Jim Elliott

On election day, assuming you can still bring yourself to vote, you go down to the polls, or more likely, the mailbox and look at the selection of candidates for various offices. Some are OK, some are not, so you pick your favorite and then you come to a race where both candidates are, in your opinion, bums.

Your choice is to choose the lesser of the bums, write in Mickey Mouse, or skip it entirely. But whatever you do, you don’t really get to say “these two people are bums.”

I think there should be a way to say that to the candidates and that’s why I think voters should be able to choose to have their vote recorded as “None Of The Above candidates”, (abbreviated NOTA) and to have that vote listed in the election results: Joe Blow –245, Eddie Spaghetti— 123, None Of The Above Candidates –456.

There’s already sort of a way to look at the popularity—or lack of it—of a candidate by looking for the “undervote." That’s the difference in the number of voters who turned in a ballot subtracted by the votes cast in one particular race.

For instance, we can look at a fictional primary election position in which there is only one candidate. Say there were 2500 ballots turned in. The unopposed candidate got 1500 votes, but 1000 chose to leave that position blank. The 1000 voters who chose to leave the position blank is called the “undervote.” That means the unopposed candidate got only 1500 out of 2500 possible votes of the total votes cast, or 60%.

While the undervote can be discovered with a little work, a listed NOTA vote makes it a matter of public record.

About 1993 I sponsored a bill in the Montana House of Representatives that would give voters the option to mark a ballot by voting for None of the Above, or NOTA. In the event that NOTA won, then a special election would have had to have been held. The bill was quickly defeated because, after all, what politician wants to have to face up to the possibility that the voter likes nobody better than they like the politician.

In fact, one Representative, a very nice man from near Bozeman asked, “Well, how would it make a candidate feel if they lost to None of the Above?”

“Just the way they should feel,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Nevada passed a NOTA law in 1976 only for primary elections, so voters have a choice to voice their displeasure there, but if NOTA wins (which has happened a few times) then the candidate with the next higher number of votes wins, bruised ego and all.

Why does this matter? If our vote is an opportunity to express our opinion about a candidate, then there should be an option to make it known that we like neither of the candidates by listing the NOTA vote in the results. As campaigns become increasingly negative (just when you thought they could go no lower—and we’ve been saying that for a long time) NOTA could have an effect.

The purpose of negative campaigning is not to make the attacker look like a good guy but to make the attacker look marginally less awful than the attacked opponent. In fact, in the strategy of negative campaigning it is better to have someone other than the candidate attack the opponent.

Proponents of the NOTA option claim that having it would cut down on negative campaigning, get more citizens to vote, serve as a reality check on unpopular candidates, and give a meaningful choice to voters where a candidate is running unopposed.

These possibilities would only be possible in a situation where an election won by NOTA required a new contest with new candidates. That could get messy for election officers and political parties, but we hold elections for the people, not the parties or election workers.

In the 1990 election during the breakup of the former Soviet Union NOTA led to 200 unopposed candidates losing their election and requiring an election for those seats with new candidates.

If a NOTA option can destroy the “Evil Empire” it can’t be all bad.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.