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Neither Positive nor Negative but Balanced Voting

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Around June of 2014, I published a series of short articles on Op Ed News called Balanced Voting. I coined the term balanced

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in this context after briefly considering the term negative but rejecting it as not appropriate; after all, I defined a balanced voting system as any voting system that gives voters an equal opportunity to vote for or against any particular candidate; balance does not come simply from allowing a negative vote but by allowing equal (balanced) opportunity to express a negative or positive attitude towards a candidate. In a balanced voting system, the votes of two voters who feel exactly the opposite about the candidates will simply cancel one another.

It is worth mentioning that our familiar plurality voting system actually is a balanced voting system but only so long as it is restricted to just two candidates -- an often impractical restriction but one that has long been recognized a way to rationalize our system of voting and to avoid the spoiler effect.

As an example to stimulate some thinking about the notion of balanced voting, consider about the following situation. Suppose an election is held between three candidates. 49.01% of the voters would choose candidate D as their first choice but are strongly opposed to candidate R. Another 49% of the voters would choose candidate R as their first choice but are strongly opposed to candidate D. But also running is candidate C who is the first choice of very few voters but nonetheless is the second choice of nearly all of the voters. Now who do you think should be elected? With any balanced voting system it would likely be candidate C, the one judged acceptable to virtually all of the voters. By its measure, C is the consensus candidate, a much better choice than having a candidate win who is detested by nearly half of the voters.

In October 2014, George Leef published an article in Forbes that promoted one of the several voting systems that I presented as examples of balanced voting. He chose not use the term balanced and possibly as a result, others seem to have adopted the term negative voting for this particular system. I developed the system described by Leef by modifying our traditional plurality voting system to make it balanced.

Similar improvements to instant runoff voting and to approval voting (making them balanced) are also presented in separate articles in my series of articles at Op Ed News. There is by no means just one single way to achieve the benefits of a balanced voting system.

A negative voting system would seem (to me at least) to be a system that allows only negative sentiments to be expressed as votes. This is in contrast to a positive voting system of the sort we are so accustomed to, allowing only (positive) support to be expressed, with no opportunity to express opposition. With this meaning, a negative voting system may or may not be good system for voting but -- as a counterpoint to our familiar positive voting systems it is instructive to consider how a negative voting system might behave.

In the particular case when there are only two candidates, voting for one candidate is equivalent to voting against the other. The negative voting system most similar to our familiar plurality system of voting would allow each voter to cast only a vote against one of the candidates. So in this instance where there are exactly two candidates, negative voting is effectively equivalent to our familiar plurality voting system. It is only when there are more than two candidates that these systems become distinct. But when there are more than two candidates each system develops unfortunate characteristics (though different ones) that encourage strategic voting. Voters feel forced to resort to strategic voting when their voting system does not allow them to express what they want to say with their vote -- such as when forced to vote support when none is felt or when forced to vote opposition when that is not what the voter feels.

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With the positive voting systems (like plurality voting but also like IRV), successful candidates are forced to seek a large body of support among the voters. With positive voting it is imperative to get more votes than any other candidate. It is easy to see how this encourages (in fact necessitates) the formation and perpetuation of large dominant political parties. Less obvious but just as real is how this motivates the use of negative, polarizing ads.

With a negative voting system, the effects are the opposite; polarization is actually discouraged. Just as a positive voting system discovers only support, a negative voting system discovers only opposition. To win an election, a candidate needs only to have minimal opposition compared to the other candidates; in contrast, with a negative voting system, support is not particularly important. Instead of polarization, candidates become focused on just making no enemies. At least, negative ads would disappear. In fact, a candidate who somehow gets on the ballot without any voters learning about him (or her) would stand a very good chance of winning. As I said before, negative voting does not seem to be a sensible way to conduct elections but it does have some appealing characteristics; but the very same can be said about positive voting. Both positive and negative voting have desirable as well as undesirable characteristics. Perhaps we could strike a balance rather than choosing between them.

By allowing voters an equal opportunity to vote for or against a candidate, balanced voting takes a sound middle ground between positive voting and negative voting. It avoids the polarization inherent with positive voting systems but without encouraging candidates to remain invisible in order to avoid opposition. To win, a candidate would need a favorable balance between support and opposition; perhaps candidates would have demonstrate good ideas and abilities. To win a balanced election, a candidate needs somehow to have more support than opposition as compared to other candidates.

With balanced voting, additional parties would have fertile ground to grow and perhaps even win elections. And consequently, as with negative voting, negative ads would cease to be a useful election tactic once there are more than two serious candidates in a race. But a candidate could not win simply by remaining invisible and making no enemies.

As noted before, balance is a characteristic of a voting system. There are many different approaches to balanced voting, each with the important characteristic that any individual vote can be completely canceled out by another vote. Two voters who feel exactly the opposite an all the candidates simply cancel the votes of one-another (as intuitively they should). The reason to conduct an election using balanced voting is to select a consensus candidate to win -- while seeking to avoid electing one who is hated and loved by nearly the same large number of voters.

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A concerned citizen and former mathematician/engineer now retired and living in rural Maine.

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