core?"

Just as Nader rejects the idea that his candidacy pulled enough votes from Gore to help hand Bush the presidency, Camejo rejects the notion that he can only hurt Davis. Though he has the blessing of many elected Democrats, he says, he also has the support of people who previously voted Republican.

"I'm very friendly with elected Democrats -- from members of the state Senate to the state Assembly -- and they have no problem with me running against Davis," Camejo says. "They won't reveal their names for obvious reasons, but they're saying, 'Go Peter!' And the American Muslim Alliance (a national organization based in the Bay Area) is endorsing me, and they endorsed Bush two years ago, so we're also taking votes from Republicans."

For voters not enthralled with Camejo, also on the gubernatorial ballot are Iris Adam of the Natural Law Party, and Gary Copeland (formerly of the Libertarian Party, which withdrew its support for him after he spit at a radio talk-show host) and Ron Gulke of the American Independent Party (whose message is wrapped in references to God and family).

There's always the write-in option, or else abstaining from voting for governor at all. Anderson says going to the polls and not casting a vote for governor is better than a "none of the above" choice, which he calls a "cop- out. It's not a choice. It's the responsibility of a voter to choose."

(Voters in Nevada have had a "none of the above" choice since 1976. It's nonbinding, meaning a candidate with the most votes is elected no matter how many people check "none of the above." In last month's Democratic primary for governor, "none of the above" came in second, ahead of a former topless dancer but behind the winning candidate, Joe Neal, who said it was "embarrassing" to be a viable candidate "trying to make a difference, and you have to look back and see if 'none' is going to beat you.")

As a voter, Anderson says he has abstained at times on Election Day, and that he can empathize with Californians who are unfulfilled by the Davis and Simon campaigns.

"Abstaining might be the only thing you could do," he says. "If enough people abstain, that might send a powerful message that we need to get busy with instant runoff voting."

Many things could still happen by Nov. 5. Write-in candidates can file a declaration with the state as late as Oct. 22, so Riordan and Jones (on the Republican side) still have time to jump into the race, and a Warren Beatty- like figure with name recognition and political savvy could -- just could -- emerge for Democrats.

Call to Action

Perhaps the most satisfying option for frustrated voters would be to go to the polls on Nov. 5, then go home and work on changing the way politicians are elected to office. That's what Anderson and others say -- that this year's race for California governor is another sign that the system of electing people to high office needs an overhaul. It shouldn't take huge amounts of money (like the $70 million that Ross Perot spent in 1992 to run for president) for independent and third-party candidates to get noticed and to get votes, Anderson says.

"If we're not getting decent candidates, then you better look at the process by which they are nominated," Anderson says. "You better reform the system."

Nader, who has come out in favor of a "none of the above" option, calls the Green Party and other third parties "builders."

"It's not likely," he says, "that third parties win on the first round, but they change the agenda. They push the parties to address issues they'd prefer to ignore. There's a higher probability of winning at the local level (as in Audie Bock's Assembly victory in 1999), but it's a building process. You keep hammering away."

In the meantime, frustration with Davis and Simon increases. In a Field Poll conducted last month, 52 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Davis and 50 percent said they had an unfavorable view of Simon. Longtime election watchers worry that these high disapproval ratings will mean a record low turnout next month.

"You have a perception of very bad choices, which is likely to hold the vote down," says Curtis Gans, a political scientist and director of the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "People are feeling that their choices for California governor are much worse even than the choice for president in 2000."

It shouldn't come down to "the lesser of two evils." As much as anyone else, the 72-year-old Shugart reflects the frustration of voters when he says about Davis and Simon, "I wouldn't vote for any of those clowns. I'd rather write in 'Mickey Mouse.' Unfortunately, that wouldn't be counted."

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