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Are More Political Parties Possible Here?

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Would our country have a stronger democracy if it had more than two political parties? Our two-party system does seem to limit the range of our political dialog and it clearly polarizes attitudes about what our government does or should do. When the parties agree, as they largely do on foreign policy, dissent from that common view can label a person as a pariah or even a fool -- it's not socially acceptable to raise such alternative points of view, though some do. On points of disagreement between the two parties though, people tend to fall in line with whichever party they align as if independent thinking were forbidden. The two-party system brings polarization, a lot of hard feelings, and negative advertising in elections (because, with more than two parties, a negative advertisement will help some opponents).

In the United States, the historical record shows clearly that we have been limited to but two significant political parties. Why such poverty in our politics? There is no legal restriction on the number of parties and there often are additional candidates on the ballots, but it is extremely rare for any of the minor candidates to receive a significant percent of the vote; a 1% showing is quite remarkable. Why is that? Is it just habit? Or perhaps do Americans just lack sufficient imagination? A very important reason is surely that so many voters do understand and fear the spoiler effect. We mostly understand and believe that it will be either the candidate nominated by the Democrats or the one nominated by the Republicans who will win. Given this reality, voting for a third-party candidate raises a quite valid fear that our vote will not help elect the candidate we like most but instead help the very candidate we like least. This presents a rational voter with a serious dilemma.

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Could we somehow avoid this dilemma or are we forever destined to have elections with really only two choices (neither of which we may really like)? Is there not some way we could work around this awful quandary of the spoiler effect? And even if we did, would that really lead to us having more choices on election day?

There are some voices that tell us the solution is easy -- we should all just vote for someone who is neither a Democrat or a Republican. But getting a majority of voters to do what you want surely is not easy. If our agenda is to elect someone not a Democrat and not a Republican, how can we convince a plurality of Americans to vote in a way they may think is irrational? Do we need to convince a huge number of people to ignore their better judgment and what they know about our elections and vote for some minor-party candidate? And how can so many people be convinced to settle on just a single minor-party candidate when their natural inclination would be to scatter the vote among several candidates? The media will surely not favor such a project, if only because cost them dearly in advertising revenue. Instead, the media will surely continue to ignore minor-party candidates as they have always ignored minor-party candidates. Can we really hope to elect someone who, as a result, will not even be known to perhaps a majority of voters. This whole approach seems doomed. But maybe a candidate who is already well known - like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader - can make a showing in such a race. The history of such attempts is not encouraging.

From Ballot for a Balanced Election
Ballot for a Balanced Election
(Image by Paul Cohen)
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A more promising answer is to adopt a new system of voting that encourages the establishment and growth of more political parties. With this in mind we introduce a notion of balanced voting, a kind of voting that gives just as much weight to a voter's opposition to a candidate as to a voter's support.

Change of any kind from something so familiar as our traditional way of voting will surely be hard, but consider the fact that voting rules are nowhere specified in our Constitution. Any attempt to change the way we vote will meet strong resistance, but at least it is not at all a serious legal challenge; the change need only occur at the state level, without (very fortunately) any federal involvement whatever.

One voter may strongly support a candidate, but another may be opposed to that candidate and feel just as fervently about that opposition; so why not allow them both to express their heartfelt opinions when they vote? Balanced voting (BV) is an appealing alternative to the way we now vote, if only because it allows voters to express more accurately how they feel about the candidates in an election. More importantly, it offers minority candidates (as currently understood) a chance to actually win -- as we will see in examples, they will win at times when our current election scheme fails and these minor-party candidates really should win. And balanced voting is simple; it should not scare great-aunt Telly away from going to the polls to vote.

The advantage of balanced voting is that it does not treat the voter's first choice as all-important; it also gives equal weight to opposition to a candidate and therefore to implied secondary choices. But it does this without bringing along the voting complexity that this might seem to suggest. It is not a perfect way to conduct an election, if perfection is even a possibility, but for elections with multiple candidates, balanced voting is a big improvement over the system that we are so accustomed to using, with the terribly narrow range of alternatives it allows voters.

Our current system of first-choice voting (FCV) actually is balanced, but only so long as there are just two candidates. In this somewhat rare special case, a voter has an equal opportunity to vote against (just vote for the other candidate) or for a given candidate. But what we want is for there to be more options and when there are three or more candidates, our current system becomes quite unbalanced; a voter is allowed to vote for any one of the three candidates but a voter who is primarily concerned that one of the candidates not be elected (not an uncommon situation) has no way of effectively expressing that opinion. With four or more candidates, the situation is marginally even worse.

To be clear, what we mean by a balanced system of voting is simply any system that would give the voter an equal opportunity to choose to vote for or against a given candidate. But in addition, in a balanced voting system, the votes must be counted so that a vote against a candidate has the effect of canceling out another vote for that same candidate.

A simple way to implement balanced voting would be to allow each voter to cast only a single vote, but to allow the voter to choose whether that vote is for a candidate or against (another) candidate. The net votes for each candidate (which could be a negative number) would be tallied as the votes for the candidate less the number of votes against the candidate.

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It is an interesting exercise to consider what might happen if we were to adopt a balanced voting system, given the current domination of the two political parties and the consequent mindset of the voters. It might well be that (as in the 2000 election in Florida) the major-party candidates would net very close to zero votes, each one having roughly as many votes for as against (and in this situation, we really should ponder the question of why would we want either one of these major-party candidates to be elected to office). Balanced voting would open the open the possibility of an actual (and completely justifiable) win by a minor-party candidate. This would happen for a candidate who receives, on balance, winning a majority of votes. Balanced voting allows a consensus third-party candidate win such as when the major-party candidates are in a dead heat, with neither having a significant advantage among the voters.

The media plays an important role in elections and today they tend to simply ignore minority-party candidates. This seriously disadvantages these minority candidates because, by remaining unknown to so many voters, they really stand no chance of becoming the first choice for more than a handful of voters. Often though, such candidates do have a small devoted following so they do have a small number of first-choice votes (along with virtually no heartfelt opposition). With the introduction of balanced voting, being ignored by the media is something of an advantage for a candidate like this because only a very rare voter will bother to cast a vote against some candidate who is widely regarded as irrelevant. It seems quite likely that after one experience with such a dark-horse candidate winning, the media would wake up to the importance of educating the public about all the candidates and not just the two or three that they somehow judge to be viable. Such coverage might well be forced to focus more on policy differences than just on the horse-race (which would become more subtle and more difficult for the media to cover).

With the FCV voting system that we know so well, the presence of more than two significant parties is an unstable situation that cannot last for long. For example, if a serious third party arises then after a time the smallest of the three parties will feel the need to merge with one of the larger ones simply out of discouragement with losing election after election; parties are forced by this practicality to reduce again to only two. But with balanced voting, having only one or two parties is what becomes unstable; a party will eventually break apart on some policy issue, in part because the spoiler effect is not as serious a worry but also because a candidate who is not the very first choice of many voters can be viable and have a realistic, even if not great, chance of winning.


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

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Series: "Balanced Voting"

Ranked Voting (Article) (# of views) 03/07/2017
Parties -- What Are They Good For? (Article) (# of views) 12/15/2016
Parties -- What Are They Good For? (Article) (# of views) 12/15/2016
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