A Modest Political Proposal: Write in None of the Above
Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D
In the Year of our Lord 2007 AD, it is impossible to escape the impression that a lot of Americans are profoundly ticked off with their Federal government -- and with a lot of State and local governments as well. Regardless of our concern and support for US troops overseas, some of us are convinced that the present National Administration wilfully lied about the military intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Others are incensed over the unwillingness or ineptitude of the government to secure US borders and ports, in the face of a tidal wave of illegal (mostly South American) immigrants that State and local law enforcement officers refuse to arrest. We grind our teeth as tens of thousands of illegals stage parades in US streets under other national flags, proclaiming their "rights" to US political freedoms, social welfare benefits, and "free" medical care that is paid for by our taxes. Many of us see our jobs being out-sourced overseas by large US corporations and ask why the government isn't acting to preserve our industrial economy. Governmental silence in response to these questions is vast. Among older Americans, there is a creeping conviction that our Social Security Insurance and Medicare systems are in a lot more trouble than the government will admit.
In an earlier and more idealistic age, our reaction to these conditions might have been to "vote the bums out!" But for the minority of us who still bother to vote, we've been there and done that before, without success. Some of us have worked in political campaigns to un-seat incumbents and replace them with better men and women. Many more have donated to political campaigns as individuals. But on the rare occasions when somebody new runs successfully, we later find that he or she is no less corrupt or misdirected or outright stupid than the people they replaced. It is as if, no how matter how many "Mr./Ms. Smiths" we send to Washington (or the State Capitol, or City Hall), they all disappear into a vast brain-washing machine. They come back to us seeking reelection two or four or six years later like ventriloquist dummies. We know they aren't talking our message any more but we can't see who's putting the words in their mouths.
This is not a new condition. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was filmed in 1939. What may be new, however, is that increasing numbers of people now understand at least some of the factors that have led to the wide spread decay of our public life. When we add it all up, it comes down to two basic matters. One is simply that we demand pain-free benefits of our government that no such institution can possibly provide without taxing us to death. And the other is a somewhat different and more tractable matter of money. The average cost of a campaign for a contested seat in the US House of Representatives is now about $1 Million dollars. The cost of a campaign for Senate exceeds $8 Million. Presidential candidates now spend over $100 Million dollars each! [See NOW with Bill Moyers -- on Campaign Finance Reform - a Lesson for Educators] The money has to come from somewhere, but for darned sure it doesn't come from average citizens who live from paycheck to paycheck. Believing (perhaps even sincerely) that they have a unique contribution to make to American public life, our Senators and Representatives must begin to raise money for the next election from the very day they are sworn in after the last. And because the amounts are so huge, they have to raise it from organizations that have an economic interest in the ways the representative or senator votes.
We should not be surprised that our politicians listen to voices other than those of their voter constituents. The truely effective political voices in America are loud, and they are attached to deep pockets that the average citizen cannot begin to fill from our own resources. We should also not be surprised that politicians are loath to change this condition by legislating true campaign finance reform or effective term limits. If the campaign donations from secret corporate donors and "political action groups" [also read: "lobbies"] ever dried up, then a lot of these people would have to figure out how to earn an honest living! And I do not mean in politics!
These observations are not particularly new either. Every one of you reading this page has seen it happen, many of us more than once: when a candidate surfaces who seems to have good ideas and a commitment to ethics, two things immediately occur: (1) the smart money starts moving to the other side in the campaign, and (2) the candidate effectively disappears from our public media and becomes invisible to potential voters. It doesn't require us to believe that there's some vast Machiavellian conspiracy out there, in order to use our eyes and ears. It is simply obvious that the smart money would rather that our politicians remain unprincipled and a trifle on the dim side, because truely smart and ethical men and women are harder to manipulate or control. The only real contest going on here is not one between competing ideas or ideologies. It is between competing special interests that seek to control legislative outcomes for their own gain.
Eventually, the internal rot that has set into our political system will simply have to be cleaned out -- or we'll face the social and economic collapse of our country. For that matter, it may already be too late to stop that collapse. However, whether by accident in the aftermath or design before collapse happens, we are (eventually) going to get to elect candidates who are sworn publicly to run for not more than two terms, and they'll pledge to pass legislation to publicly fund all elections from local through National level -- with no option for the candidates to squirm around the spending limits to raise more money. If we're smart, we might add a legal condition that no candidate may serve in any combination of public offices for more than (say) 20 years total. It remains to be seen if we're willing to be that smart. However, the main idea is that is it time this country was again run by political amatures: by citizen-legislators who are aware that they are not uniquely qualified to tell other people what to do, and that they need to retain enough skills in a more important profession or craft than politics, to go back to doing it when their service in public life is over.
There's a political movement in America that seems to be headed in the general directions I've suggested above. It's called "NOTA" -- None of the Above. At least one state (Nevada) has already enacted a non-binding version of NOTA, and over 20 have seen proposals in their legislatures. NOTA groups are actively working in states that allow citizens to change their constitutions by direct referendum. And you can bet that vested interests are spending money hand over fist to smother these groups and keep them silent. It's harder to do that, now that BLOGs have become widespread in the Internet. And the balance will likely shift further toward sanity in years soon to come.
The NOTA principle is simple: if more people check the "None of the Above" block on their ballots for any office, then the election slate for that office is swept clean and we start over. A special election is held 90 days later, and none of the previous candidates is allowed to run. There are tens of thousands of people in America working to see this principle enacted in State laws. If you care to become one of them, you might visit the following website as a starting point: Citizens For None of the Above
It must be recognized, however, that NOTA is not yet a reality in America. We can't yet force the political money machines to come up with a new set of candidates when we tell them at the ballot box that their last set stank. So it is logical to ask, "what can we really do about this mess?" I suggest that in many cases, we still have a meaningful political voice. In many elections, you can still write in a name, and vote-counters must collect and report all names written in. Even if one of the "real" candidates will get sworn in regardless of our votes, can you imagine that any newspaper in the country would refuse to report that "None of the Above" has received a large part of the vote? And doesn't it seem that such a result should attract other candidates who actually get the message? This district has a lot of votors who believe that it's time for something real -- and don't bring us anything less. If the major parties don't, then their pet legislators might face a popular Independent candidate, the next time around.
It might be argued that a vote for None of the Above is a wasted mark on the ballot. And that assertion might even be true in a limited sense. But is a vote for the apparently less stinky of two obvious stinkers any less a wasted mark? The old nonsense has already been trumpeted by various campaigns that "you wouldn't want to let the other party get the majority in the House -- why that would be terrible!" However we know better than that. It doesn't really matter which party rules, when both are bankrupt of any real concern for voters' opoinions. There's about as much real difference between Republicans and Democrats these days as between Tweedle-Dumb and Tweedle-Dee.
It may also be argued that certain incumbents are really good and valuable people in public life -- and that might even be true also. But did the Honorable Mr X or Ms Y ever introduce Term Limits legislation, or real campaign reform? If they didn't publicly associate their names and reputations with these trends, then I'd have to say that as good as they might be in theory, they are still parts of the problem rather than parts of the solutions. Perhaps it is time they gave of their talents in some other field.
So the next time we vote - and every time we vote - I would propose that we send a message to political systems and candidates who have lost touch with us: it's time for a change. "None of the Above" is a powerful message. Let's write that guy in wherever we can, on every ballot in the land.