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The Two-party Duopoly Sure, but What Else is Wrong?

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The two-party duopoly seems to fall quite low on the list of pundit concerns regarding our elections (if it even appears on that list). Whatever the reason for that omission, the top candidates in such a list generally include the high cost of running for office, Gerrymandering, the Electoral College, ballot access restrictions and various sorts of election manipulation by election administrators or maybe even by voters. The choice of voting system does not often arise as a topic of concern but if that does come up, the focus is apt to be limited to the spoiler effect.

But what we should understand from this series of articles is that the choice of voting method is fundamental to the fairness of elections. The wrong voting system can dramatically bias election outcomes and elect unpopular candidates. Elections may have consequences but the choice of voting system may have equally serious and even more lasting consequences.

Apologists for the two-party duopoly will argue that if somehow there were more than just two political parties then no party could dominate in order to solve problems. But recent experience is that in our two-party system Congress is precisely that grid-locked. With additional viable political parties there might grow more collegiality across parties that are not hardened enemies but may often share position on one or another issue. Without the notion of "the other side" to consider as the enemy there could remain only others with sometimes different views but who do agree on some issues while disagreeing on others. That is how things tend to work in the normal world outside of the political sphere.

The two-party system of today enforces an orthodoxy within each of the two parties that forces together a variety of seemingly unrelated issues. Why should there be any linking of peoples attitudes on gun control, abortion, health care or environmental policy? But yet, in our two-party system all you need to know is party affiliation to predict not only someone's position on these very issues, but what television station they watch, what podcasts they listen to and what they read. It seems crazy, but that is our present day reality under the two-party duopoly.

In this series of articles, we have focused largely on the little-noticed bias in favor of the largest parties that infects all of the most widely promoted voting systems. An important conclusion reached in these articles is that a voting system that is both evaluative and balanced will not only remove such bias, but make it very difficult and perhaps impossible to perpetuate a two-party duopoly. Balanced Approval Voting (BAV) seems to be the simplest and, if only for that reason, the best example of a voting system that is both balanced and evaluative. Using this system a voter is asked to evaluate any or all of the candidates and indicate either support or opposition (or neither). The winner is the candidate having the greatest net support, defined as the number of supporting votes less the number of opposition votes received.

At this point, I feel compelled by experience to warn against reinterpreting this system as an example of score voting. Arguably it is, but that line of thinking, while in no way helpful, tends to be misleading. It tempts false assumptions and draws one into logical pitfalls. At the root of these confusions is that score voting, as commonly defined, lacks the necessary detail to describe a real-world voting system. Moreover the traditional real-world implementations of score voting systems have become so familiar that they seem right. But in fact those implementations differ in a significant way from BAV. Even aside from that, merely the differences in presentation on a ballot could alter the way people vote.

BAV is called evaluative because the voter is not asked to compare candidates. Rather, a voter is merely asked to evaluate some or all of them individually, without considering other candidates. The system is called balanced because a voter can indicate opposition as easily as support and because each expression of opposition exactly counterbalances an expression of support for a given candidate. BAV describes the realistic voting system now used in Latvia.

Suppose BAV were adopted here and let us consider whether that would somehow affect the more easily recognized and widely discussed problems with our elections.

The High Costs of Running for Office

It is common knowledge that running for office is costly (outside the reach of all but the most wealthy citizens). That perception keeps many people from even considering a run for office. But why are elections so expensive?

It takes money to hire support staff and consultants of course and travel expenses alone can be intimidating. But the biggest costs surely come from the extraordinarily high charges by big-media. Often this expensive advertising is negative, aimed at undermining the opponent more than promoting the candidate who buys it. But absent the two-party duopoly there would be no single opponent to attack and with many opponents would it be practical to blanket all of them with negative ads? Using BAV might negative ads even become counterproductive, producing more votes against the candidate responsible than for them?

Moreover, with the disappearance of the two-party duopoly, issues on which those two parties agree might finally be addressed by Congress. A politically more diverse Congress might, for example, require corporate media to make a reasonable amount of time available, free of charge charge for each candidate to present their qualifications and goals to the voters.


The Gerry-Mander
The Gerry-Mander
(Image by Wikipedia (, Author: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart)[1])
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With the adoption of BAV we can expect the dominance of the two existing parties to diminish as smaller parties and independent candidates take their place. Having many viable candidates would make Gerrymandering much more challenging and less effective. And attempts to pursue this particular sort of election fraud could easily turn counterproductive. At a minimum it would require considerable time to find a new way to game the more complex situation presented by not having just a single viable opponent. Inventing the new techniques will likely take very many years if it ever could be accomplished.

The Electoral College

The intrusion of the Electoral College in our presidential elections does make possible outcomes that offend democracy. We have experienced this very problem several times in recent years. But the Electoral College is a double-edged blade. It also serves as the mechanism that separates elections from federal control. From that view, the Electoral College is what makes it possible for us to experiment with alternative voting systems. If the Supreme Court had an way to put elections under the control of Congress it is hard to imagine any experimentation with voting systems ever being possible.

But the Electoral College affects only the general election for the executive branch. This peculiar institution has nothing to do with state, local, Senate or Congressional elections. And importantly the Electoral College puts no constraint on primary elections, an arena where an improved voting system would be particularly beneficial.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an initiative by a number of states, not to eliminate the Electoral College but to make the part it plays in our election merely a formality that would elect the candidate the people at large prefer. Unfortunately, should this initiative pass, that would introduce an impediment to the adoption of a better voting system. This is a worrisome technical difficulty with this approach, but the initiative is a promising answer to this problem and there are ways to deal with the technical difficulties.

Ballot Access

Limited Access
Limited Access
(Image by Pixabay: congerdesign)
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Minor party candidates complain about the difficulty of getting their names on the ballot. On might well wonder why there are such barriers in a democracy. Were these barriers erected by politicians to protect themselves from competition? In part, no doubt, but there was another argument for them as well.

The plurality voting system that we are so in the habit of using just cannot sensibly accommodate more than two candidates. The problem is the spoiler effect, which comes about because voters are asked to choose just a single candidate. An evaluative voting system cleanly avoids this problem by simply eliminating any need to make such a choice. Ranked voting is often promoted as another way to avoid this spoiler problem but ironically it does ask voters to make not just one but in fact many such choices - choose which is first, then which is second and so on. There is some irony that such an approach could even work to any degree. But in any event there are many other serious problems that afflict ranked voting.

While adopting BAV is no guarantee that ballot access will be made easier, adopting BAV and relaxing ballot access are reforms that share the same motivation of giving voters more power and more choices of candidates. It would seem only natural that a movement strong enough to cause adoption of BAV would also insist that ballot access be relaxed.

Other Electoral Corruption

Polling Station
Polling Station
(Image by Pixabay: Chronomarchie)
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Vote suppression takes a great many forms. Voters are removed from voting rolls without even informing the voter, for example. Or police are called to polling stations, perhaps to maintain order but probably to intimidate voters. Or voters receive notices that if they show up to the polls they will be fined or arrested. And then there are various forms of discarding legal ballots or altering the count of votes. And of course there is the tactic of causing long lines, even at the inaccessible polling stations.

But for any of these actions to be effective, the instigators must predict how particular voters will vote. The two-party duopoly guarantees that to be fairly easy and especially so when voters have to declare which of the parties they are in. But with BAV there is no need for a voter to register with a party. A voter may or may not choose to be affiliated with any party. A voter may support several parties while opposing several other. Determining which voters to suppress would be made much more difficult by adoption of BAV and there is reason to hope that as a result, such illicit and anti-democratic tactics would naturally diminish.

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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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