Opinion Columns & Blogs

Chapman Rackaway: The choices on our ballots are limiting


For decades, political science’s truism about Congress held: People hated the institution but loved their congressman. Things are different in 2014.

In June, a Rasmussen poll reported only 25 percent of respondents indicated they believed their member of Congress deserved re-election, the lowest rate in years.

Every now and again voters decide to make good on their regular threats to “throw the bums out,” and they appear ready to do so in Kansas this year.

On the rare occasion when voters decide to remove a sitting officeholder, we assume that the opponent was a superior choice. But that is not always the case.

Take the U.S. Senate race. On issues, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is likely as close to a match for the typical Kansan as possible. But Roberts is in the fight of his life, narrowly defeating Milton Wolf in the GOP primary and now looking up at independent Greg Orman.

Did Roberts vote against the interests of his constituents? If so, you’d expect opposing campaigns to make more of his voting record. But where is their focus? That Roberts spends most of his time in Washington, D.C., and is in his fourth decade in Congress.

Unlike Roberts, Gov. Sam Brownback has a policy problem. A controversial tax plan has given his opponent an easy platform from which to attack. House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, leads Brownback in most polls, but voters know precious little about him other than that he is not the governor.

Are voters choosing Orman and Davis, or “Not Roberts” and “Not Brownback”? Are Orman and Davis superior or just well-timed? We will likely never know the true answer, but if Kansas were to follow the lead of two other states, we might. A bill enrolled in the New Hampshire State Legislature earlier this year would have amended state ballots to include an option to vote for nobody, as a Nevada law already requires.

For feisty voters in an anti-incumbent mood, the “zero option” provides an intriguing direction for their ire. In a two-party system, it is easy to confuse a vote for one candidate as a mandate, when in fact voters simply dislike the candidate less than the other option. The “nobody” vote would allow voters to directly tell the candidates whether they are doing enough to earn their vote.

The option would be difficult to accept for candidates, whose egos are often closely tied to their vote totals. But the idea has enough merit that a challenge to Nevada’s law was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The voters are angry, and the choices on our ballots are limiting. Voters often cast strategic ballots for the least of evils rather than their true preference. A vote for nobody might be a missile without a guidance system, but as a means of encouraging clear protest votes it could provide more faith in a democratic system voters see as failing them.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.