I am running against myself in the November 5 general election. For the second time in my brief legislative tenure, I am providing constituents with “None of the Above” (NOTA) adhesive ballot stickers. Michigan election law docs not provide a NOTA option, but it does allow write-in campaigns using stickers. So I have produced NOTA stickers, and made them available in the state House district that I represent in suburban Detroit. I believe every legislator should offer this choice to voters.
Don’t get me wrong: I still intend on voting for myself next month. I am confident that I can beat NOTA. But I also realize that there are many constituents who do not like me or my Democratic opponent. Far better that they participate in the democratic process by casting a ballot for NOTA than by staying home on election day and not voting at all.
I also acknowledge that I am motivated by self-interest: opposition to a political class that is largely smug, insular, and openly hostile to democratic reform. My colleagues in the Michigan legislature are, for the most part, confused or angry about my NOTA campaign. They adhere to a “pre-term limits paradigm” that severely limits the parameters of debate. In 1992, most of them opposed term limits with a special vehemence while the people of Michigan approved the measure 59 to 41 percent. Four years later, most legislators still oppose term limits, some bitterly. Unfortunately for them, the issue is no longer “Should we impose term limits?” The people have answered that issue at the ballot box. Rather, the question today is, “How do we go beyond term limits?”
Political elites in both major parties oppose NOTA as a reform. In dismissing NOTA as disruptive, they ignore elections like the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial race between Republican David Duke and the ethically challenged Democrat Edwin Edwards. Observers dubbed the race “the wizard versus the lizard.” In a Mason-Dixon poll taken prior to the vote, 66 percent of Louisiana voters supported a NOTA option. In a hypothetical election against Duke and Edwards, the poll found that NOTA received 30 percent of the vote.
A NOTA option, then, would give voters more choice by giving them the power to vote against incumbents undeserving of support. But there are other reasons for NOTA. These include giving voters the option to vote against candidates who resort to negative campaigning, and leveling the playing field between incumbents and challengers. A large NOTA vote would increase the chances that a serious challenger could be recruited to run against an incumbent the next time around. More importantly, NOTA is a reform measure that passes constitutional muster. Unlike federal term limits, found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, NOTA imposes no additional qualifications on congressional membership. “While term limits create an absolute barrier to the candidacy of certain incumbents based on the length of their prior service,” Blair T. O’Connor writes in the Valparaiso University Law Review, “a NOTA ballot option creates no such substantive qualifications on candidacy. NOTA merely adds to the options on the ballot. It does not remove certain ballot options based on unconstitutional qualifications.” NOTA does not interfere with the right of citizens to vote freely for the candidate of their choice. Nor does it infringe on the right of individuals to associate with a candidate’s political beliefs. “Incumbent candidates are free to advance the political goals of their party,” O’Connor notes, “provided that they win reelection by defeating their challengers, including NOTA.”
There are two ways in which NOTA can be implemented: binding and non-binding. A binding NOTA would provide that if NOTA won a plurality of the vote m an election, the office would be declared vacant and a new election would be held to fill the office. A non-binding NOTA provides that the candidate who receives the most votes would win and take office, even if NOTA receives a plurality of votes. Thus, a non-binding NOTA is largely symbolic in nature, allowing voters to express dissatisfaction with the candidates seeking office, negative campaigning, or politicians and government in general.
One of the most dramatic examples of NOTA encouraging democratic reform occurred in the former Marxist-Leninist nations of Eastern Europe. In March 1989, semifree elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies were held in the Soviet Union for the first time since the Russian Revolution. More than 90 percent of the candidates-were members of the Communist Party. Opposition political parties were prevented from organizing. But the Russian people were empowered, analyst Steve Lilienthal of the Free Congress Foundation noted, “by the election law permitting them to cross out the names of candidates they found unacceptable.” The New York Times reported that “by crossing them [the candidates] all out” the Russian people east their ballots “for the equivalent of ‘none of the above.'” NOTA emerged as a critical factor because Communist Party candidates needed a majority vote to win election. Within days of the election, the Washington Post reported that in more than 150 of the 1,500 districts where the electoral choice was limited to Communist Party apparatchiks, “a majority of voters crossed out every name on the ballot, forcing new elections.” One Moscow-based diplomat observed, “It is hard to imagine the public shame of running against yourself—and losing.” In runoff elections, more than 100 communist candidates were defeated.
The NOTA process was repeated in June 1989 in Poland, where voters were able to cross off the names of candidates they rejected. Among the unopposed communists defeated was Polish Prime Minister Micezyslaw Rakowski and seven other members of the ruling Politburo. The Economist reported: “Poles delighted in crossing out the names of top officials, just as Soviet voters had done in March.” The New York Times reported, “More unsettling, though [to the Communist Party], was the negative vote.” In runoff elections, candidates endorsed by the long-banned free trade union Solidarity won a majority of the open scats. “NOTA is not nihilism,” Lilienthal said. “Instead, it expresses the belief that they (voters) should be able to elect leaders truly worthy of their trust.”
Americans interested in NOT^ need not look as far as Poland or the former Soviet Union. Nevada has used a non-binding NOIA since 1976. The state’s law reads, in part:
Every ballot upon which appears the names of candidates for any statewide offices or for President and Vice President of the United States shall contain for each office an additional line equivalent to the lines on which the candidates’ names appear and placed at the end of the group of lines containing the names of the candidates for that office. Each additional line shall contain a square in which the voter may express his choice of that line in the same manner as he would express his choice of a candidate, and the line .shall read “None of these candidates.”
Under Nevada law, if NOTA receives a majority vote, the human candidate receiving the next highest vote total still wins the election. “Although ‘None Of These Candidates’ cannot actually win the race,” Nevada Secretary of State Cheryl A. Lau explained, “it is an opportunity for voters to register opposition.” Or embarrass an unresponsive incumbent politician. According to Nevada election records, NOTA placed ahead of both Republican George Bush and Democrat Ted Kennedy in the state’s 1980 presidential primaries. Then-President Jimmy Carter barely defeated NOTA that year, winning 38 percent to NOTA’S 54 percent. NOTA has finished first in Nevada elections in 1976,1978, and 1986. These victories have occurred in Republican congressional primaries and a Democratic primary for state treasurer.
Nevada’s experiment with NOTA has attracted the attention of legislators in other Western states. In 1993, Colorado State Senator Tilman Bishop, a Republican, introduced binding NOTA legislation that would apply in federal as well as state elections. Texas State Representative Bill) demons, a Republican, sponsored a bill the same year that includes a non-binding NOTA option in county and state elections. In 1994, then-California Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller observed of Nevada’s experience with NOTA: “It has not been abused nor has it been disruptive to the process. But it has given Nevada voters another choice and they have occasionally opted for it. Good for them!”
University of Nevada-Reno political science professor Dr. Robert Morin notes that NOTA “has been employed judiciously” by voters in the state. “NOTA has received a plurality of votes on only four occasions since 1976,” he said. Although not examined through empirical research, “NOTA has appeared to impact campaign practices in Nevada,” including its fostering of cleaner elections devoid of negative campaigning. “The Nevada experience with [NOTA] . . . indicates few arguments in opposition to this ballot option . . . [its] existence and use . . . has not resulted in disruption to the political process or to the governmental system . . . there is no movement [for its] repeal,” Dr. Morin concludes.
Don Mello, the former assemblyman who successfully steered a NOTA bill through the Nevada legislature in the mid-1970’s, contends it has had a positive impact on politics in the state. Mello said that NOTA acts as “a humiliation tactic” against candidates, forcing those who lose to NOTA or who barely defeat it to reconsider their practices upon entering office. But does Nevada’s NOTA law go far enough? Mello’s original bill would have provided for a special election when NOTA received a majority vote, but this provision was dropped prior to final passage. Thus, the full impact that NOTA may have on an abusive political system will not be felt so long as Nevada is unable to provide a binding option that requires a special election if NOTA wins.
Buoyed by the Nevada experience, support for a binding NOTA has grown across the political spectrum. The concept has supporters on the political left and right, and among Perotistas who consider themselves advocates of good government. Ralph Nader has championed NOTA as “a proper and long overdue expansion of voting choice at a time when citizens are staying away from the polls in droves because of their disgust, distrust, despair, and disillusionment with tweedledum-tweedledee polities.” The Green Party, whose ticket Nader is running on for President this year, has used NOTA in its California primary. Nader contends “the NOTA ability to say NO is also the ability to say YES to better quality candidates and electoral competitions that arc not so heavily decided by money and the advantages of incumbency.”
Nader supports a binding NOTA. “Arguments about the cost of a second election,” he maintains, “pale compared with the lack of substantive choices for quality candidates and ‘politics as usual’ run by cash-register politicians. Nothing is more costly than the control of nominations and elections by what Thomas Jefferson called ‘the monied interests.'” He predicts that a binding NOTA “would pass handily in the nearly two dozen states that have the initiative and referendum” process. “Elected officials are totally frightened of ‘none of the above.’ It’s a powerful tool. Can you believe how insulting it is to be beaten by ‘none of the above?'”
California Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (Democrat-San Mateo) believes that NOTA “allows voters to use the ballot to cut down on negative campaigning,” and she has introduced a binding NOTA bill in her state. “When I spoke to the public about an option of none of the above, the response was overwhelmingly favorable,” she said. “While some persons expressed reservations about allowing for ‘disgruntled’ voters to express their views, most voters understood that (NOTA) is a good way to stop negative campaigning. I believe that negative campaigning is one of the leading contributors to voter cynicism and apathy With NOTA on the ballot, candidates who offend the public will see their campaigns, and those of their competitors, rejected at the polls.”
The issue cuts across the usual ideological lines. Writing in the Nation in 1990, Micah L. Sifry endorsed a binding NOTA, arguing that “by threatening incumbents and contenders alike NOTA might well introduce a real choice into elections and eventually force candidates to address the issues seriously.” On the political right, John Fund, Wall Street Journal editorialist, supports NOTA, saying “millions of Americans are tired of entering polling booths and having to choose the ‘lesser of two evils.'” “NOTA isn’t a complete answer to the ills of the political system,” he argues. “Try campaign finance reform. But unlike term limits, it doesn’t limit democracy, it expands it. And in those nightmare elections such as Louisiana’s, it could give voters a real, if as yet mysterious, alternative to the likes of Edwards and Duke.”
The Libertarian Party platform calls for a binding NOTA. The conservative Free Congress Foundation also supports the concept. The group’s president, Paul Weyrich, said, “Many voters have become disillusioned with the political process. Some suggest voters expect too much from our leaders. But our expectations must be set high. . . . That is why voters . . . need the binding NOTA option on their ballot.”
But the most significant NOTA proponent may be political scientist Kevin Phillips. The prescient Phillips foresaw, in the late 1960’s, the Republican “Southern Strategy.” More recently, he has accurately described the middle-class rejection of the GOP-backed international trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT. In his 1994 book The Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street, and the Frustrations of American Politics, Phillips writes, “A NOTA line on the ballot adds another safeguard against the present excesses and unreachability of the two-party system.” Elsewhere, Phillips suggests that while Washington is bogging down, grass-roots democracy in America is surging. He points to citizen support for NOTA as proof of the trend. “If some third-rate state official was up for reelection,” Phillips said, “but he or she was liked so much by interest groups that major party opposition was missing or only nominal, there would still be a way for voters to say ‘no’—they could force a new race with new candidates by voting for ‘none of the above.'”
Ross Perot’s most astute followers in the fledgling U.S. Reform Party have taken note of Phillips’ analysis. While the principles of the Reform Party do not include a formal endorsement, many grass-roots activists sympathetic to the group endorse NOTA, as I have discovered firsthand in the Michigan legislature.
Political Independents have been the biggest NOTA supporters in Michigan. Last year, I introduced a bill in the Michigan House to establish a non-binding NOTA option in local and state elections. “Many . . . would feel more confidence in our state legislature with NOTA on the ballot,” wrote Loretta Adriaens, former Michigan Issues Chairwoman for United We Stand America. “(NOTA) would make it easier for average citizens to participate in government.” Vicky Beeman, an ex-USWA official, wrote, “It’s time we put an end to the Tweedle Dee-Tweedle Dum candidate choices. . . . The time has come to empower the voters of the state of Michigan.” Another Independent wrote, “This NOTA bill is long overdue since more and more the voters are placed in a position where either option is not acceptable.” Not surprisingly, a private poll of Michigan Independents found that more than 90 percent support a NOTA ballot option.
Political independents are the fastest-growing voting bloc in Michigan, but establishment Republicans have shown no interest in recruiting them with issues like NOTA. To build support for my bill, I proposed a plank to the Michigan Republican platform endorsing NOTA. The issue was tabled twice, once after a national GOP committeeman lobbied against the plank. A top Republican elective official, said to be a 1998 candidate for governor, told me privately, “I know the people and they don’t want that.” Apparently establishment Republican officials have nothing better to offer than the stale threat, repeated ad nauseam: “A vote for an Independent is a vote for Clinton.” By contrast, the “post-term limits paradigm” accepts Independents as informed voters who do not respond to threats, veiled or otherwise, especially when they are made by politicians. Independents have legitimate issues, including NOTA, that must be defined as within the legitimate parameters of debate if either major party hopes to appeal to them.
In committee, I offered a compromise when it became clear my NOTA bill would die: an experiment to place NOTA on the ballot in only one district, my own. The compromise cleared the committee by the bare minimum, five votes. On the House floor, the bill was debated, then passed over for the day. Twice. Colleague Tim Walberg (Republican-Tipton), a leading state conservative, characterized NOTA as “a gimmick . . . that breaks down government and encourages people to be lazy.” Another termed the bill “an abomination.” Never in my brief legislative tenure had I ever encountered such hostility. Even my proposal to tax legislative pensions—which yielded a whopping three votes—did not generate the rhetoric engendered by my NOTA bill. One constituent who witnessed the debate asked, “What are they afraid of? It only applies to you!” Finally, on the third attempt, my NOTA bill passed the House, 56 to 49, again the bare minimum. But it later died in the state Senate. So once again, I am passing out adhesive NOTA ballot stickers to mv constituents.
Two years ago, when I first ran against myself, I learned that constituents understand the issue much better than legislators. Among the comments I received: “I’m interested in NOTA, but only if the office remains vacant if NOTA wins.” “Can a politician’s pay be reduced by the percentage of votes that NOTA receives?” And, “Could NOTA be extended to Congress and the presidency?” These sentiments are proof that the people are looking for changes in our electoral system, even if the major political parties and most incumbents are not.