A very modest suggestion to improve elections

The system of elections in the US is clearly broken.

The way that big money now dominates who gets to be on the ballot, the gerrymandering of districts to ensure that one party gets entrenched, and the barriers to voting that have been erected that seek to make it harder for some groups, especially the young, poorer, and people of color to vote, all are markings of a corrupt system. Various reforms have been suggested, and this article gives some alternatives, all of which have the benefit of slightly loosening the stranglehold that the two major parties currently have.

I have an even more modest proposal that is a very slight tweaking of the current system but enables voters to send a more explicit message about what their vote means.

It has become clear that for some voters, neither candidate being presented is someone they like. This leaves them with the option of not voting at all or voting against a candidate by voting for the rival one, which is what I (and I suspect many others) often end up doing, thinking along the lines of “Well, the Democrats may be also corrupt and rotten and servants of the oligarchy but they are not as insane as the Republicans”. In other words you cast a vote for candidate X because you think candidate Y is much worse. The huge amounts of money poured into attack ads and negative advertising suggests that candidates think that persuading people to vote against their rival is easier than giving them a reason to vote for them

The problem is that there is no way to distinguish between how many people voted for X because they liked the candidate and how many voted for X because they really disliked Y. In other words, the voters’ intentions get lost in the process. And what is more galling is that the winner will declare that he or she has a mandate for them and their policies even if they don’t have one and won only because their rival was perceived as worse.

I have been toying with the idea of a modified voting system where the ballot has, against each candidate, a box to vote ‘For’ and a box to vote ‘Against’. So with two candidates, you would have four boxes and you check one. When the votes are counted, for each candidate you subtract the votes against the candidate from the ones in favor, and the candidate with the greater net vote wins.

So for example, if candidate X gets 100 For votes and 500 Against votes, the net score would be -400. If Candidate Y gets 150 For votes and 600 Against votes, the net score would be -450 and so X wins.

It is not hard to see that the actual result would be the same in both ways of scoring. (If votes for X are given by XF and votes against X are given by XA, with those for Y being YF and YA respectively, then in the traditional system, X would get XF+YA and Y would get YF+XA. In my alternative system X’s net score would be XA-XF and Y’s net score would be YA-YF. If X wins in the traditional system, that means that XF+YA>YF+XA. But this implies that XF-XA>YF-YA and X wins in the alternative system as well.)

So if the result is the same, what is the point? I suggest that it may have a chastening effect on candidates if they win merely because they had a smaller, but still large, negative score. It means that they cannot claim a mandate for their policies nor hide the fact that they are actually disliked. It would send a strong message that people are unhappy with the system if winning candidates have large negative scores.

It may also increase the motivation of some people to vote. It is often hard to drum up the enthusiasm to vote for a candidate simply because they are the lesser of two evils. But voting against a greater evil may provide greater psychological benefits.

An interesting issue arises if there are more than two candidates. I suspect that currently third party candidates who are seen as having little chance of winning get mostly positive votes from supporters and a few from those who hate both major parties with a passion. In the proposed system, they could end up with a positive net score and win while the two major parties are running up each others’ negative votes. Thus the mere presence of a third party candidate changes the dynamic of the race completely.

The catch is that a totally obscure third candidate may get just one positive vote (their own) and no negative votes (because no one has heard of them) and thus have the best net score because the other candidates have been slinging mud at each other. To avoid this, you may need to have some sort of threshold number of total votes cast for a candidate (both for and against) to ensure that it is a serious candidate with people knowing of their existence.

There is not a chance in hell that my system will ever be adopted but the current system is so lousy that my mind can’t help but try to think if ways it could be made even slightly better. I will leave it to readers to point out deficiencies in this system that I may have overlooked.


  1. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    You could add one more rule: a candidate with negative net votes has been rejected. With the consequence that if nobody gets positive numbers, the seat remains vacant till the next election.

  2. doublereed says

    Of course, the issue comes up that the people deciding election rules are the ones that got elected with the corrupt system. Therefore they have disincentive to change.

    In your system, it’s even worse. What kind of person would want to implement a system that works basically the same, but just tells you how much you are actually hated by the populace? No, people have their illusions that they must protect.

  3. Mano Singham says


    It just shows that there is nothing new under the sun! I am glad that other people like Felsenthal have come up with a similar system. It means that I am not totally off-the-wall.

  4. Mano Singham says


    It is true that the elected officials won’t like it. But I am aiming for a simple, easy-to-understand system that a lot of people can support that will create unstoppable pressure for change that elected officials will not be able to resist.

  5. Trebuchet says

    I’ve long wished that all ballots included an option for “None Of The Above”. Any candidate getting fewer votes than NOTA is forever barred from running for any office whatsoever.

  6. alkaloid says

    The idea I current support is more complicated, but it does address this. It consists of either having multiple member districts whose members are assigned according to how many favored they get on a scale that ranges from 1 (least favored) to the total number of candidates in the district (most favored), or ranking parties from most to least favored, and then assigning a proportion of the representatives to the most favored to least favored (These candidates would need to be named in advance, of course, so people know what they’re getting in advance). In this way not only does a third party get some representation, but third parties need not necessarily be national in order to be represented.

    The reason why gerrymandering works (for those with power already) is because with single member districts once they’ve won, and once they’ve won long enough, they can set up the rules to either ensure that nobody ever challenges their party dominance, or reach an accord with the other party to ensure that you have ‘safe’ districts where the opposition is tacitly invisible/underfunded. The people from the other party (or no party at all) are then expected to appeal to elected officials who have no political motive to listen to them. With my proposal there is always some level of representation for opposition.

    I also think quite strongly that the machinery for elections should not be run by elected officials from any party, and that the rules should be nationalized to a high standard (instead of low/compromised to death standard). The history of partisan abuse in the United States is too massive to let it continue.

  7. alkaloid says

    @doublereed, #2

    What kind of person would want to implement a system that works basically the same, but just tells you how much you are actually hated by the populace?

    It also tells that politicians’ opponents how much they’re hated by the populace. In the hands of someone who is actually willing to seriously campaign against them that’s valuable information.

  8. busterggi says

    Care to add in a clause that no candidate with a final negative score is inelligible to run for the office sought for two terms? It would eliminate much humor from watching idiotic primary candidates who constantly rerun themselves but I can find other things to laugh at.

  9. Mano Singham says


    The German system is not a bad one. It does not matter that much how complicated the process is after the voting is done as long as what the voter has to do is simple enough.

    What I did not understand is why the proportional part with the party lists is not done just with the remaining 299 seats apart from the single district winners. Wouldn’t that solve the problem of the overhang?

  10. astrosmash says

    We’ve ‘ignored’ the best and simplest solution (meaning it will never be implemented) to ALL of our voting woes, pragmatic and ethical alike…The Australian system….Mandatory voting. Mandatory voting would immediately and automatically make ALL gerrymandering and voter suppression laws ILLEGAL, because it would now be illegal NOT to vote… It would get out the vote from the lazy voters (who unfortunately are on the proper ethical side of the issues) We already begrudgingly accept this kind of mandatory participation per jury duty…But like I said it won’t happen because that really WOULD give power to the people in a very meaningful way. Candidates really WOULD have to pay attention to what people wanted, and by the nature of manditory voting we’d see a much broader scope of candidates suddenly available to us. The vetting process would start at a more fundamental level and move up from there…

  11. Mano Singham says


    My suggestion is a little simpler than what that site suggests but that system provides for more nuance. I am not a fan of using computerized voter machines but if we are stuck with them, we might as well exploit the features they provide for more sophisticated voting.

  12. alkaloid says

    Mandatory voting would immediately and automatically make ALL gerrymandering and voter suppression laws ILLEGAL, because it would now be illegal NOT to vote… It would get out the vote from the lazy voters (who unfortunately are on the proper ethical side of the issues)

    I’ve seen this proposed before and I really disagree with it. Here’s why:

    1) Mandatory voting isn’t the same thing as making gerrymandering and voter suppression laws illegal. It can instead just be made mandatory that people have to vote for the gerrymandered districts that exist and they have no meaningful democratic (or even unbiased) input with regards to their formation.

    2) Similar issues also apply with regards to voter suppression (the continuing work of Greg Palast will give you a lot of details on the subject if you’re not already familiar with them). Furthermore, vote suppression isn’t just done via lists designed to discriminate against minorities; it’s also done by shorting out voting machines in ‘undesirable districts’, or giving false information to voters and in Chicago, even precinct workers, to make voting maximally inconvenient. Do you have an equal right to vote as someone else if you have to wait two hours in line to vote because you live in a black district while if you lived in a white or a Republican district you could be done voting in ten or twenty minutes? Especially if you have a job where just getting time off to vote during the work day is risky?

    3) My understanding of the Australian system is that there are also fines involved for failing to vote although to be honest, they’re not back-breakingly massive fines. If anything, if this was done in the United States this would introduce an even more horrifyingly dysfunctional element of the American political system to the process-namely the punitive aspects of the court system. There is nothing that the kind of ‘person’ who runs so much of America now would like more than the chance to make money off ‘undesirable’ voters; in fact, it could become another way of gouging them in a manner similar to how in Ferguson much of the city’s money comes from fines levied against black people living there extracted by police interaction.

    4) “Illegal” with regards to gerrymandering and vote suppression only matters if the machinery to investigate and try cases of such can be trusted to be unbiased-and it can’t.

    I would instead suggest trying to address these problems first before supporting mandatory voting.

  13. lpetrich says

    Mano #12, that would lead to less overall proportionality. Disproportions in the district seats would go uncorrected, unlike in the “mixed member” system in Germany, Scotland, and New Zealand, where the list seats can compensate for district-seat disproportionality. But some nations, like Japan, do indeed use such “parallel voting”, with only the list seats being proportional.

    As to implementing PR here in the US, that is easier than what one might think.

    At the state level, all it needs is changing election laws and perhaps amending some state constitutions. That is not a big as obstacle as one might think, because state constitutions are much easier to amend than the national one. BTW. the national one is one of the hardest national constitutions to amend in the world, if not currently *the* hardest to amend.

    At the national level, the House of Representatives can be made state-by-state proportional, though making it national proportional or making the Senate proportional would require a Constitutional amendment. Or else some workaround like National Popular Vote — Electoral college reform by direct election of the President where the states would agree among themselves to implement national proportionality.

  14. says

    A two party system is no different than a one party system. When there is always a majority government, corruption is easy. There’s only one party to bribe or buy. Forcing a change in US electoral methods is a pipe dream, but if enough Americans were willing to form a third party independent of the two corrupt parties, things might change. There are enough traditional conservatives, disaffected democrats, “green” and other voters to made a serious dent if they collaborated.

    Of the fourteen countries deemed least corrupt (i.e. not the US), twelve of them are multiparty democracies which often have minority governments (the largest having less than 50% of the power). The only two exceptions are the UK and Singapore.


  15. Holms says

    Regarding astrosmash and alkaloid on compulsory voting:

    Gerrymandering would still be perfectly legal, and in fact does occur in Australia. Remember, even though it is considered to be a sneaky way of stacking votes for a preferred party, the term itself only means that government division borders are redrawn. Making votes compulsory does not mean borders cannot be changed.

    Similarly, vote suppression by making things inconvenient is still possible under mandatory voting; punishing failure to vote does not in itself mean it is illegal for the voting system to be crap. However, I think it fairly clear that if any government is considering forcing all people to vote, then it behooves that government to make the system as barrier-free as possible. Thus, the Australian system has made it easy to vote by post, and in my experience, has made polling stations quite numerous and also well staffed in large cities.

    As for the fine, it is true that the American system is far too broken at the moment to simply introduce a fine for failure to vote. There is far too much reform needed simply to make the ability to vote feasible in the first place, before even remotely contemplating the idea of mandatory voting and penalties.

    Here is what the Australian Electoral Comission says on the subject:
    “Arguments used in favour of compulsory voting

    Voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform e.g. taxation, compulsory education, jury duty
    Teaches the benefits of political participation
    Parliament reflects more accurately the “will of the electorate”
    Governments must consider the total electorate in policy formulation and management
    Candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll
    The voter isn’t actually compelled to vote for anyone because voting is by secret ballot.

    Arguments used against compulsory voting:

    It is undemocratic to force people to vote – an infringement of liberty
    The ill informed and those with little interest in politics are forced to the polls
    It may increase the number of “donkey votes”
    It may increase the number of informal votes
    It increases the number of safe, single-member electorates – political parties then concentrate on the more marginal electorates
    Resources must be allocated to determine whether those who failed to vote have “valid and sufficient” reasons.”

    P.S. Out of curiousity, I looked up the fine: $20.

  16. astrosmash says

    Thanks all for the clarifications. @ Holms: It still seems to me the ‘arguments for’ are a net positive when weighed with the ‘arguments against’. I realize that mandatory voting wouldn’t make all the problems go away, and would even create new ones, but that’s the nature of change…I DO however prefer Mano’s suggestion in that the 4 point voting system would really incentivize voters since you can add your two cents worth.

  17. Holms says

    I agree with the arguments for it as well, but I also think that it is too much for America’s system until the system can handle it; there is a lot of reform that needs to be done before mandatory voting becomes viable I think.

  18. Peter B says

    Several others and I put this together over 10 years ago. It’s our best shot at eliminating gerrymandering. It will never happen. But one can still hope.

    A new, or at least different, way of voting.

    Let’s not only get rid of gerrymandering but let’s get rid of the possibility of gerrymandering. This suggestion applies specifically to the California assembly, although the same method would work for smaller groups as well.


    Let’s assume Kerry carries California 60% to 40%. This means that 40% of California voters had no say in the election outcome. Had none of that 40% voted the outcome would have been exactly the same. The same is true in assembly districts. If the vote is 55,000 to 45,000 the 45,000 votes might as well have never been cast.


    Actually, yes there is a problem. The problem is the tacit assumption that geography is more important than ideology. Or personality, or competence, or whatever. Why should I be forced to chose between 2 specific candidates just because I live in the district each is attempting to represent?


    For purposes of illustration let’s assume that California voters cast 80 Million votes for assembly members. Given the 80 seats in the assembly that comes to 100,000 votes per seat. But nobody got that many votes. A few candidates are elected with fewer than 50,000 votes.

    We propose to change that.

    We propose a long ballot for assembly seats – perhaps as many as 1000 names. Qualifications to be on the ballot should be, “Is it likely that he will get at least 20,000 votes statewide.” Some mechanism needs to be created to answer this question. After the election each candidate has some number of votes. Any candidate with more that 100,000 votes is in. Any excess votes may be given to any other candidate. (Or perhaps to any person but for his discussion we will say other candidate.)

    Likewise, candidates with a few less than 100,000 votes may be given enough votes to get a seat. Candidates with only a few votes may give their votes to whomever they please.

    Thus if the fictitious “Elvis Lives” party candidate can get 100,000 votes statewide he is in. If he gets 80,000 votes he may be able to pick up enough votes from candidates getting only a few thousand votes.

    Political parties are not killed by this scheme. I would expect all or at least many Republicans and Democrats to make and follow a simple rule. “Candidates of our party will line up in order of number of votes received. All votes will be pushed to the head of the line and spread back as far as they reach.” Thus the top vote getters in each party will be elected.

    The fun begins after the simple procedures have been run. There might be perhaps 20 candidates with even a ghost of a chance to get seated and only 3 seats left to decide. Say a Libertarian candidate has 40,000 of these 300,000 unused votes. He is in a good position to extract a promise from a major party should he give up his votes. He is also in a good position to round up 60,000 votes from other groups in exchange for promises to carry their agenda.

    It may even get to an impasse where there are unassigned votes and no remaining candidate will budge. Then the process has to start a finalization procedure. My thoughts on this are as follows…

    (1) The top candidate takes one vote from each of the remaining candidates until he has enough to get seated. Any extra votes are discarded. The process repeats until all votes are used. Yes, this procedure does encourage the remaining candidate with the most votes not to negotiate. But the other candidates know this and may succeed in selecting someone else.


    (2) Slightly decrease the number of votes needed to be seated until some outcome changes. This increases the “unassigned votes” votes. Continue decreasing until all 80 seats are filled.


    Districts are not dead. A candidate may campaign in a given area with the hope of getting enough votes from that area to be seated. Indeed, several Republican candidates may convince party leadership that before the candidates line up by vote count that they have the opportunity of exchanging votes to better represent a particular area (or for that matter, a particular idea.)

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