THIS is an election year like none in living memory. A sitting president who a year ago enjoyed the highest ratings in American history would draw less than a third of the voting public if the election were held this week.
A wealthy, clever computer salesman who has never served a day in public office and whose views remain to be discovered by himself as well as the voters is outpolling and outfoxing two of the savviest politicians of our time. Frustrated with being force-fed the mockery of a meaningful choice, voters are in a mood to say "No!" - even if it means saying yes to someone about whom they know nothing, and in whom, in desperate illusion, they invest their last tattered remnants of faith.
It is a dangerous moment for democracy. Poll after poll reveals a deeper level of disaffection with "the system" (ostensibly a representative democracy) than at any time in recent memory.
Just a few years after the Soviet Union experienced its terminal crisis of confidence, the United States is beset by its own maelstrom of self-questioning. A system that corners voters into choices so repugnant that they emerge from the voting booth feeling angry and betrayed is a desecration of democracy.
Enter "None of the Above," the first all-purpose nonpartisan candidate. Over the past few years, the notion has begun to circulate that as a matter of course, ballots should include an official option (as multiple-choice tests in school routinely do) that rejects the entire slate of listed candidates.
The concept has an unlikely precedent. Voters in the now-defunct Soviet Union routinely followed a rather unusual practice in their largely pro forma elections: Instead of placing an "X" beside the name of the candidate they endorsed, they crossed out the names of all those they rejected. They could (though seldom did) even vote an unopposed incumbent out of office, since the winning candidate had to receive the support of an absolute majority of eligible voters.
But in the first truly free elections held in 70 years (in the spring of 1989), Soviet voters astonished themselves and the world by voting out of office 200 of the 1,500 unopposed party bosses running for the new Congress of People's Deputies simply by crossing out every name offered them. The authorities were obliged to hold a second round of elections with new candidates, and a fresh crop of democratic insurgents swept into office.
Micah Sifry, an editor at The Nation magazine, who first gave the idea a name ("NOTA" for "None of the Above"), has devised an elegantly simple system for institutionalizing this innovation in elections. The option would be placed on official ballots not as a write-in but as a bona fide choice to be tallied along with all individual candidates.
IF none of the candidates receives as many votes as NOTA, that slate of candidates would be set aside and, after a nomination process, a new set of candidates presented. Parties could nominate any candidate other than the one already rejected by the voters, and NOTA would appear on each succeeding ballot.
What would be the likely outcome of this electoral innovation? Mr. Sifrey believes that by threatening incumbents and challengers alike, it would reintroduce genuine competition into what has become a closed system. It might also reduce the influence of money and negative advertising, which voters could repudiate.
As its advocates are quick to point out, NOTA is no panacea. Other systemic reforms must also be enacted: public campaign financing, term limits, same-day voter registration, and more. NOTA can't govern a country. But given a panoply of "lesser evils" too distasteful to endorse, NOTA may be the "No" that is the best way of saying "Yes" to democracy. It must be understood not as a rejection of the democratic ideal but as a demand for its renewal, the initiation of a process by which new life and real choi ces are injected into a decaying political system.
NOTA is a repudiation of politics as usual and an invitation to all those who have too long been locked out of the process to enter and participate.