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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/31/21

Retrospective on Balanced Voting

By       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   5 comments, In Series: Balanced Voting
Follow Me on Twitter     Message Paul Cohen

Seven years ago, I had in mind for a series of articles of perhaps three or four articles. Several times since then I have suspected, incorrectly as it turned out, that I had nothing more to say on the subject and that the series had come to its end.

Looking back
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Once again I am thinking in those terms. Quite possibly I will be wrong once again, but it does seem an opportune time to summarize the most broadly important conclusions from the now more than fifty articles.

Even at the start, I had the notion that support and opposition, though equally important, are fundamentally different in kind. It seems a mistake that so often they are treated as different magnitudes of the very same emotion, making it sufficient to only to measure support. But to me at least, opposing a candidate for office just something different from supporting that candidate without enthusiasm. That puts me in the minority I suppose since the most familiar voting systems presume they are different regions of the same scale. Polling organizations, however, reveal some agreement with my view when they report support and opposition separately or as is frequently the case, simply report the difference between the two as the net support.

But this may seem a moot point. To a voter facing a choice between only two candidates, this seems a distinction without much of a difference. In our society, political polarization is so very familiar to us that we just assume there can only be essentially two candidates; additional candidates beyond two are simply window dressing to provide an illusion of more choices. We have internalized the assumptions behind plurality voting and our polarized two-party politics and tend to think of them as if they were natural and unavoidable facts of life.

The familiarity with the two party limitation has even corrupted our language. The very concept of the other candidate is a product of these ingrained habits of thought and those habits serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy. We talk about both parties as if that were an all-encompassing concept. But if there is to be any hope for a better politics where our elections provide voters more choices then at a minimum we need to learn to beware of the traps these language quirks and habits of thought have set for us. To end the polarized politics that the two-party duopoly has created, we surely need to change the way we vote but to some extent we will likely have to change some habits of speaking and thinking. Ultimately, we do need to adopt better voting systems, however. Discovering and promoting good alternative voting systems for ending the two-party duopoly has been the fundamental objective for this series of articles.

When using plurality voting we are forced to choose just a single candidate to vote for. There is no opportunity to vote against a candidate and there is no opportunity to express an opinion about any other candidate; and of course, why should anyone want to when in our minds there can only two candidates to consider? By another quirk of language, we sometimes say we are voting against a candidate when we vote for the other candidate; but if there were three or more actual candidates, that phrase would be simply a nonsensical and counter-factual construction. The point is that if we want there to be more than just two candidates then we must begin by thinking and speaking outside of the all too narrow box created by our long tradition of using plurality voting and accepting the polarized two-party duopoly as inevitable.

A voting system that sensibly accommodates many candidates surely needs a more intricate concept of voting than we now use for plurality voting. We need a system that will allow voters to express more completely the greater complexity of what they want. A voting system that seeks to determine voter opinions about many candidates would likely allow a voter to express opinions about many candidates and perhaps it would also allow the voter a way to express opposition and not just support. These changes could allow an election to take measure of voters' willingness to compromise. Ideally, that extra information would help to determine a winner who is judged by a large consensus of voters to be a good choice, even when not their very first choice among those few candidates who are judged by pundits who who claim to know such a thing.

To engage in clear discussion of other possibilities we need to step outside of these assumptions that reflect the status quo and we need to be particularly wary of those assumptions that have wedged their way into our vocabulary. For a start toward this, let us entirely abandon using the word vote as a noun. In its place we introduce the word voteplex which may express opinions about larger numbers of candidates. And we introduce another new word, votelet to refer to some natural fragment of a voteplex, generally that part which concerns just a single candidate. With plurality voting, a voteplex consists of a single votelet, but more commonly, a voteplex will incorporate several and perhaps many votelets.

Within these articles we have introduced three properties to hope to find in a voting system. These are properties that together provide a promise for ending the polarized two-party politics that seems to promoted gridlock and which has so hampered the flourishing of our democracy.

  1. We begin with logical completeness because it seems such a basic and important property that without it, one should be hesitant to even use the attribution, voting system. To be logically complete, a voting system cannot ask the voter to choose one of several possibilities when that list fails to exhaust all possibilities. Without logical completeness, some voters are likely to find that none of the choices available to be true.

    And yet, arguably at least, plurality voting fails this very basic test for a voting system. Voters are asked to choose one candidate to support even though a voter may not want to support of any of the candidates. This has led some people to add a none-of-the-above option, a solution with some serious practical difficulties. Of course, even without such an option, one can abstain from voting just as many do, suggesting (among many other possibilities) that they oppose all of the available candidates.

    And there is yet another example of a voting system that fails to be logically complete. It was proposed by advocates of approval voting in a mistaken effort to show their favorite voting system to be balanced. The error was in failing to recognize that that a voter may neither support nor oppose a candidate but rather be neutral; neutrality was not included among the voters' options. Habituated as we all to a long history of using plurality voting, that was an easy mistake to make.

  2. Balance is another important quality for a voting system and the name for this series of articles may suggest it to be listed first. In a balanced system, voters are allowed cast a votelet of opposition exactly as easily as they could cast a votelet of support and as with approval voting, they can just as easily abstain with regard to the candidate.

    When there is a polarized electorate, a balanced voting system allows, or even encourages, the two sides of that polarization to mostly cancel one-another and in that way promote small parties and independent candidates to become viable alternatives. Most voters may not get their first choice, but in compensation, most voters will not find they have elected the very candidate they most ardently oppose.

    The phrase vote for might reasonably be considered as a shorthand for cast a vote for (implicitly using vote as a noun), so this one particular use of the word "vote", even as a verb should probably be avoided as well . Alternatively we might learn to simply alter its meaning to cast a votelet for. Vote against would take on the meaning cast a votelet against. This would reinforce the fact that aside from the balanced systems there is little or no opportunity to vote against a candidate.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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