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Californians consider "none of the above" option

Votes would be tallied, but would not count

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- A father-daughter team in California has hatched a way they say will allow disaffected and dissatisfied voters to express their displeasure in very certain terms at the ballot box -- make the voting option "none of the above" viable, and make state vote counters tabulate all "none of the above" results.

Their idea, the two say, may catch on in California, and if it does, it could be noticed by the rest of the country.

"It's a protest vote," explains Teri Erickson, executive director of the Friends of Ernest Political Action Committee, the two-person organization based in Soquel, California, that has launched this effort across the state. "If you don't like the choices you're being offered, you can vote for 'none of the above,' and those votes will be counted."

Erickson and her father, Al Shugart, founder and former CEO of Seagate Technology, a manufacturer of computer components, have poured $1 million of Shugart's personal wealth into the California referendum process to see their scheme become reality.

Shugart now runs a venture capitol consulting firm.

The fruit of their labor and their heavy personal spending is Proposition 23 -- one of the many referendum questions that will show up on ballots throughout the state Tuesday.

Proposition 23 would add "none of the above" to all future ballots in the Golden State. Voters displeased with the candidates on the ballot need simply check 'none of the above' on their ballots to make their voices heard.

The votes would be tabulated, and would then be announced in the same way returns for major and minor parties are revealed at the end of the voting day.

But -- they wouldn't really count for anything. If "none of the above" wins a particular race, the living, breathing candidate who received the second highest vote tally would automatically be declared the winner.

"It's nonbinding," Erickson said Friday. "The advantage is, it doesn't cost anything."

Should the referendum be approved Tuesday, voters would able to cast "none of the above" votes in presidential primaries, congressional elections and contests for state offices.

The effort of Erickson and Shugart has received a fair amount of attention in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, when Californians and millions of others across the country descend upon the polls to vote. Californians will be treated to a full slate of public initiatives, many of which have been described by state newspapers as much more worthy of public thought and consideration than Prop 23.

Still, the efforts of Erickson and Shugart have received scant little official opposition -- save for a position taken by the Green Party of California -- though operatives from the major parties have to be watching the progress of the initiative with keen interest. Only one state has a "none of the above" law on the books -- Nevada. The law has been in place in that state for some 20 years, and is considered a success there.

But why?

It might help to know a bit about Shugart's unlikely political past to understand why he has chosen to launch this effort.

Shugart, Erickson explained Friday, started to become disillusioned with the democratic process in the mid-1990s, when he began to take note of the rate of successful legislation produced by the U.S. Congress, (not much at all, he determined). When Shugart combed over data that indicated fewer and fewer eligible voters thought it worthwhile or effective to actually make the effort on election day, he decided to do something about it.

He entered his dog Ernest, described by Erickson as a 120-pound. Burmese Mountain Dog -- into a congressional contest in Monterey, California. Shugart pushed Ernest as a write-in candidate, but the dog's participation was disqualified by local election officials, and all write-in votes for Ernest were discarded.

Shugart wrote a book about the experience -- "Ernest Goes to Washington," and pondered his next move.

Thus -- the birth of the Friends of Ernest PAC, the tiny, two-person operation run out of Erickson's home and law office.

"This effort was an outgrowth of the experience of running the dog for Congress," she said. "It was whimsical, but there is a point to it."

Shugart and Erickson argue that reform of the elections system doesn't have to be complicated. Acceptance and addition of the "none of the above" option might bring more voters to the polls, they say. "Not voting is like protesting by not showing up," Shugart said.

If voters are guaranteed a noticeable means to register their unhappiness with the choices they're being offered, more will turn up, Shugart claimed. Erickson argues that the registration process to get a referendum on the ballot in the state of California bears their assertions out.

In addition to the $1 million needed to get a petition signing effort off the ground, 420,000 signatures must be obtained before a referendum will be accepted.

Of the 420,000 who signed the petitions that birthed Proposition 23, Erickson said, 60,000 were registered to vote by signature gatherers.

She described the number as "encouraging."

Erickson said many of the people she has talked to who support the measure are "young, independent voters."

"If you're a dyed-in-the-wool Republican," she said, "you're not going to be voting for us. If you're a longtime Democrat loyal to your party, you're not going to be voting for us. If you're a senior citizen, chances are you're not going to be voting for us."

Odd opposition

Nor, apparently, will you be voting for Proposition 23 if you are a member of California's Green Party.

The state's Green Party -- which did not return a number of telephone inquires made for this story -- argues that if "none of the above" isn't binding, there's no point in voting for it.

In a position paper on the issue, the California Greens say there are two alternatives to "none of the above" that will bring about more "meaningful reform."

They identify the first as "instant runoff," a voting process that would allow individuals to rank their first, second and third choices in a particular race. If the first choice candidate is defeated, they say, then the vote counts for the second choice.

An instant runoff would eliminate the need for runoff elections, the Greens say, saving a great deal of money.

The second alternative championed by the Greens is dubbed "proportional representation."

"(This is) the common sense notion that all Californians deserve representation, not just the biggest group in a town or election district," according to the Greens' arguments. "Proportional representation is like applying the free market to the political marketplace: it would give voters the multiplicity of choices that we demand as consumers."

Erickson said Friday that though the Greens have engaged in a campaign of opposition, their arguments against Prop 23 do not really address the issue.

"The voting options they are discussing do not really match. This is a way for them to get free publicity."

So, Erickson and Shugart soldier on into Tuesday, unsure of how their efforts will be rewarded, but certainly hopeful that they have touched off something that might lead to a bigger movement -- perhaps in the same way the group "Reclaim Australia" began to gain a toehold there with its nationwide "none of the above" referendum in 1999.

"At the very least, we'll write another book about it," Erickson said.


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Saturday, March 4, 2000


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