In a recent article, I illustrated by example how adoption of Balanced Approval Voting (BAV) would surely serve to undermine the two-party duopoly. The example involved what is so familiar a voting pattern in our elections, where the Republican and Democratic parties have nearly the same level of support (and opposition) while a third party candidate had significant but a much smaller level of support. Of course we all know that in any such election using plurality voting, either the Republican or the Democrat would be guaranteed a win; though not a topic discussed in that earlier article, the third-party candidate would also loose under many other systems, including ranked choice voting. But BAV would remove the big advantage that positive voting systems (like these two) grant to big parties. In that example, the third party would have a decisive win.
But with the adoption of BAV it does seem that inevitably, voting habits would change. The pattern of voting seen in the example would in time become rare and in fact an aberration. Nonetheless the experience would remain as a lesson and its possibility would remain as a punishment that would be inflicted on any attempt to establish polarized two-party rule.
How things would actually evolve is a matter of speculation, but it is nonetheless worth considering. As a way of stimulating some thought about the subject, I will reveal my own speculations, considering in turn the reactions of at least three different classes of players in elections. I will begin with the voters, in theory the most important class of people in a democracy.
Many voters, who (in the example) may have known nothing about the third-party candidate who won election, would probably be startled to discover that anyone other than a Democrat or a Republican could ever win election. Such voters might be sufficiently shocked that in anticipation of the next election that they would find some interest in learning about all of the candidates that will be on the ballot, even those from minor parties. In some cases, a voter might discover a thorough disapproval of one third-party candidate but in other cases, even the same voter might find that there are some third-party candidates who deserve support. In either event it is likely that in subsequent elections fewer voters would just skip over candidates on the ballot. Much more frequently, voters would specify their considered preference for or against even minor party and independent candidates.
Another class of players in our elections consists of the media. Faced with the real possibility that a minor party candidate might win election and simultaneously faced with the broadened interest voters have in all candidates, the responsible media would feel forced to grant more coverage to third-parties and to independent candidates. Election reporting on television and radio would simply have to adapt to the changed realities.
Finally, there are the politicians and their consultants. Most of this leadership class now identify with either the Republican party or the Democratic party. But regardless of party affiliation, both politicians and consultants will quickly realize that avoiding voter opposition is much more significant than it ever was before; in fact it will have become exactly as important as gaining support. Questionable attacks on the opposition might now be seriously penalized even though formerly, using plurality voting, no penalty was of much concern. The merits of emphasizing an issue (such as gun control) that has very strong opposition by a minority of voters but widespread though comparatively weak support on the other side would have to be carefully reconsidered as well.
With the adoption of BAV, politicians might in time feel forced to compete mostly on the basis of values, competence, wisdom and experience and less on manipulating specific but relatively small blocks of voters. In any event competition seems apt to become more civilized as it adapts to voters now having a less confusing way to more accurately express what they want in their political leaders.
Finally there are, even today, a few politicians and consultants who identify neither as Democrats nor as Republicans. It seems likely that as minor parties come to be recognized as viable, the number of such politicians would grow. Ironically, as more parties come into play, party affiliation would become less important. It might well become more commonplace for politicians to switch parties, even frequently. Perhaps the number of political consultants would shrink a bit as their work would likely become more challenging and with luck, understood to be less needed.
Adoption of BAV would bring about a growing number of political parties and in turn the power of any single one of these parties would diminish. The very notion of the other party would gradually become meaningless. Momentous decisions for the nation could no longer be dictated by strong party leaders, but rather through a broad consensus across many legislators from different parties. There is reason to hope that the checks and balances put in place by the founders of the country would come much more effective as power shifts away from the dominant political party because there is no dominant political party.
As a final thought, one might consider what would happen to the corporate domination of political campaigns as the number of participating parties increases. At the very least, these corporate forces would find they need new strategies for corrupting what has become a very different and more complex playing field; at the very least that would probably take many years.