Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
Could Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's political career be salvaged in November by something I've always considered a humorous quirk in Nevada election law? Many political junkies probably already know what I'm talking about: Nevada is the only state in the country that offers voters a choice of "None of These Candidates" on the ballot.
Usually, only a tiny percentage of voters in Nevada are unwilling to hold their noses and pick one of the people who are running for office. Even in the 2006 governor's race, when voters were decidedly unenthusiastic about Republican Jim Gibbons and Democrat Dina Titus, only 3.5% opted for None of These Candidates.
In this year's Senate race, however, the candidates may be uniquely unappealing. Reid has been one of the more important political figures in the country at a time when Nevada's economy has pretty much collapsed. Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee, has made a career of adopting unpopular causes and alienating fellow Republicans. Most recently, Reid is pummeling her for saying it's not a senator's job to create jobs in Nevada. It should be a great year for None of These Candidates.
After Reid had been given up for dead a few months ago, he's clawed back. A new Mason-Dixon poll has the race at 44% for Reid and 37% for Angle. Still, Reid hasn't come close to 50% in any poll. The thing is, though, that he doesn't need 50% to win. Angle doesn't either. The Mason-Dixon poll had None of These Candidates at 5% and Other at 4% (there will be independent and third-party candidates on the ballot).
There's definitely an argument that None of These Candidates helps Reid. Usually, incumbents need half the voters to like them to win. Voters who disapprove of the incumbent usually end up voting for even flawed challengers. Reid's unlikely to persuade half of Nevada's voters to like him by November. But, None of These Candidates creates a new option that splits the anti-Reid vote, right?
I'd say it's not that simple. It seems plausible that a lot of the people who vote for None of These Candidates in Nevada would have just skipped the election if they lived in another state without the option. That has the exact same effect. The question that's difficult to answer is whether offering None of These Candidates really ends up persuading more voters to not vote for the actual candidates than otherwise would.
However, what is clear to me is that the None of These Candidates option should prompt us to interpret polls in a different way than we would in other states. If we expect None of These Candidates is going to take, say, 4% of the vote, 48% of the vote looks a whole lot better in a poll than it otherwise would. When you combine the None of These option and the independent and third-party candidates, 47%, 46% or even maybe 45% could be enough to win. That's worth keeping in mind when you see Nevada Senate polls.
And, I haven't even gotten to what I thought was the point of this post, which is to tell you the origins of None of These Candidates. It dates to 1975. The Philadelphia Inquirer (no link available) explained the history in 2000, when California was considering a ballot initiative to adopt a similar system (it failed):
Don Mello, a former train conductor who came up with the Nevada measure while a member of the Nevada Assembly, said the idea fit the mood of post-Watergate disillusionment at the time.
"I was a door-to-door candidate. I was going door-to-door and talking to people, and a lot of them told me they weren't going to vote. People were really up in arms. They hated politics," said Mello, 65, of Sparks, Nev., who is retired after 27 years in the Nevada legislature.
"I had to come up with some way of getting them to the polls. And when I told them about this idea, they said, 'If you can get that, I'll come out.' "
At first, Mello proposed a measure with more muscle _ one in which a new election with new candidates would be called every time "none of these candidates" won.
"Well, my colleagues didn't like that. They didn't like it on the ballot by their names," he said. "So I had to soften it."
I have to say that Mello's original idea would have been amazingly inconvenient and amazingly fun.
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