If you had the choice of voting for a Republican, Democrat or "none of the above" (NOTA), what would you do? To begin with you could put both parties on Notice (None of These Inane Characters Eligible).
Americans believe in freedom of choice. But why should we only be able to vote "yes" or abstain?
Most of the time the only way we can vote against an incumbent politician is by supporting an even less desirable or equally unappealing opponent.
With NOTA, Massachusetts voters could put the kibosh on John Silber and William Weld. Texans could trash Clayton Williams and Ann Richards. Californians could humiliate Dianne Feinstein and Pete Wilson.
The idea is not as far out as it sounds. A non-binding version of NOTA has been on the Nevada ballot since 1976.
That year, "none" received 47 percent of the vote in a Republican congressional primary. The "victorious" Republican nominee, who received only 29 percent of the vote, was overwhelmingly defeated in the general election.
Here's how a binding NOTA on the ballot for offices such as governor, mayor, senator and representatives would work. Any time NOTA got more votes than any of the other candidates, a special election would be called. Those defeated _ including the incumbent _ would be prevented by law from running in the makeup vote. The makeup election would be held according to the existing rules for filling unexpected vacancies.
The political parties would nominate replacement candidates by whatever method they desired. And voters could vote NOTA against the replacements.
Ultimately, NOTA could be far more than a much-needed outlet for voter frustration. Conceivably, it could be the hammer to smash the interconnected problems of negative campaigns, entrenched incumbents, vote-buying and voter alienation.
At a minimum, the prospect of mutually assured destruction might deter much negative advertising. High NOTA standings in pre-election polls might induce politicians to address real issues. And moneyed interests might even spread their resources more evenly if they knew that no incumbent's tenure was a sure bet.
It's growing increasingly clear that we will need to overhaul the electoral system to get out of the current mess. This would include same-day registration, lower barriers to getting on the ballot, free TV time for candidates of all parties, full public financing of primary and general races and limits on the length of campaigns.
Of course, under the current system, the chances of such a comprehensive revamping are practically nil. After all, these reforms threaten the security of the politicians who would have to vote for them.
With the power of NOTA, however, politicians would have to pay attention to their constituents' demands for change. Indeed, with this very goal in mind, disenchanted voters in western Massachusetts are gearing up a NOTA write-in campaign this fall.
Would NOTA on the ballot lead to anarchy? I doubt it.
Politicians who pay attention to their constituents, rather than fat-cat funders, would undoubtedly be returned to office. But the good ol' boys who are sticking taxpayers with the astronomical costs of the savings and loan scandal and other travesties might well be purged.
It would probably take a constitutional amendment abolishing or altering the Electoral College to apply NOTA to the presidency. But in the 23 states that allow ballot initiatives, voters could easily petition to put NOTA on the ballot for all other elected offices.
The public is tired of politics as usual. But despite this mood, the current rigging of our electoral system will insure re-election for most regular pols. Indeed, a record number of congressmen _ 82 in all _ are running without any major party opponent.
Here and there, alternative candidacies will always emerge. But without institutionalizing the power to vote no, more and more Americans will do something much worse: stop voting.
Micah L. Sifry is assistant editor of the Nation magazine.