Las Vegas Sun

December 11, 2017

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None’ is not a wasted vote

Other views

See what others say about the only-in-Nevada ballot provision: The Sun's editorial on "none," and readers sound off.

The recent federal lawsuit filed by a group of Republican operatives suing to invalidate “none of the above” voting for federal offices (the option is also available for elections to the Nevada Supreme Court and the state’s six executive branch offices) has once again put our “only in Nevada” ballot option in the spotlight. The gist of the legal complaint is that voters who chose the “none of the candidates” option are being disenfranchised because their votes would not affect the outcome.

In light of this legal action, it might be useful to consider how “none of the above” voting actually operates.

To this end, in a forthcoming peer-reviewed journal article my co-authors (former UNLV graduate student Mallory Waters and University of California, Riverside, political science professor Shaun Bowler) and I examine the use of “none of the above” voting in Nevada from its inception in the mid-1970s through the 2010 midterm election.

We frame our analysis in terms of assessing if use of the option clarifies the ambiguous signal that election results send to the political system. In particular, we investigate if patterns of use are consistent with low-information voting and other forms of “non-voting” (e.g., abstention, roll-off or ballot spoiling) or if Nevada voters chose the option to signal some form of inchoate protest or dissent.

In general, we find that use of the option is consistent with low-information voting. Specifically, the number of “none” votes increase in races where information is less salient, such as primaries and nonpartisan elections. Use also positively correlates with roll-off (not registering a vote for a given race after having done so for other races on the ballot) and as such is similar to other forms of non-voting.

Yet, unlike these other “non-votes,” casting a “none” vote is much more costly as it requires voters to register, turn out and successfully complete their ballots — actions that are suggestive of voters willing to consent to the democratic process but uneasy about fulfilling the obligations of citizenship.

With respect to protest voting, our analysis indicates in certain instances that voters select the “none” option to send a message of dissatisfaction. Specifically, our analysis finds that the number of “none” votes increase in races for offices with the greatest governmental authority and that draw the most voter interest.

While the effect is small — about 1.3 percent controlling for other factors — in two such races (the 1996 presidential and 1998 Senate elections), the “none” option received a larger vote share than the difference between the top two vote getters. More generally, the percentage voting “none of the above” is greater than the margin between the winner and second place candidate in 45 of the 219 cases considered. And in the 1976 and 1978 House and 1978 secretary of state Republican primaries and the 1986 Democratic treasurer primary, “none” was the top vote getter.

The “none” option is particularly valuable for understanding the electoral performance of minor parties. Minor parties may infer from vote totals that they are popular. But, if citizens vote for minor parties only as a form of protest — not because they agree with the party or its platform — then such an inference is incorrect. By allowing voters to signal their discontent directly, as opposed to channeling their displeasure through voting for minor parties, the political system can more clearly differentiate discontent from minor party support.

We also find that a good deal of the arguments bandied about by proponents and opponents of “none” voting are not borne out. For instance, in Nevada the option was introduced as a means to increase turnout in response to lower voter turnout and apathy in the post-Watergate era; an expectation not supported by the data.

Similarly, opponents of a “none of the above” ballot measure in California contended that the use of the option would be a fad with little staying power and its implementation would undercut support for minor parties and in the process, delay the chance of meaningful reform. If anything, we find the opposite as “none” voting in Nevada has increased slightly over time and, as noted above, use of the option clarifies electoral interpretation for minor parties.

Nonetheless, because Nevada does not require a runoff election in cases where the “none” option is the top vote getter and instead awards victory to the candidate receiving the plurality of votes for the candidates, the option could be construed as either harmless or a “wasted vote.” On this point, review of the legislative debate suggests that this aspect of the law was considered but ultimately dropped in order to gain passage. Also note that the creators of “none of the above voting” — the Nevada Legislature — did not impose the option on their own races.

There is, however, room for “none of the above” voting in Nevada to have more nuanced effects. For instance, in an earlier analysis, Leonard Weinberg, Robert Linderman and Amal Kawar of UNR find that candidates who emerge from primaries where there are significant amounts of “none” votes do poorly in the ensuing general election. Also, the consistent and frequent use of the option by Nevada voters means the many state or federal election winners take office knowing that more of the Nevada electorate did not want them in power than did.

In sum, use of the “none” option in Nevada is complicated. And while analysis of how frequently and under what conditions it is used reveals a number of interesting and subtle patterns and effects, disenfranchisement most certainly is not among them.

David Damore is an associate professor of political science at UNLV and a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.

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