Congressional Accountability Project

1322 18th Street NW

Suite 300

Washington DC 20036

(202) 296-2787

fax (202) 833-2406

April 10, 1995

Honorable Jacqueline Speier

California Assembly

State Capitol

Sacramento, CA 94249-0001

Dear Assemblywoman Speier:

I am writing to support Assembly Bill 17, which would authorize a binding "None Of The Above" (NOTA) ballot line in elections for certain California offices. This bill would help cure some of the serious political ailments plaguing our political system today.

In Federalist 54, James Madison argued that "No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgement a certain knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate."

But voters are often faced with ballots lacking a candidate who approaches Madison's standard for a legislator. Consequently, voters are forced to choose between "the lesser of two evils." Obviously, such choices are not for the good of the country, or for the good of California. They lead to ineffective and inefficient government, and frustration and disillusionment among the citizenry.

Negative advertising and ever-shorter attack ads appear increasingly popular among candidates. During the 1994 election cycle, many states -- including California -- suffered high-visibility campaign advertising characterized primarily by vitriol and bile. Candidates use such advertising because it wins elections -- as currently constructed. But these ads also reduce voter turnout, and increase alienation and disaffection from the political system. A December 1994 article in the American Political Science Review "Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate" argues that "exposure to negative advertisements dropped intentions to vote by 5%."

Negative campaigning leads to distrust in all government functions, which in turn leads to our inability to solve what problems can be solved by government.

Many of our elections -- both in California and the rest of the country -- are not competitive. Many districts are dominated either by one political party, or an entrenched and well-funded politician. In these districts, voters often are not presented with an adequate candidate. Such districts and elections are fundamentally anti-democratic. They erode the legitimacy of our democracy.

We allow these conditions to continue at our peril. Democracy can be fragile; it is neither permanent nor inevitable. We ought to take measures that might increase voter participation, and association with the political process so that our democracy might be strengthened and invigorated.

One such measure is NOTA. NOTA lets voters cast a vote of "no confidence" in a slate of candidates -- and if a NOTA wins a plurality, then a new slate of candidates is presented to the voters.

Disaffected voters would have a reason to vote if NOTA were on the ballot. NOTA would likely become a voice for the dismissed, the disgusted, the frustrated, and the alienated. We should expect a rise in voter participation with NOTA on the ballot. This is a crucial benefit; we ought to do what we can to bring people back into the political process.

NOTA would discourage negative campaigning by forcing candidates to give voters something to vote for. Candidates who run negative ads would face the risk of losing to NOTA. And candidates who campaign solely on "hot button" issues while avoiding the major political issues of our day might also face defeat from NOTA. In many electoral contests, NOTA would be significant contender.

The history of NOTA in Nevada bears this point out. Nevada has had a non-binding NOTA since 1976. Since then, NOTA has won four party primary elections, two Congressional elections, and two statewide races.

NOTA would also make elections in "single-party districts" competitive. It would erode the value of incumbency -- particularly in "single-party districts" by giving voters an alternative to voting for a well-funded but lackluster and entrenched politicians. Voters need and deserve a choice. NOTA gives them one, and mitigates the problem of voting for "the lesser of two evils."

Non-competitive elections are a serious problem in our democracy. Without competitive elections, there is no dueling of ideas or contest of visions from which citizens might set the direction and aspirations of their government.

Though I believe AB 17 is generally sound, I want to suggest one area where it might be improved. AB 17 only applies to general elections. My understanding is that AB 17 omits primaries to save money. While such economy is laudable, this is a case of being "penny-wise and pound foolish." The cost of unqualified, unethical, or ill-prepared candidates winning important elected office far exceeds the cost of an additional election. Citizens ought to be able to vote for NOTA in primaries too, where there is often less political competition.

One final point: NOTA acts as a "floor" for the quality of potential candidates. It raises the hopes and expectations of the electorate that they might be represented by people of the highest moral character and greatest talent. It gives voters a tool by which they can demand the best elected representatives, as well as the best from their elected representatives. At base, NOTA means the promise of something better.

My view is that one of the most grave problems in politics today is the failure to elect legislators of unshakable moral authority and vision. This problem cripples our politics in thousands of unseen ways each day. NOTA is a step toward solving this problem. I commend it with hopes that it will soon become law in California.


Ralph Nader