LAS VEGAS — President Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney must face down a dubious and slippery opponent in Nevada this November. The mystery foe cannot be tamed with television ads and never breaks a campaign pledge. Its name is “none of these candidates.”
Nevada is the only state in the nation to offer voters the quirky ballot choice, and for more than three decades, statewide candidates here have had to contend with it. But this year, nervous Republicans have filed a federal lawsuit to try to oust “none” from the ballot.
They worry that “none” could siphon away a sufficient number of anti-Obama voters from Romney to throw the state to the president. And because the Silver State's six electoral votes are some of the most hotly contested in the nation, Republicans don’t want to leave anything to chance.
The Republican National Committee declined to comment for this story, but an official there acknowledged that the party is bankrolling the lawsuit, filed last month, to add “clarity” to the ballot.
In this state, known for its love of long odds, it’s not as outlandish as it sounds that “none” could have a big impact on the outcome. It has before. In 1998, now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid squeaked past Republican John Ensign by barely more than 400 votes in his reelection bid; “none” tallied more than 8,000 votes that year.
“None” has even won some primary elections, albeit not recently. When “none” wins, the second-place finisher is named the winner, and that is the crux of the GOP lawsuit, which argues that “none” is disenfranchising Nevada voters.
“One of the above candidates is going to get elected,” said Bruce Woodbury, a Republican and a former longtime Clark County commissioner, who is among those signing onto the lawsuit. He called the “none” option a “bait-and-switch scam.”
The lawsuit’s chances are slim, said Rick Hasen, an election-law expert and a professor at the University of California (Irvine) law school. “None of the above is functionally equivalent to a person not voting for a political office,” he said. Plus, Hasen added, the Constitution gives state legislatures broad latitude to design presidential ballots.
Other states have considered adding “none” to the ballot. California voted down a ballot measure to do so more than a decade ago. But outside Nevada, it exists only in other countries.
Woodbury, who backs Romney, acknowledged that stripping “none” could help the GOP this year. “Obama’s the incumbent, so I think that ‘none of the above’ on the ballot benefits him and hurts Romney,” he said.
Zac Petkanas, a strategist for the Nevada Democratic Party, criticized the suit as a “blatantly political move to restrict the choice of Nevada voters.”
“[It] clearly shows how scared the Romney campaign is about the deep divisions within the Nevada Republican Party and the distrust his base feels about his candidacy,” he said.
David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas), wrote in a recent study that voting for “none” appears to be a “a form of purposeful protest” for voters unhappy with the candidates on the ballot.
“None” was last in the news in 2010, when Reid, who was unpopular in the state, was on the ballot. In his primary, “none” gobbled up more than 10 percent of the vote, but that share dropped to 2.2 percent as Reid bested GOP challenger Sharron Angle in the general election.
Nevada political strategists and politicians are divided over what, if any impact, stripping “none” from the ballot would have in the presidential race this year, or in the heated Senate race between Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democratic challenger.
Peter Ernaut, a former GOP state lawmaker turned political strategist, said he doubted that the Republican-led lawsuit would make any difference. Those voters who trudge to the polls to select “none” aren’t that predictable, he said, even if they’re unhappy with the incumbent.
“A person that does that is probably just as likely to voice their protest by not voting at all,” Ernaut said.
Billy Vassiliadis, a Democrat who works with Ernaut at the Nevada-based public-affairs firm R&R Partners, said he doubted that the GOP efforts would alter the race but welcomed them anyway.
“It’s distractive and delusional and not particularly effective,” Vassiliadis said. “God bless ’em.”
This article appears in the July 17, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.