Reporting from Las Vegas — Long before the "tea party" movement, Nevada lawmakers gave disgruntled and uninterested voters a way to tell politicians to buzz off. You don't like any of the choices? Vote for "none of these candidates."
This year, the turnout for "none" could be a decisive factor in whether Sen. Harry Reid returns to power as Democratic majority leader. The race between Reid and Republican Sharron Angle is so close, and the disdain for both candidates so high, that the victor will likely triumph by a razor-thin margin. That's where "none" comes into play.
Reid, who has the most to lose in an anti-incumbent year, has to hope that a significant number of voters will vent their anger by voting "none," instead of for Angle.
His campaign has vigorously tried to drive up negative impressions of Angle, a tea party conservative, by running advertisements that portray her positions as loony or dangerous. Angle's camp says Reid's tactics will backfire, and perhaps cause some of his voters to turn to a third-party candidate or "none."
Recent polls show that "much of the electorate has made the decision not to vote for Harry Reid, but they haven't decided where their vote should go," said GOP strategist Ryan Erwin. With eight candidates and "none" on the ballot, Erwin said, Reid or Angle could probably eke out a victory with as little as 42% of the vote.
Though a number of states, including California, have toyed with adding "none" to their ballots, Nevada is the sole state gutsy — or foolish — enough to endure the consequences.
The Legislature approved the "none of the above" option in 1975 to give disgusted voters a voice, said former Nevada lawmaker Don Mello. "The timing was ripe because of everything with Richard Nixon. People were very upset. I started to wonder if people would vote if they could vote 'no.' "
His AB 336 placed "none" on ballots for the presidency and statewide races, including U.S. Senate, the state's six constitutional offices and the Nevada Supreme Court. (State legislative seats had to be omitted to win enough votes, Mello said.) Should "none" outpoll everyone else, the candidate with the second-most votes wins.
"None" won U.S. House primaries in 1976 and in 1978, the same year it won the GOP secretary of state primary. It also claimed victory in the 1986 Democratic primary for state treasurer. Though "none" didn't swell voter turnout, as some backers had hoped, it developed a loyal constituency. After all, "none" never begs for money or panders to lobbyists, never slings mud or lies about mistresses, never flip-flops on issues or frustrates journalists with vague, scripted talking points.
John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, views "none" as an outlet for the kind of electoral angst that has propelled the tea party movement. He pointed to Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, who was mocked by state party brass as unfit to be dog catcher but embraced by primary voters.
"I doubt people supported her solely on her qualifications for the job," Pitney said. "There was an element of protest to that vote."
"None" gained some traction elsewhere in the mid-1990s, around the time a fed-up, recession-weary electorate stripped Democrats of congressional control. Ralph Nader promoted it in several states. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Colorado flirted with embracing "none."
In 2000, venture capitalist Al Shugart succeeded in placing a none-of-the-above measure on the California ballot, where it was defeated, much like his prior attempt to run his 120-pound Bernese mountain dog, Ernest, for Congress.
Shugart's daughter Teri, who served as campaign manager, said "none" couldn't overcome a reality of California politics: Cash often triumphs, and the Shugarts didn't spend much. "It's too bad," she said. "Voters shouldn't have to hold their noses and vote for the least of two evils."
In Nevada, voters have turned to "none" in primarily low-interest races and contests with few candidates, said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Damore co-wrote a recent study of the ballot line, which found that "none" also frequently draws large numbers of primary votes when pitted against incumbents "who may be perceived as creatures of the status quo." It dubs the trend the "Harry Reid hypothesis," a nod to the majority leader's performance in June's Democratic primary, when three-fourths of votes went to Reid and 10% to "none."
Damore views the Reid-Angle faceoff in November as potentially fruitful for "none," which has been polling at about 3%. In surveys, about half of voters say they view both candidates poorly, which is no surprise considering the contest's increasingly shrill tone.
One recent letter to the Las Vegas Review-Journal complained that "the confidence we have in our political leaders is now at a miserable low.... This could be one [election] in which 'None of These Candidates' receives more votes than the politicians."
Reid's fierce TV campaign has tried to paint Angle as an extremist for, among other things, calling the unemployed "spoiled" and suggesting "2nd Amendment remedies" might be in order should control of Congress not change. Angle, in turn, has blamed Reid for Nevada's cratering economy and slammed him as "the best friend an illegal alien ever had."
Though Reid's camp said driving voters to "none" wasn't part of his strategy, few candidates have more obviously benefited from it. In 1998, when Reid defeated John Ensign by 428 votes, more than 8,100 were cast for "none."