The Turkey Ballot

Giving voters a choice when the choices are turkeys


Not long ago, election procedures were considered about as glamorous and interesting as sewer maintenance. No one paid much attention to them. The conduct of elections was left almost exclusively to state governments, and most people were either content with election procedures as they were or totally indifferent. (True, there were parts of the country where elections could be bought and sold as easily as tomato soup and used Chevrolets, but election buying was usually not incorporated formally into law.)

In the 1960s, however, things changed: election law, at least insofar as it dealt with voting rights, became fashionable. In 1963 the Supreme Court devised the principle soon christened "one man, one vote" (at the time man meant both man and woman), and a flurry of election law reform got under way. Literacy and property ownership requirements were struck down; poll taxes were sacked; residency requirements were loosened; bilingual and even trilingual ballots were mandated; courts ordered that voters must be provided assistance in the voting booth; absentee voting was liberalized; students won the right to vote in their college communities; 18- to 20-year-olds gained the right to vote. In short, there was a revolution in the laws governing who can vote.

But if more and more citizens were able and encouraged and helped to vote, what they found when they entered the polling booth was pretty much the same choice between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee. For the revolution in who can vote was not followed by a revolution in who can be a candidate. In most states, legislatures keep a tight rein on the extent of electoral choice, through laws establishing strict eligibility requirements and imposing substantial obstacles to being listed on the ballot even if one is eligible to run.

So the newly enfranchised voter may become the quickly disillusioned voter. Faced with a meaningless choice ("The Democrats and Republicans are no different") or a distasteful one ("It's simply a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils"), the average citizen even so finds it next to impossible to become a candidate himself. And what average citizens have been doing in droves, of course, is simply staying away from the ballot box altogether.

But there is a truly useful reform, already in effect in Nevada and to an extent in Idaho, that could go a long way toward remedying this situation. It's the "turkey ballot." The idea here is simple enough: if a voter believes that all the candidates running for a given office are "turkeys," he or she should have the option of registering a vote for "none of the above" (or NOTA, for short).

The concept of the turkey ballot is not new. In the early 1970s, the League of Non-Voters, a California-based organization headed by Sy and Riqui Leon, promoted a NOTA slot for beleaguered voters. John McClaughry, later a White House advisor during the first year of the Reagan administration, heard of the idea and dubbed it the "turkey ballot." He was chairman of the Caledonia County (Vermont) Republican organization in 1975 when he proposed to the Vermont state Republican convention that they endorse the addition of the turkey ballot for the primaries coming up the next year. Several of the delegates were enthusiastic about McClaughry's proposal; but it was finally squelched by a coalition of horrified officeholders and campaign managers. They knew a potential threat when it stared them in the face.

Ideally, the turkey ballot could be implemented in three progressively valuable stages. In stage one, voters would simply be registering a protest by pulling the NOTA lever. In stage two, a special election would be required if NOTA won. And in stage three, offices would go unfilled or be dismantled if voters insisted that NOTA "take office." At each stage, at the bottom of every column of candidates on the ballot, voters would find a space labeled None of the Above, allowing them to vote against all of the above.

One of the subtlest deceits of the current electoral system is the myth of mandate. People can now vote against a candidate only by voting for the candidate's opponent, who may be only slightly less obnoxious. Consequently, the winner's margin of victory is very likely inflated by the votes from people who despise him. Yet there's no objective way of knowing for sure. The turkey ballot even in its first and mildest form would change this. By providing an alternative to choosing the lesser of two evils, it would permit a message of voter dissatisfaction to be conveyed to candidates and observers.

At this stage of implementation, even if a majority of voters chose NOTA, it wouldn't determine the outcome of elections. But observers would undoubtedly be paying attention to what the new vote totals meant, and this would almost certainly attract some voters who feel alienated and believe they're denied a means of expression under the current arrangement.

Another advantage of the turkey ballot at this stage would be that it would probably reduce the value to candidates of name recognition and of the "coattail effect." Most voters go to the polls because of one or more campaigns they're especially interested in and familiar with; but while they're in the voting booth, they often vote in other races for a candidate with an interesting name (like Jesse James, state treasurer in Texas for many years), for a candidate with the first position on the ballot, or for a candidate riding on the coattail of a majority party. With the turkey ballot, though, voters could split their ticket and vote for the candidates they truly supported, then vote for "none of the above" in all other races. The impulse to express an opinion in every contest could be satisfied by voting for NOTA.

Yet another advantage of the turkey ballot in its first stage would be in diminishing the advantage of candidates who run unopposed. As it is now, an enormous number of political candidates have no opposition (for example, a survey by election-law expert Richard Winger indicated that out of 5,826 state legislative races in 1976, there were 1,942 with only one major-party candidate). But with the turkey ballot, every candidate would always be opposed. And the number of votes cast for NOTA could serve as a signal to potential opponents of the incumbent, letting them know when the time was ripe for a challenge.

Once America learned to love the first stage of the turkey ballot, it could be strengthened to provide for a special election whenever NOTA received a majority of the votes. For the special election to have any credibility, none of the people already beaten by NOTA would be permitted to run a second time. This would provide interesting opportunities for candidates who might not normally even consider running for office. The value of party machinery could very well be negated. Leaders of other public advocacy institutions would be able to enter the political arena directly whenever NOTA demonstrated the radical need for new faces. Party hacks would no longer be as attractive as outspoken ideologues with real ideas.

This one potential power of the turkey ballot is breathtaking. Campaign styles would change almost overnight. And eventually, campaign content would very likely change as well. At present, all candidates know that one of them will win, no matter how bad they all are or the campaigns turn out to be. The only real challenge is quite simple—make sure the other person loses. Mud-slinging duels between loud-mouthed personalities are thus inevitable. They may turn off the voters, but that doesn't matter as long as a majority of those who do show up vote for you. The electorate as a whole becomes irrelevant, as do ideas. Only the activist minority matters, and more resources are spent on getting targeted segments registered and to the polls than in researching and addressing real issues.

Under stage two of the turkey ballot plan, this would end. Then the candidates would have to sell themselves on the basis of their own virtues, not just the other's vices. They would have to sell themselves more to the public than to their party faithful. They would have to utilize the power of ideas more than the power of the wardheeler's patronage. A more refined, informative campaign style would result. The voters would get more issue analysis and less personality profile.

The final and strongest form the turkey ballot could take would be providing, in effect, for "none of the above" to take office. If voters repeatedly gave more votes to NOTA than to any of the candidates for office, that would be taken to mean that the office should remain vacant and its powers discontinued or passed down to the next level in the chain of command. If offices of authority could be abolished in this manner, the use of elections to seat bureaucrats might prove more desirable than having the endless lists of appointees that presidents and other chief executives now make. There is a long overdue need to curtail the power of the imperial presidency with elections (and NOTA rejections) of lesser officialdom. It can only help to give names and faces to today's faceless bureaucrats, making them accountable to the democratic process.

On the face of it, the prospects of the turkey ballot seeing the light of day are not encouraging. Most politicians would welcome a "none of the above" slot on the ballot about as much as they would welcome a skull fracture, and in Nevada, where the legislature approved it in 1976, the idea hasn't quite caught on fire yet: in the 1982 elections, NOTA didn't even approach the vote percentages received by any of the major-party candidates. But in the age of Proposition 13, the initiative-referendum process that legitimatized the tax revolt could also usher in NOTA. It is even desirable that NOTA be implemented in this way. Measures passed by the legislatures are easily tampered with and equally easy to repeal once the wave of public passion has passed. But if passed by public demand via initiative-referendum, the turkey ballot could become a cherished American institution second only to the freedom to vote in its power to guarantee the continued rule of "representative" (popular) government.

Robert Bakhaus is director of the National Coalition to Legalize Freedom.