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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 2/14/18

What is the Matter with Balanced Voting?

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In earlier articles we have studied problems with the most commonly used voting system, plurality voting, and we have offered even more extensively criticisms regarding the most widely known alternative system, instant-runoff voting. Various articles have shown faults in other systems of voting. There is no reason that balanced-voting systems should be exempt from such scrutiny, but as someone who has spent so much time thinking about what is right with balanced voting, I could well be blind to its faults. Still I do recognize some of the possible reasons for resistance to balanced voting and those seem worth mentioning.

Few of us have ever voted in election using anything but first-choice (plurality) voting and so few people have even considered whether there are good alternatives. Inertia is surely a barrier to adoption of any alternative system, but a few alternatives, mostly ranked-voting systems, have been used in elections here and there. So far as I am aware, the first real-world application of balanced system is yet to occur; that is unless you consider plurality voting as balanced when there are just two candidates. That particular balanced system has been widely tested and found to work fairly well. But serious problems arise when plurality elections (especially primary elections) involve more than two candidates.

I find it surprising that a source of resistance to changing our voting system comes from the very people who would most immediately benefit from balanced voting. Balanced voting, in particular, would greatly improve the opportunity for election of minor-party candidates, but people from third-party movements often seem to be locked into a competing notion that nothing at all is wrong with plurality voting. In their view, the spoiler effect is only an imagined problem, and the only real problem (from their viewpoint) is that too many voters foolishly believe in this fiction.

This thinking seems to be rooted in understandable annoyance within these smaller parties at their candidate being characterized as a spoiler. When plurality voting is used, the spoiler effect is an all-too-frequent problem that in fact does often spoil elections when there are more than just two candidates. But choosing a particular candidate to paint as the spoiler is surely a misplaced personal attack for a problem that is properly understood as the failure of the plurality-voting system.

These barriers to exploring a variety of alternative-voting systems must have a much wider target than just the balanced systems. An objection that might be raised specifically against the balanced systems is that a candidate can, using a balanced system, win election despite receiving a negative vote total. This is what it seems, at least superficially, would have happened in the 2016 presidential elections if balanced voting had been used, since both Clinton and Trump appeared to have greater opposition than support. But if this is considered a problem with balanced voting, it amounts to a worry that the flaws in a defective election would be made all too apparent (by the winning candidate receiving a negative vote count); this is akin to blaming the messenger for the bad news.

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Image from page 171 of .A classical dictionary of Greek an. | Flickr890 Ã-- 682 - 198k - jpg
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But a closer look suggests that if balanced voting had been in widespread use for the 2016 election then neither of these two major-party candidates would have won nomination, much less gained office. With balanced voting (so long as ballot access is reasonably open) it would be unlikely for a candidate to win with a negative vote count. One reason is that with open-ballot access there will likely be at least one candidate who is not at all widely known to the voters; such a candidate will likely have some support but little if any opposition and in this context that is a winning combination.

The election of a little-known candidate may likewise seem objectionable, but even this would seem to be a quite unusual situation once politicians have had time to adapt to the realities of balanced voting. With experience, serious politicians would learn how important it is to avoid antagonizing significant blocks of voters simply to gain enthusiastic support of some other blocks of voters. And political parties would not likely nominate a candidate with widespread opposition. With balanced voting, politicians will have to be just as concerned with avoiding negative votes as they traditionally have paid only to pursuing positive ones. Politicians would have to focus more on their overall acceptability to voters at large rather than just building a substantial base of enthusiastic supporters. The prospect of this change in the behavior of politicians is surely an important argument supporting the adoption of balanced voting.

This seems to be an opportunity to consider why ballot access is so restricted today. The easy answer is that this is just a tactic that the two major parties agreed on so as to reduce competition. No doubt there is at least some merit to this notion, but neither major party sees such competition as entirely a bad thing. Surely Republicans are quite happy to see Democrats face such competition just as Democrats are quite happy to see Republicans in that same predicament. So perhaps there is some other motivation at work.

The original considerations for restricting ballot access was likely, at least in part, the more noble impulse to achieve a democratic outcome, despite the spoiler effect. Efforts to restrict ballot access have surely been motivated at least in part by the observation of how poorly democracy is served in three-candidate elections using plurality voting. Somehow, it seems the alternative of turning away from plurality voting was not considered.

Opening ballot access to more candidates is important for achieving the full benefits from a voting system that avoids the spoiler effect. Our mainstream media, given its addiction to the horse-race aspects of our elections, would likely resist these kinds of changes, perhaps by explaining how unmanageable elections with many candidates might be. But there are other ways to manage the difficulties that arise with large numbers of candidates than through acceptance of undemocratic outcomes.

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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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