Thousands of Americans will be disenfranchised this fall as the result of a problem with their ballots. You will read nothing here, however, about hanging chads or Broward County or little old Jewish ladies voting for Pat Buchanan. The thousands to whom I refer are the voters all across the country who find themselves dissatisfied with all their presidential choices, but who on Nov. 2 will be unable to express that sentiment at the polling booth. On their ballots, they will find no box, no chad, no check mark or option for “none of the above.”
These friends and neighbors of ours must choose an alternative that fails to convey their complete frustration. Motivated by a sense of civic duty or perhaps by the likes of P. Diddy and his enigmatic “Vote or Die” campaign, some of these people still will turn out to the polls. Many will turn out to choose the presidential candidate whom they see as the lesser of two evils, the one whose victory would least instill the sense that it’s time to move to Canada. Their votes will be subsumed into the morass and, in the papers the next day, interpreted as just another lever pulled in wholehearted support of a candidate. A few will turn out to write in a name or submit a blank ballot. Their votes won’t even make the papers the next day.
Those people who are immune to civic guilt and the recurring get-out-the-vote drives will stay home. But they will do so along with half of America’s voters. In the final tally, their utter dissatisfaction will be lost in a sea of other explanations for America’s abysmal turnout — apathy, incapacity and indifference, to name a few.
Adding to the presidential ballot the option to vote for none of the above would eliminate the inequity. In such circumstances, those who are dissatisfied with all the choices on election day could turn out to a polling station and punch the chad for an option that in fact reflects their sentiment. Their opinion therefore wouldn’t be subsumed, diluted or misinterpreted. Unlike the closest current alternative, write-in votes, these votes wouldn’t be wholly ignored.
And the fact is, we all stand to gain from such a ballot change. Those who now vote for a presidential candidate simply because that candidate is the lesser of two evils (and not out of any feeling of support) will no longer do so. The result will be a more accurate measure of the support for the candidates in the election. In particular, we will all garner a far better sense of what the mandate for the president actually is.
Future elections also will be affected positively. If the number of voters who choose nobody is sufficiently large, the major parties will adjust to try to capture these votes the next time around. Third-party and independent candidates will be emboldened. The net effect will be presidential elections and campaigns that are relevant to and inclusive of a larger percentage of the electorate.
If, by some chance, the votes to abstain amount to a majority or plurality of the total votes cast in a state, the electoral votes for that state would go to the candidate with the most number of votes. The idea certainly is not to wreak havoc on the election by granting electoral votes to a phantom candidate. The goal is to give a meaningful voice to those who are dissatisfied with all the presidential candidates. The ballot choice alone accomplishes this goal.
The right to vote is a cornerstone of a government by the people. Voting is one of the more powerful means by which citizens convey their opinions to their government. With our essentially two-party system, however, we have narrowed the viable ballot choices and, in turn, weakened the expressive power of our votes. My proposal seeks simply to restore important nuance to our presidential ballots. I recognize that ballots are not opinion polls, but I do not believe that I am advocating excessive or unworkable degrees of nuance. Indeed, anyone who has ever flipped past C-SPAN knows that the ballot change I propose is not so radical. Our senators and representatives in Congress frequently have the option to vote to abstain. Shouldn’t we extend to the electors this privilege of the elected?
I’d say it’s about time.
Elbert Lin ’99 LAW ’03 is an attorney currently practicing in Washington, D.C.