For disaffected voters everywhere, the scenario plays out with oppressive regularity every election day.
Entering the voting booth, they draw the curtain, reach for the lever, check the candidates: Joe Democrat; Joe Republican; Joe Independent. A voice from within cries out: How about "none of the above?"
If a California initiative now making its way to the 1998 ballot qualifies, Golden State voters will be the first in United States history to have that choice be binding on statewide candidates from governor to legislature. An idea born in the 1970s and given a nudge by Russian elections in 1990 - in which voters Xed out candidates they didn't want - the so-called NOTA (None of the Above) movement is now percolating in about 15 states. All are watching the California prototype for lessons.
"This is a major intrigue that plays well to the antipolitics era," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "It appeals to the Perot people, independents, and anyone with weak, major-party affiliations. What happens is well worth watching for voters and candidates everywhere."
Under the None of the Above Voter Empowerment Act, voters here will have the "none" option in statewide general elections for everything from governor and lieutenant governor to secretary of state and treasurer. If the "none" choice receives the largest block of votes, a special election would be held to fill the slot with all new candidates. If "none" wins again, the candidate with the second-highest total from the second round wins.
Whatever the case, the number of such negative votes is seen as a new tool that voters can use to send candidates a message - and an idea that might bring more disillusioned citizens back into the democratic process.
In California, that number is high. About 1.7 million people - nearly 12 percent of the statewide electorate - have not chosen a political party, and 5 million more are not registered at all, outnumbering both registered Democrats and Republicans.
"This gives the people the right to say 'no' and have it tabulated," says consumer activist Ralph Nader who has helped launch a corps of volunteers to get the 432,000 signatures necessary to place the measure on the November 1998 ballot. Mr. Nader admits that many as-yet-unknown consequences could unfold, but adds that "voters will have a new option for expressing disapproval of candidates, their campaigns, and their time in office."
Like a traffic cop whose mere presence affects the law-abiding behavior of all drivers within view, the California "none" measure is intended to have a similarly leavening effect on state politics - even if the "none" option does not win a plurality. Wary of such a negative vote, the thinking goes, candidates may run cleaner campaigns, resort to less mudslinging, and articulate issues that voters really care about.
"This will send a signal to candidates that the object is more than just being better than the other guy," says Bill Gallagher, director of the Oaks Project, the organization that is signing up volunteers to garner signatures. "Candidates may have to distinguish themselves by not using the same old rhetoric but actually put forward something of substance."
With the initiative language now written, codified, and formally submitted to the state attorney general, critics and cynics alike have just begun to unload their ammo.