This Year More Than Ever: Americans Should Be Allowed To Vote Against The Candidate They Most Abhor
Both of the major party candidates for president this year have unprecedentedly high negative ratings among voters. And while some of them will vote enthusiastically for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a great majority will cast their ballots for the major candidate they think is the least awful. That is the depressing Lesser of Two Evils (LOTE) syndrome.
American elections allow voters only the option of voting for a candidate. That is a flawed system because it doesn’t allow voters to express their strongest preference, which often is opposition to a candidate.
I believe that our elections would become more lively (and also more unpredictable) if voters could choose to vote against the candidate they dislike the most.
Emory University law professor Michael Kang puts his finger precisely on the problem in his Michigan Law Review article “Voting as Veto.” Kang writes, “Indeed, the familiar binary choices presented in American political elections obscure the pervasiveness of negative preferences, which are descriptively salient in voting under all types of circumstances.” (Emphasis mine.)
When it comes to making political choices, frequently we are motivated more strongly by strong opposition to one candidate than by strong support for another.
How would negative voting work?
Elections are a matter of state law and to adopt the concept, which is also (and perhaps more accurately) called Cumulative Preference Voting, states would have to amend their laws so that ballots would instruct voters that for each office, he or she may either vote for one candidate or against one candidate. Instead of the customary box next to each candidate, there would be two boxes – one to check if you want to vote for that candidate and one to check if you want to vote against that candidate.
The winner would be the candidate with the highest net approval. That is, the number of votes for minus the number of votes against. It is conceivable that the winning candidate might have a net negative total, but one smaller than the negative totals of the others.
Why would it be better to allow negative votes than just to give disaffected voters the LOTE choice?
First, it would probably increase participation in elections. Now, I don’t regard low turnout as necessarily bad. There are good reasons why many people just don’t think voting is worth the effort and never even register. Others might register but rationally decide on election day that they have more important things to do. There is nothing harmful in the choice to abstain. But the opportunity to vote against a candidate they find deeply repugnant might be enough of an incentive to change their minds.
There is some research that supports my supposition.
Last year, an organization was formed to promote the negative vote concept. Its founder, Sam Chang, is a citizen of Taiwan and while Taiwanese voters are not yet allowed to cast negative votes, his Negative Vote Association commissioned a Gallup poll to see how it might affect elections. The result showed that 25 percent of the voters said they would be more apt to vote if they had the negative vote option.
Second, negative voting could make minor party candidates competitive, despite the way the Democrats and Republicans have tried to squelch them.
In a race where the two major party candidates have high disapproval ratings and devote the campaign mostly to attacking each other, a large percentage of the votes might be cast against them. If great numbers of voters are convinced that Donald Trump would be utterly disastrous in the White House, they might prefer to vote against him; the same for Hillary Clinton. Their cumulative approval totals might be so low that a Libertarian, Green, or other independent candidate could turn out the winner.
Third, polling would change. Rather than just asking “Which candidate do you plan to vote for?” pollsters would have to ask if they plan to vote against a candidate. The reported numbers “for” and “against” could lead to increased political engagement, as voters consider their choice more carefully. “Do I really want to vote for Hillary or against Trump?” many voters would think. Others would ponder, “Do I really want to vote for Gary Johnson or against Hillary Clinton?”
When voters think about their expanded range of choice, some at least will look more deeply into the issues and that would be to the good.
Finally, if we were to allow negative voting, it might tend, however slightly, to temper the arrogance of winning candidates. When Republicans criticized some of his legislation in 2009, President Obama famously retorted, “I won.” True, but Obama might have been less haughty if millions of votes against him had been registered.
Elections are subject, as I noted above, to state law. At this point, only Nevada departs from the standard ballot form by allowing people to vote for None of the Above. Nothing prevents any state from following Nevada’s lead and improving upon it by adopting Cumulative Approval Voting. In view of this year’s presidential race, I maintain that this is an idea whose time has come.
Originally published on Forbes.