With one exception, everywhere I’ve lived–and that’s 16 places across the country in the past 46 years–I’ve had the option on Election Day to write in the name of a candidate if I didn’t like the printed choices. Even for president of the United States.
I discovered the exception after becoming New To Las Vegas this summer. As I learned recently when voting early, Nevada ballots by law do not provide a space in which to enter a name of my choosing on a statewide race should I be so inclined. But in their infinite wisdom, Nevada lawmakers decades ago provided a bit of an out. On all such races, there is an option to vote “None of These Candidates.”
The NOTC option–the only one in the nation–is noteworthy this year because polls show a very close race in Nevada between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump for the state’s six electoral votes, and a high level of disgust for both candidates. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the count in Nevada for NOTC might be higher than the difference between the two candidates. In Nevada it is generally believed the NOTC line tends to attract voters who otherwise would vote Republican.
By law, NOTC votes don’t count. But they could be a spoiler both up and down the ballot. In this season of allegations of voter suppression and the like, the presence of an NOTC option might bring out voters who have a better opinion of one of the candidates for the U.S. Senate (an open seat) or the four U.S. House races and vote accordingly. And that could determine which national party gets control on Capitol Hill.
The “None of These Candidates” option was added by the Nevada Legislature in 1975–the year after Richard Nixon resigned his presidency in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal– supposedly as a way of attracting alienated voters who otherwise might not vote. The preamble to the legislation stated the intent was so that “any voter may express his lack of confidence in presidential candidates or candidates for statewide office.”
The law also specifically required that the total of NOTC votes be included “in every posting, abstract and proclamation of the results of the election.” I guess one idea was to provide some form of public shaming, or indication of things to come.
Which, as it turns out, has happened. In the 2014 Democratic primary for governor, there were eight candidates. The leader, Bob Goodman of Las Vegas, got 17,961 votes, or 24.8% of the total. But NOTC polled 21,725 votes, or 30.0% of the total. Since NOTC was not a person, the winner was Goodman, even though he lost to a phantom. (This is a wild aside, but for some reason it reminds me of 1976 when, working for a Philadelphia newspaper, I watched a local candidate for Congress lose a primary election to a veteran incumbent sharing my name who had died several weeks earlier.)
In the fall 2014 general election Goodman was trounced 71% to 24% by the incumbent Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. At least Goodman this time beat NOTC, which clocked in at 3%.
Some political scientists think the NOTC line helped Democrat Harry Reid narrowly win his third term in the U.S. Senate in 1998 over Republican challenger John Ensign. Reid won by 428 votes; NOTC drew 8,125 votes.
In 2012 Nevada GOP-ers backed by the Republican National Committee sued to block the NOTC line from appearing on the ballot. A federal district judge ruled for the Republicans on their claim that NOTC was unconstitutional, but a federal appeals court stayed that decision and later dismissed the lawsuit on grounds the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. The U.S. Supreme Court let that dismissal stand.
As it turns out that year, NOTC probably made no difference at the top in Nevada. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 67,806 votes; NOTC garnered just 5,770 votes.
Before Las Vegas, I lived in Seattle, where ballots don’t have formal NOTC lines but allow write-in votes. Still, at the last general election in 2014 election officials actually sent voters written notices stating, “Please, don’t write ‘none of the above’ or a frivolous name such as Mickey Mouse or Bigfoot on the write-in line.”
Now I though that was rather high-handed. To me, a write-in vote for a cartoon character, an imaginary monster or a state of mind, all with no chance of winning, nevertheless makes a valid political statement. So the Nevada system explicitly allowing NOTC strikes me as somewhat more honest.