None of the Above: Seagate Founder Pushes Proposition 23

The former tech guru applies his irreverent entrepreneurial spirit to California politics.
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Al Shugart

doesn't color within the lines.

He sketched out the hardware segment of the technology industry as the founder and longtime CEO of disk-drive giant

Seagate Technology

(SEG)

. Over the years, Shugart's causes have been as loud as his trademark Technicolor short-sleeved shirts. He painted legislative faces Atomic Fireball red when he ran his dog, Ernest, for

Congress

in 1996, but fell short because Ernest had no Social Security number. Since his 1998 departure from Seagate, Shugart has been working on his masterpiece:

Proposition 23

, a California referendum that would create a "none of the above" voting choice for state voters from presidential elections to local contests.

"I've got to do something," says the Seagate CEO emeritus and director of a host of other Silicon Valley stalwarts. From his beach-town Prop. 23 campaign headquarters in Soquel, Calif., Shugart insists, "I don't want to sit here and let things go to hell."

Flipping the bird to the political process? Could he be channeling younger voter apathy for the forces of good? Ingenious!

Shugart's trying to turn around voter apathy by giving Californians a form of dissent enjoyed only by voters in Nevada but that has been proposed in 24 other states. He wants voters to check off

Bradley

,

Bush

,

Gore

,

McCain

-- or "none of the above" if they don't endorse any of the politicos vying for the presidential LaZBoy. Those "none of the above" votes will be counted and printed in the morning-after voting tally, quantifying dissatisfaction among voters. According to Shugart's vision, if voters don't like their choices, they can go to the polls to express their unhappiness, rather than stay away from them.

"Everything's dysfunctional. The political system gets broken, and it just gets worse and worse," he explains. "We have to get citizens involved in the process."

Shugart's initiative reflects the playfully irreverent tendencies of the Silicon Valley psyche. This is no joke, not just something to keep the technology hall of famer busy. Shugart bristles competitively as he picks up a copy of the California voter's handbook mailed to citizens' homes and shows what he considers the misleading summary text of Prop. 23. He thinks the language suggests that the "none of the above" votes won't be tallied at all, that they are garbage votes no one will ever hear about. But the appeal of "none of the above" is the ability to stand up and be counted as a pissed-off citizen who wants better candidates. Despite the fishy language of the summary, Shugart insists, "It

will

be counted and it

will

be reported."

If the "none of the above" proposition passes, you can expect the day-after November election results to broadcast the winner, the losers and the percentage of voters who refused to drink any party's Kool-Aid. Goodbye low voter turnout figures. Hello protest votes. And that, argues Shugart, would be good for democracy.

The Establishment thinks "it cheapens the election," says Shugart. Indeed, politicians from California Gov. Gray Davis to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and newspapers including the

San Francisco Chronicle

,

San Jose Mercury News

and the

Fresno Bee

are pooh-poohing his crusade. The

Los Angeles Times

proclaimed Shugart "a ballot-box shogun," calling his campaign a "vanity project."

A card-carrying technology pot-stirrer, the 70-year-old Shugart also sits on the board of

Inktomi

(INKT)

,

Valence Technology

(VLNC)

,

SanDisk

(SNDK)

and

Cypress Semiconductor

(CY) - Get Report

. He has served a term on the

National Association of Securities Dealers

board of governors. And he grew Seagate into a 90,000-employee hardware juggernaut. He's no stranger to powerful and often contentious groups. He revels in the fact that he's locked horns with the most pockmarked and time-hardened of them all.

"He's one of the true rugged individualists," says David Peterschmidt, CEO of Inktomi. "Al speaks his piece, but it's not like some do, because they're harsh, difficult people. Al just says what he's thinking, not with any animosity. He is not politically correct."

Unless he manages to change politics, that is.

"I've seen the populace lose confidence in politicians. It hit me at the time of the Oklahoma bombing," he explains. "It wasn't the bombing part, but the follow-up investigation of so many militias in the country. There are so many people who are anti-government."

What was an entrepreneur to do but try to attack the problem? Shugart and his staff rallied a crew of the Santa Cruz area's finest college students to gather the 650,000 signatures needed to get on the California ballot. He's written about $1 million in checks to the Friends of Ernest political action committee for "none of the above." (A quick tally of his Seagate and Inktomi shares alone give him assets upwards of $75 million to work with.)

Now all Californians have to do is flex their fragile little minds. Can they do that?

Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in TheStreet.com. She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She waits breathlessly for your feedback at

twilliams@thestreet.com.