None-of-the-above an option for dissatisfied voters by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

ballot-boxWe believe in informed consent. What about informed dissent? The New Hampshire Union Leader recently reported that Granite State legislators will consider a proposal to allow voters unhappy with their choice of candidates to mark their ballots for “none of the above.” What it says is that they care enough to go to the polls but are unhappy with the choices with which they’re presented.

If “none of the above” were to win an election, the bill, filed by Democratic state representative Charles Weed, would provide for a special election in which you’d have to choose a real live person. Supporters say it’s a better way to protest unsatisfactory choices than writing in your grandmother or Malcolm X or by staying home, which too many people do already.

Nevada has had a none-of-the-above option since the late ’70′s. A federal appeals court has let that law stand. I don’t know that the impact of the law has been anything other than ambiguous. Other states have considered and rejected similar measures, but there remains some grassroots support for the idea.

I do know that in 1979 House Bill No. 788 was filed in the Massachusetts legislature calling for a special commission to consider providing voters with a “none of the above” option in choosing candidates for state, county and municipal office. It was filed by a member of the election laws committee for James H. Barron (sound familiar?). Jim made his proposal to test the theory of “rational abstention.” Was increased non-voting a function of civic indolence or was it an a thoughtful response to unworthy choices? At the public hearing Jim suggested that, if, “none of the above won,” there could be a second election in which none of the previous candidates would be on the ballot. If “none of the above” won again, the office would remain vacant. Needless to say, it never got out of committee. After all, what legislator wants to run the risk of losing to nobody?

It is tempting to support a ballot option that means that none of the candidates is worthy of my vote. To call attention to the issue, an individual in the U.K. changed his name to Zero, None-of-the-Above and ran for office to build support for having the option. He came in dead last. But the NOTA option can have an impact. editor Peter Weber writes of a U.S. Senate race in Nevada in 2012 that was decided by fewer votes that those cast for “none of the above.” Weber says all states should have the none-of-the-above option. But I think that, if the voters were forced to choose candidate A or candidate B, the outcome would have been less muddy. Was second choice for so-called “NOTA” voters candidate A or candidate B? It matters.

WBZ commentator Jon Keller says the none-of-the-above option is a cop-out, and I think he’s right. More often than not, we’re stuck with voting for the lesser of two (or more) evils, and sorting out the candidacies can be hard work. But sorting it out is the challenge of being an informed voter. If the outcome of a race in which “none of the above” wins were a requirement for a subsequent special election, having the option is an indulgence and a waste of taxpayer money. There’s no doubt we need better candidates willing to come forward and run for office, but creating a none-of-the-above option to avoid making a tough choice is not a way to bring that about.

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