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A Modest Proposal – Let’s Allow Negative Voting

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Election years are filled to overflowing with political pitches beseeching voters to cast ballots for a particular candidate. And many people do, although often with scant enthusiasm. Choosing between the lesser of two evils is a commonly heard complaint among voters.

During election campaigns, one also is apt to receive political advertisements providing him with reasons to believe that a candidate is undesirable the famous attack ad that so many politicians denounce but will readily employ when it suits their purposes. The content might be true and compelling or it might be false and misleading (just like other political advertising) but the objective is always to drive up an opponents political negatives.

This sets up an odd asymmetry. Positive ads attempt to persuade you to vote for a candidate and you can do that. Negative ads give you reasons to vote against a candidate, but you cant do that. Americans are not given the option of casting a vote that says, I DONT WANT this individual to serve as _________.

Now, it might be replied that negative ads are simply providing the voter with a reason to support the opponent of the candidate attacked in the negative ad, but logically that just wont do. For one thing, there are often three or more candidates in a race, so an attack on X doesnt give you any reason for preferring Y to Z. Moreover, it does not logically follow that just because X is undesirable, either Y or Z or anyone else is desirable.

When making choices in the free market, we are never compelled to buy anything we dont choose, so there is no such thing as an anti-purchase. If you cant stand the taste of Brand X Mustard, you just dont buy it. There is no chance that Brand X will wind up on your hot dog unless you act to put it there. You dont need to defeat Brand X in the marketplace. Nor would you have much reason to do so, since friends or relatives might like it.

Alas, it is different with politics. Confronted by a choice between two or more candidates, it is quite possible that a persons strongest desire may be to see that he is defeated. In this years presidential contest, for example, many voters seethe with the desire to defeat President Bush and have him removed from the White House. They may not have a strong preference to see any of the other candidates moving into the White House; they just want to see Bush lose. At the same time, there are many voters who absolutely detest Senator Kerry. They may be lukewarm toward Bush and other candidates on the ballot. They may even dislike Bush, but think that a Kerry administration would be simply intolerable. The trouble is that our current voting rules, where you can only vote for a candidate, do not allow people to most accurately register their feelings about candidates.

So here is my proposal: Voters should be allowed to cast either positive or negative votes. A negative vote subtracts from a candidates positive vote total. For each office, the voter could choose to either vote for a candidate or against a candidate. (Against votes might be printed in red ink, and people would have to be informed that they can only vote once for each office. At first, there would probably be some mistakes, but it would be worth it.) For each candidate, a net support total would be calculated by subtracting the Against votes from the For votes. The winner would be the candidate with the highest amount of net support.

What would be the implications of adopting a negative voting system?

First, we would probably have an increase in election participation. Not being much of a democrat and utterly unpersuaded by the often-heard claims that we are somehow in danger if too many citizens elect to remain uninvolved in campaigns and elections, I am not positing this as a good (or a bad) thing. I simply think that its likely that more people would participate if they had the chance to vote against candidates and thereby register their dissatisfaction.

Second, negative voting could make third parties and independent candidates relevant and competitive. Consider a three-way race with two major party candidates, Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum, and a third candidate named Alice. One million people vote in the election. Tweedle-dee receives 259,000 positive votes and 250,000 negative votes. Tweedle-dum receives 243,000 positive votes and 238,000 negative votes. Alice receives 9,900 positive votes and 100 negative votes. Alice would win, having the highest net support. In elections where the major party candidates each have high negatives (as is often the case!) they would have to worry about the possibility that a third party candidate or independent might be victorious. To my way of thinking, that would be a desirable result.

We have been stuck with the same voting system for more than 200 years, and the outcome has been pretty unsatisfactory. Its time to allow negative voting, I say.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.