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GOP seeks to boot 'none' off Nevada ballot

Sandra Chereb

In Nevada's high stakes election that could help determine the presidency and control of the U.S. Senate, attention this week is turning to one option on the ballot with no shot of winning: None.

A federal court lawsuit filed in June and financed by the Republican National Committee seeks an injunction to boot Nevada's unique voter option from the November ballot.

On every Nevada election ballot for statewide races _ president, U.S. Senate, all state constitutional offices and Supreme Court contests _ voters are given the option of voting against all the listed candidates.

Since 1976 Nevada voters have had the option of marking their ballots as "none of these candidates." Nevada is the only state to offer the quirky option, created as a way to combat voter apathy in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, and give voters a way to register distain for the political environment.

"I personally think it fits into the frontier libertarianism we have in this state," said Nevada historian Guy Rocha, noting Nevada's long history for "bucking social convention."

While under state law "none" can't win _ even if it receives the most votes _ it could play spoiler in a close race.

That's a scenario challengers to the "none of the above" option don't want to see in what figure to be close races between President Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, as well as in the heated battle between Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Shelley Berkley.

The opponents argue that because "none" doesn't count in the tally to determine a victor, voters _ whether they opt for "none" or a candidate who breathes _ are disenfranchised.

"A `none of the above' vote clearly shows dissatisfaction with the way things are," said Robert Uithoven, a GOP consultant. Conventional thinking suggests those voters may be more likely to favor a challenger, such as Romney, if the "none" option wasn't available.

David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who did a study on the "none" factor, said it's "a form of purposeful protest" for voters who don't like their candidate choices.

Eleven people _ a mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents _ are listed as plaintiffs in the suit against Secretary of State Ross Miller that claims a vote for "none" violates various federal laws and is unconstitutional.

They seek an injunction to strike the option from the Nov. 6 general election ballot, and raise different arguments for doing so. Some who plan to vote for a conventional candidate argue that "none" voters dilute their own ballots, disenfranchising them.

Other plaintiffs who intend to exercise the "none" option say they, too, will be disenfranchised because their preference doesn't legally count, and therefore should be struck down.

Then there is Kingsley Edwards, who wants to intervene in the case to protect "a voting option currently provided by Nevada law that he has exercised in the past and intends to exercise again in the future."

The attorney general's office, representing Miller, argues the suit should be dismissed outright.

"First, choosing `none of these candidates' is not a vote under Nevada law and there is no federally-recognized right that is must be treated as a vote," Miller's lawyers said in court documents. Secondly, they say no one is disenfranchised "because it is solely the choice of the individual voter that determines the fate of his ballot."

Miller's lawyers add that voters "always have the right to not vote" for listed candidates, and voting for "none" is essentially no different than skipping a particular race on a ballot altogether.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday.

"None" has come into play before in high profile races. In Nevada's 1998 U.S. Senate race, Democrat Harry Reid won re-election by a razor-thin 428-vote margin over then Republican Rep. John Ensign. More than 8,000 voters rejected both men and opted to vote for "none."

"None" has never bested named candidates in a general election, though it's come out on top in a few primary contests.

In the 2008 presidential election, 6,267 votes were cast for "none," _ representing less than 1 percent of total votes in Nevada.

In Nevada's hotly contested U.S. Senate race two years ago, 12,335 Democratic voters, nearly 11 percent of turnout, chose "none" over Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and three other candidates. But the percentage fell to 2.2 percent in the general election, and the 16,197 voters who chose the "none" option would not have changed the outcome of Reid's 41,424-vote victory over tea party backed Republican Sharron Angle.

Uithoven, the Republican strategist, said he understands the move behind the lawsuit, but hopes none will remain a silent force in Nevada politics.

"You still have to get the majority of votes anyway," he said. "I don't see a problem with Nevada voters being able to express discontent with these statewide races.

"I kind of like it," he added. "I hope Nevada voters are able to maintain that right."

Damore, a former Republican turned nonpartisan, offered another alternative.

"If the party was really worried about this, they should recruit better candidates," he said.

The Associated Press