Don't Like The Candidates? Move To Nevada

New study analyzes unique voting option in Nevada that lets voters choose "none of these candidates."
by | September 21, 2011

Many progressive Democrats have become disenchanted with President Barack Obama. Some Republicans have suggested that their field of candidates is weak. Politically active voters who are unhappy with their options have historically faced some less-than-ideal options that they may experience again in 2012.

They can vote against their own party as a protest (and thus contribute to the efforts of someone they support even less). They can simply vote for the candidate they find least unappealing (and aid someone they don’t truly support). Or they can skip voting altogether (and be perceived as apathetic).

Or they can consider moving to Nevada.

Nevada is the only state that gives voters the option to cast a ballot for “none of these candidates” in every statewide election for  federal and state offices. Instituted in 1976 in response to the Watergate scandal, the option has actually been the top vote-getter in four primary races. The vote isn’t binding, and if the protest vote wins, the second-place candidate still gets the nod (a policy some critics say doesn’t give the option enough teeth). But it does give voters a way to register their discontent with the political system in a way some say is more meaningful than simply staying home on Election Day.

The “none of the above," or NOTA movement, isn't a juggernaut. This year, state lawmakers in Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts have considered NOTA voting, but all those proposals have died in committee. Other states, including Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington, have all considered the proposal in the past five years – and rejected it. While NOTA is somewhat of a novelty in the United States, various versions of it are used in Australia, Colombia, Greece, Spain and the Ukraine.

Advocates for NOTA say the system allows frustrated citizens to still send a message in a way that abstaining from voting fails to do, since they get the chance to show they're active participants. Supporters of the method use the infamous 1991 Louisiana Governor’s race as an example of why voters should be given the choice to vote “none of the above.” That year, voters were given the option between a KKK leader (Republican David Duke) or a corrupt politician who’d ultimately serve time in federal prison (Democrat Edwin Edwards). Edwards won.

NOTA could also provide clarity to situations like the close 2006 Congressional race in Sarasota County, Fla. That year, more than 18,000 people who went to the polls didn’t vote for any of the candidates in that race. It was unclear whether there was an error with the voting equipment or if voters were trying to send a message. NOTA, advocates say, would eliminate that sort of uncertainly about what voters’ intentions.

“It creates a means for citizens who are not happy with either alternative to express their displeasure,” Greg Kaza, a former Michigan state legislator who sponsored a NOTA bill in 1995, tells Governing. Kaza couldn’t move his legislation until he agreed to unusual compromise: It would only apply to his own district. Eventually, the measure passed in the state House but died in the Senate. In a bit of political theater, Kaza then distributed stickers printed with “none of the above” to his constituents so they could put them on the write-in spot of their ballots. Election officials didn’t track the number of stickers used, but more than 10 percent of the voters in that election didn’t vote for Republican Kaza or his Democratic opponent, he says. “I would cite that as proof that people want more choices."

Kaza says that incumbents generally aren’t interested in pursuing NOTA, given the great embarrassment they’d suffer – especially when running unopposed – if NOTA got big support. In Michigan, Kaza’s opposition came from lawmakers from both parties. “The political class is very entrenched and generally does not like this idea,” says Kaza, currently executive director of the  Arkansas Policy Foundation. But, he adds, “anything that breaks down (barriers) and gets at the advantages incumbents have and increases competition is a good thing.” Some opposition to NOTA has also come from members of minor political parties who fear it could siphon away disenchanted voters from their ranks.

In a paper scheduled to published later this year, University of Nevada – Las Vegas professor David Damore analyzed the history of NOTA voting in his state. There has been little research on how NOTA votes are used, which has left the media, pundits and advocates trying to fill in the gaps. But Damore’s study helps bust some myths about the practice.

Despite claims by NOTA supporters who say the option encourages people to come to the polls, there doesn’t actually seem to be any relationship between NOTA voting and turnout. But, Damore writes, NOTA still gives voters an “unambiguous means to signal dissatisfaction with the status quo,” since NOTA voting increases when voters have fewer candidates to chose from and in partisan general election races that generate high-interest.

Damore also finds that, while NOTA opponents elsewhere have argued the mechanism was just a fad for Nevada voters, that’s not really the case. The frequency of NOTA voting – nearly 11 percent – has remained relatively constant over the years and may actually be on the rise.

Most interestingly, Damore finds that because of the prevalence of NOTA voting in Nevada, most statewide officeholders come to power without actually receiving the majority of votes. NOTA supporters say the mechanism serves to keep incumbents on notice. “[M]any state or federal election winners of significance in Nevada takes office knowing that more of the state’s voters did not want them in power than did,” Damore writes.

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