The world’s liberal democracies are deeply polarized. Here’s how we could help rebuild the political center.
Political polarization is deepening in democracies, new and old alike, around the world. This is undermining citizens’ trust in institutions and political elites, while strengthening the radical fringes and driving support for would-be autocrats. Faced with such conditions, traditional parties, especially moderate ones, either radicalize to meet competitors and their constituencies at the extremes or become weaker and less appealing to increasingly disaffected voters. Reversing these dynamics is no easy task, and many countries are struggling to respond.
Spain is a prime example. The country’s Socialist premier, Pedro Sánchez, called snap elections after his party’s poor showing in local and regional elections in May. Those same contests saw not only the rise of the relatively new far-right Vox party but also the collapse of the center-liberal Ciudadanos party—and with it, the disappearance of the political center in Spain. The campaign for the July general election was rancorous: The incumbent (minority) government was attacked for drawing support in parliament from a Basque separatist party, among other things, while the traditional-right Popular Party was harshly criticized for forming coalitions with Vox in regional governments.
The result was a hung parliament, with no party winning a sufficient majority and the two largest parties, the Socialist Workers Party and the Popular Party, unwilling to support each other in forming a government. So now either there will be a new election in December, or Sánchez will grant amnesty to indicted leaders of separatist Catalan parties to secure their parliamentary support—a high price, to be sure. Polarization is, of course, not unique to Spain. We have also seen high levels of polarization in Germany, the United States, Chile, and other liberal democracies.
Given the dangers that such polarization poses to democracy, we should be looking for innovations to address the problem, including changing an incentive structure that encourages political parties to radicalize. As it stands, many parties find that pandering to the most extreme factions, using divisive language and proposing polarizing policies, is what brings victory at the ballot box. But what if we could change that by offering a new way of voting?
Changing the Game
Today voters express their disaffection with politics and traditional parties in multiple ways. Some voters cast protest votes—often for extremists or populists—to punish the parties and politicians whom they believe failed them. Others cast blank or spoiled ballots to show their dissatisfaction with the status quo. And most simply stay home on election day rather than waste their time choosing between undesirable options. In several countries, including Bulgaria, Thailand, and Ukraine, voters can choose to vote for “None of the Above.” But no electoral system allows voters to cast their vote against a party or candidate whom they cannot abide.
Yet giving citizens the option to do just that—what I call “reverse voting”—would dramatically alter the political landscape: It would give a meaningful alternative to voters who don’t like any of their options but want to participate and have a voice in government; and it would force parties and politicians to adopt new, less polarizing strategies to avoid the risk of provoking reverse votes.
How would it work? First, and most obviously, votes could be cast either for or against a party or candidate (depending on the system). Second, voters would still have just one vote. They would therefore have to decide whether to cast that vote in favor of or against a single ticket. (This type of vote would only work where voters have just one vote to cast—for instance, in first-past-the-post or closed-list proportional-representation electoral systems. This is distinct from systems where voters have multiple votes they can cast both in favor of and against various slates, such as the D21 or Janeček method.) Voters would therefore have to determine whether they would prefer to weaken a particular candidate with their reverse vote or to actively endorse a ticket with their positive vote. Many would make that decision by first estimating how or whether their vote, in either direction, would affect the outcome—that is, which vote would have the greatest impact.
After the polls close and the votes are tallied, the reverse votes against each candidate or party would be subtracted from the total number of positive votes they received in a given electoral district. Take, for example, a single-member district with three candidates, where Candidate A receives 2,500 votes in favor and 500 against; Candidate B receives 2,100 votes in favor and 50 against; and Candidate C receives 500 votes in favor. Candidate B would win the election with a total of 2,050 positive votes. In a proportional-representation system with multimember districts, the seats would be allotted in the same way, according to the final vote share after reverse votes are subtracted. Should a party wind up with a negative vote count, it would not win any seats in that district; votes for the other parties would still be apportioned according to the vote share. This system could also be implemented in presidential elections.
Such a system could give real voice to alienated voters who may not like any of their choices but strongly oppose a particular party or candidate. It’s entirely possible that having the reverse-vote option could drive up voter turnout. Moreover, reverse voting would produce meaningful results and possibly real change—unlike voting “none of the above,” which may signal voters’ dissatisfaction with the system as a whole, but in most cases will have no impact on election outcomes or how elected parties and politicians actually govern.
How would political parties and politicians respond to the risk of provoking reverse votes? They would almost certainly have to change their behavior—at least during the campaign period. Under this new system, they would not only have to vie for votes among their base but also avoid offending other constituencies or else risk their reverse votes. In other words, the possibility of receiving reverse votes would serve as a disincentive to waging polarizing election campaigns.
It is true that negative campaigning can be effective. But in a reverse-voting system, that tactic could backfire, provoking a party’s base to cast reverse votes against an opponent. Those reverse votes would then be lost to the party conducting the negative campaign, as each voter has only one vote. Many parties could decide that the risk of negative campaigning would be too great.
How Will Parties and Voters Respond?
In well-functioning democracies with institutionalized parties that have long histories and strong bonds with their constituencies, there should be little incentive for voters to cast reverse ballots. Most people would rather not risk their preferred candidate losing because they cast their vote in a different direction. But today we are seeing institutionalized parties in many countries move to the extremes, either on their own or by joining with fringe parties, leaving moderate voters orphaned. It is this voter segment—unhappy with rising polarization and unable to find parties or candidates who sufficiently represent them—that would be most likely to vote against a party or candidate on the extremes of the political spectrum. That possibility should force parties on the extremes or flirting with the radical fringes to moderate their platforms in order to avoid negative votes.
In Spain, the disappearance of Ciudadanos forced many of its voters to cast a strategic vote in favor of either of the two traditional parties just outside the center, the Popular Party on the right and the Socialists on the left. At the same time, fewer voters opted for the most extreme options in the July election than in May, with Vox, for instance, losing a significant number of seats in parliament. The divide between the two sides, though, has grown wider, and their near-equal weight in parliament has so far kept anyone from forming a government. One could imagine that if Spain were to adopt a reverse-voting system, the campaign dynamics ultimately would change. Candidates and their parties (particularly those on the fringes) would have incentives to moderate their behavior and their platforms, and the country might succeed in avoiding the dysfunction paralyzing it today.
But what would happen if the total share of reverse votes surpassed that of any single candidate or party, indicating that voters were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with all available choices? The electoral law or constitution, for instance, should provide a default arrangement for such a scenario. One possibility would be to establish a technocratic or caretaker government that would take the reins for a limited time—for instance, half a regular term—after which new elections would be held. The rules governing the establishment of such a body, the selection process, and the parameters of its power would have to be enumerated. Key issues would include 1) the procedures for appointing government members; 2) when nominations are made—that is, before or after the election; 3) qualifications for appointed technocrats—for instance, it may be appropriate to allow only well-known individuals without links to political parties; 4) the government’s mandate—for instance, whether such a government could propose constitutional amendments or changes to laws governing elections or political parties; and 5) any special forms of checks and balances. Ultimately, however, the establishment of a technocratic government would be a mechanism of last resort (and a direct consequence of voters’ choices)—the threat of which should encourage parties to moderate their stances and voters to think carefully before casting their ballots.
In a system that includes the option to cast a reverse vote, political parties theoretically would do everything in their power to bridge the gap between representation and responsiveness, moderating their positions and building stronger connections with their own constituents as well as society as a whole. Of course, there are other methods that arguably could contribute to party moderation. Donald Horowitz has argued in these pages that electoral systems should favor candidates (or parties) that can get support from voters outside their immediate constituency, such as preferential voting systems, where voters rank parties or candidates on their ballots. Such electoral systems have a lot to offer, particularly in highly divided societies, but they can be difficult to implement and administer. Thus they have not been attempted in many places.
The reverse vote is a simpler, but perhaps more radical, solution. Preferential voting gives voters the opportunity to rank, and thereby express their preference for, particular candidates. Those at the bottom of the list or not on the list at all are obviously the least-preferred candidates. But where all candidates must be ranked, it is impossible to distinguish whether voters are indifferent or actively dislike those candidates at the bottom.
Reverse voting, in contrast, would give voters the opportunity to register their opposition to a particular party or candidate in a way that actually strengthens elections as a mechanism for accountability. Giving citizens the option to voice disapproval at the ballot box would almost certainly force parties to rethink their strategies and at least partly “correct” polarizing behavior and rhetoric. This innovation could be one step toward halting the corrosive dynamics that are endangering liberal democracy everywhere.
Kimana Zulueta-Fülscher is a senior advisor with the Constitution Building Programme of International IDEA. The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of International IDEA.
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