With Trump and Biden on the Ballot, Many Voters Prefer ‘None of the Above’

April 4, 2024   |   Tags: , , , ,
xnaphotostwo769409 | Li Rui / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

On Super Tuesday, as this issue went to press, voters in 15 states and one territory went to the polls and grudgingly validated the inevitable. America is in for another presidential election pitting Donald Trump against Joe Biden.

The following morning, Nikki Haley—Trump's one serious remaining Republican primary competitor—dropped out. But the real Super Tuesday runner-up is still in the race: "None of the above" made a surprisingly strong showing.

Nevada in the 1970s was the birthplace of many excellent ideas, and electoral reforms were no exception. The state's "none of these candidates" option was introduced in 1976, and it remains the bluntest ballot language in the category.

Due to a variety of byzantine complications—including the absence of Trump from the ballot and the existence of caucuses in addition to the primary—"none of these candidates" performed better than all the candidates listed in the February Nevada Republican primary this year. In fact, "none of these candidates" beat second-place Haley by 33 percentage points.

This year's GOP signals were mixed in Nevada—most of those votes were likely from Trump fans—but in the Democratic primary, which was a simpler case, "none of these candidates" still pulled a solid 5.6 percent. More importantly, the state's long history of the "none of these candidates" option has provided fodder for study. In a 2012 paper published in Political Research Quarterly, researchers from the University of Utah found that voters who checked that box on their ballots were sending "a less ambiguous signal of discontent than other nonvotes." In other words, the existence of the "none of these candidates" option allows researchers—and presumably office seekers—to better distinguish between the various reasons someone might opt not to vote for mainstream candidates.

Showing up to vote but refusing to vote for anyone who appears on the ballot takes effort, and can therefore be a powerful way for voters to convey their displeasure to decision makers.

It's no surprise that in a presidential contest that is shaping up to feature two well-known and historically unpopular candidates, interest in sending that "signal of discontent" was notable and noted on Super Tuesday.

Different states have different mechanisms for how they label, count, and interpret their "none of the above votes." The specific ballot language for that category varies: Minnesota voters have the "uncommitted" vote option on their primary ballots, while Massachusetts and North Carolina have a "no preference" option. Some variation appeared on the Democratic ballot in Alabama and Tennessee. After Super Tuesday, there were campaigns for the "uncommitted" vote in Georgia and Washington.

In the Colorado Democratic primary, voters were given the opportunity to select a "noncommitted delegate," signaling their reluctance to fully endorse any candidate. The option was added in December by party leadership with the goal of encouraging young voters to participate even if they were not fond of Biden. These noncommitted delegates have constraints on how they're allowed to vote at the convention, but they would have more autonomy than a committed delegate and could add more volatility and interest. This time around in Colorado, the noncommitted vote did not clear the 15 percent threshold for delegate representation, but more than 51,000 voters, or 8.9 percent, preferred the protest option.

Many of those who voted uncommitted in Democratic contests on Super Tuesday were backing a campaign to signal discontent with Joe Biden, particularly with respect to his handling of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. These voters were building on the surprising success of the "Listen to Michigan" campaign, which drew 101,000 uncommitted votes in the previous week's Michigan primary—largely from the state's significant population of Arab-American voters, but also from younger voters, who tend to be more disgruntled with Biden's foreign policy than elder partisans. Interestingly, a difficult-to-quantify subset of those voters were Armenian Americans, who are furious about an entirely different U.S. engagement abroad: ongoing aid to an increasingly genocidal Azerbaijan. Unlike Colorado, Michigan will send uncommitted delegates to the convention. Under Michigan's rules, those delegates are essentially free agents.

In another Super Tuesday state, Virginia, there was no "none of the above" option. In that state, protest voters were urged to vote for Marianne Williamson, who pulled 7.8 percent. How many of those voters were sincere Williamson fans rather than folks who were angry about Biden's foreign policy is hard to say. Having a real "none of the above" option would have allowed voters to more clearly signal their preferences.

In each of these states, you can tell a different story about what exactly the "none of the above" vote signals. The campaign around Biden's foreign policy is a somewhat unusual twist for this cycle, for example, but isn't unprecedented. For that reason, many electoral reform activists prefer to focus on different proposals, such as ranked choice voting, and activists may prefer to run single-issue candidates to allow voters to communicate the strength of their feelings on a particular topic. (The No Labels effort is a variation on that theme, in which voters could use that ticket in the general election to convey unhappiness with partisanship and polarization. Still, it shouldn't be confused with a "none of the above" vote.)

But at the most basic level, they all mean the same thing: Voters aren't thrilled with their options.

Research bears this out: A 2020 working paper published by the Vienna University of Economics and Business, based on surveys conducted in the weeks preceding the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2016 Austrian runoff election for president, found that manipulating ballots to include a "none of the above" option increased participation. It also diverted votes from "non-establishment candidates," which matches up with Virginia's results and may be a cautionary note for reformers who would prefer to juice the stats of third party options instead.

"None of the above," the researchers explain, is "chosen more frequently by voters with a protest motive, who are either unhappy with the candidate set or with the political establishment in general"—an increasingly common condition as the post-primary portion of 2024's election starts to take off.

The post With Trump and Biden on the Ballot, Many Voters Prefer 'None of the Above' appeared first on Reason.com.


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