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'None of the above' should be a ballot option in New York State

With the wisest decision he has made in many months -- to resign -- Alan Hevesi's saga of political descent is finally over. In his guilty plea, Hevesi admitted what many -- probably most of us -- had concluded before the election: Had it not been for the public exposure of his misdeeds, he never would have reimbursed the state the money he owed it.

Despite this awareness, many of the state's voters -- especially those routinely loyal to Democratic candidates -- struggled over how to vote in November. They weren't helped by the state's political figures, who telegraphed distinctly ambiguous messages.

After the story of Hevisi's financial improprieties broke, prominent Democrats withdrew their formal endorsements, but we also heard from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Charles Schumer and Eliot Spitzer that they would nonetheless be voting for him. Most of the state's major newspapers adopted a lesser-of-two-evils strategy and offered only tepid endorsements of Christopher Callaghan.

A bizarre set of circumstances came together to produce the situation. A competent, well-financed and widely regarded as unbeatable incumbent was exposed in a devastating ethics scandal at the eleventh hour of the election cycle. The only real alternative was an unknown candidate originally offered up by the opposition as a sacrificial lamb. Neither choice appeared desirable. A stronger challenger would have solved the problem for many voters, as would an earlier exposure of Hevesi's misconduct.

But this dilemma also could have been avoided with a "none of the above" or NOTA option on the ballot.

Citing his wide margin of victory margin in the election, Hevesi claimed that the voters had spoken with a clear voice to retain him. Not true. The voters may have preferred him to Callaghan. Or as some commentators speculated, they may have been voting to buy time and banking on the legal process to sort it all out. But with NOTA, the voters could have said -- and almost certainly would have said -- that we needed to rethink the question, with two entirely different candidates.

Americans do not currently have the option of voting NOTA; only in Nevada does it appear on the ballot, but it's a non-binding result. The actual candidate receiving the most votes wins, regardless of how well NOTA does. A proposal is forthcoming in Massachusetts that would provide for a binding NOTA option, and should NOTA win, the candidates originally listed for that office would not be eligible to run in the ensuing election.

Some other Western nations have instituted NOTA. Australia, which has mandatory voting, provides for the option. In Canada there is a more draconian version, under which citizens can appear at their appointed polling place and then reject the ballot entirely, an action that is officially recorded but counted in the same category as ballots disqualified because they are improperly filled out.

There are other attractions of NOTA for New York State. Notwithstanding the promise of "Day One" of the Spitzer administration, in recent years dissatisfaction with Albany politics has reached record levels. Having the real, though distant prospect of a NOTA outcome for other statewide and legislative races could provide a significant catalyst for meaningful reforms to a system resistant to change.

NOTA might also help to prevent nasty negative ads from reaching the levels that we saw in this election cycle. NOTA could provide a genuine short-term threat to both candidates, warning them to limit their personal attacks on each other, lest neither of them win. The only disincentive currently in place is a general civic concern not to alienate citizens from politics. The candidates thus find themselves in a perverse game of political chicken in which the best individual payoff is found in crashing the car.

NOTA could change some of these calculations, and the Hevesi ordeal further demonstrates that its time has come.

Grant Reeher is associate professor of political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of "First Person Political: Legislative Life and the Meaning of Public Service," recently published by New York University Press.

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