The Right to Vote for None of the Above

"NOTA" Expands Ballot Options        

John J. Pitney

        Voters should have the option of picking "none of the above." Nevada has a nonbinding "NOTA," which often draws 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 of contemporary American democracy's problems, but it would give voters a better alternative to the bad choices they often find in the polling booth and change candidates' behavior for the better.

Ensuring Voters Always Have an Option

        Faced with the unworthy, the unknown, or the unopposed, what can voters do? Under current procedures, they have three unappealing options.
        • They can hold their noses and vote. This can result in rude surprises: in the Illinois' 1986 primaries for 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.
        • They can write in a name, knowing that if their vote gets tallied at all, it will come under the heading "void and scattering."
        • They can skip the particular race or abstain from voting altogether. Although with its advocates, non-voting is a poor method to register protest; after all, the ancient maxim is that silence means consent.
        NOTA would be a better alternative. Whenever the names on the ballot are clearly unacceptable, NOTA would offer a means to start 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, 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 endorsements.
        In races where NOTA did carry a plurality, it could still have a healthy impact. If previously unopposed incumbents suddenly started losing 20% or 30% 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. Yes, candidates have the right and the duty to expose the flaws in their opposition's public record. But they also have an obligation to tell the truth and spell out their own stands. Too many campaigns neglect this latter 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. Turning voters against the opposition would not be enough, since this strategy would merely increase NOTA's vote. Rather, candidates would have to give the electorate a reason to vote for them, not just against the other side.
        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."

        John J. Pitney, Jr. is a professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. This article is excerpted from the May 1994 Policy Insights, produced by the Free Congress Foundation (717 2nd St., NE, Washington, DC 20002).

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