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All states should include 'none of the above' on their ballots
New Hampshire legislators are consider letting citizens cast their vote for nobody. That's just what our democracy needs.
Get out the vote — for none of the above.
Get out the vote — for none of the above. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
T

he New Hampshire legislature is in the early stages of considering an electoral novelty: allowing Granite State voters to cast their ballots for "none of the above." It's a great idea. Every state should consider similar legislation.

The New Hampshire bill, proposed by state Rep. Charles Weed (D), is an unusual idea in American politics but not a unique one: Nevada has offered its voters a "none of the above" option in statewide races since 1976. The New Hampshire version appears to have "the proverbial snowball's chance of passing the House," says John DiStaso at the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Weed's stated motivation for a "none of the above" option is to give voters a way to lodge a meaningful protest vote. "Real choice means people have to be able to withhold their consent," he tells The Associated Press. "You can't do that with silly write-ins. Mickey Mouse is not as good as 'none of the above.'"

The arguments against the bill from Weed's colleagues range from the absurd to the nonsensical. Secretary of State Bill Gardner, for example, says that voters won't know what "none of the above" means, since ballots now list names left-to-right, not top-to-bottom.

Rep. Bob Perry (R) got a bit closer to the mark when he argued that the system would be a way to "legitimize hostility" by voters. "The ultimate way to protest, I suppose, is to stay home," he added.

But that's the best case for why voters should have this option: so they don't stay home. Voter turnout in presidential elections is barely acceptable for the world's oldest living democracy, but in midterm and local elections, it's pathetic. If voters feel they have a real chance to signal their disgust for the incumbent and the challenger, or Washington, or politics in general, they might at least turn up to vote. And once in the voting booth, they might tick their preferences in local elections — the kind where your vote counts a lot more.

Rep. Douglas Ley (D), a supporter of the bill, says he thinks the opposition is based less on what's good for voters and more on what's comfortable for lawmakers. "It's hard enough to lose to an opponent. It's doubly hard to lose to nobody," Ley tells the AP. "We have tender egos. It's one of the reasons why I think it's been opposed, but no one will ever say that."

Ley's not wrong. It would be humiliating to lose to "none of the above." But that's another selling point for the bill. If candidates know they are facing not only somebody from the opposite party but also a potentially significant number of voters inclined to just say no, they will have to actively court their unaffiliated and disaffected constituents. That sounds to me like an antidote to negative campaigning — you have to sell yourself and your policies, not just tear down your opponent's — and maybe even gerrymandering.

In New Hampshire, if "none of the above" were to win a race, there would be a special election to pick a flesh-and-blood human. Alternatively, if "none of the above" won, nobody would represent whatever constituency elected it — in other words, the seat would sit empty. That is a protest vote.

Not all opposition to the bill comes from egotistical lawmakers, however. "I'm all for having as many choices as possible when it comes to soup or candidates," says Jon Keller, a news analyst at Boston's WBZ-TV, but "I have to wonder if 'none of the above' is more cop-out than choice." He continues:

It lets apathetic or uninformed voters off the hook by giving them a cheap way to vent. Is it better to just razz an incumbent you don't like, or give him a real scare by voting for his opponent, however imperfect they may be? Then you can do the same for the new guy, if he fails to deliver. Elections aren't like choosing a soup. [WBZ-TV]

The New Hampshire chapter of the League of Women Voters agrees, with co-president Liz Tentarelli arguing that "'none of the above' is not a very effective thing; we think it's an easy out."

But it can't be easy as staying home.

To be fair, New Hampshire had a higher voter turnout in 2012 than Nevada, which already has the "none of the above law" on its books. But that doesn't prove such laws are ineffective. In the 2012 race for a U.S. Senate seat, for example, Democrat Shelley Berkley lost to Sen. Dean Heller (R) by a narrow 12,000 votes; "none of the above" got more than 45,000 votes. Voters made their point, but they had to show up to do it.

If you're not persuaded by those arguments, Bob Longabaugh at the Concord Monitor would like you to consider the vote-counters. A "none of the above" box "would be such a time-saver for the people assigned to count write-in ballots at the close of elections," he said:

I am one of those people who for a dozen years or more has reported for duty when the polls close... It never fails that there is a pile of paper ballots that the optical scanner has sorted into a separate bin because they contain write-in votes. When these ballots are examined, we frequently find almost half a dozen write-ins for Mickey Mouse, an occasional Donald Duck and Pluto....

My point, of course, is that if "none of the above" was an option to vote for, we would not have to count the protest votes by hand. The optical scanner would print out the number of protest votes. Simple. Efficient. And more of a headline-grabber that for such-and-such an office the voters were so dissatisfied with all of the contestants that "none of the above" was the winner! [Concord Monitor]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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