There is nothing new about nasty campaign ads, but people across America express increasing disgust with negative tactics that often leave voters with no good choices. Tired of voting for the “lesser of two evils,” voters would rather feel proud to support public officials they like. Sadly, after year-long campaigns that saturate radio and TV with negative messages about candidates, many voters tell pollsters they simply hold their nose and cast a vote they are not proud of, because the alternative was worse.
I am a product of the political system that uses negative ads “because they work.” My 2004 campaign for Congress in Colorado’s 3rd District was the top targeted House race in America that year, with over $8 million spent by candidates, parties, and especially outside interest groups – nearly all of it on negative messages. My campaign was both victim and perpetrator of the nasty, negative, and misleading ads that form most modern campaigns. More than one voter threatened me, “If I hear one more of those stupid commercials, I’m voting for no one!” Every candidate hears similar frustrations.
Voters who make that threat rarely mean it. Although they know many of these ads are over-the-top, the negative images clearly have an effect, as any pollster will attest. Candidates not only monitor their popularity ratings, but also their “negatives” – the number of people who will not vote for them because of some negative perception, often created by ads financed by their opponent, or by outside interest groups. Yet these frustrated voters may be onto something more substantive than they realize – an actual solution to the problem.
Thousands of private organizations print ballots for officers that include “none of the above,” but very few governments do so (among States, only Nevada). Robert’s Rules of Order require that these votes be counted to determine the total number of votes cast, to ensure the winner received a majority of the eligible votes. But if “none of the above” wins, there is no generally accepted procedure. In Nevada, the next closest vote-getter is declared the winner. But what if such a result actually required a new election?
Think about this: if both political parties knew their candidates might be so damaged by nasty ads that neither could win, they might be more hesitant to sink to such depths. A sort-of “mutual assured destruction” system might emerge, in which neither side wanted to be first to “go negative” with their campaign messages, knowing the other side would respond in-kind and thus dangerously lower public opinion of both candidates. Both parties seek to nominate their best, and would be loath to see them destroyed, lest they have no better choice on deck.
“None of the above” could be more than just a wasted symbolic vote. Since our government derives its power “from the consent of the governed,” it would be an actual refusal by voters to be governed by either candidate. Numerous other writers – from the Wall Street Journal to Ralph Nader – have advocated a “none of the above” choice, but it has generally been amusingly viewed as a solution without a problem. But for those who think negative advertising has diminished our democratic process, perhaps there really is a serious reason to consider that option.