Last week, a group of prominent figures, including Shih Ming-teh 施明德, Sean Chen 陳沖, and Su Chi 蘇起, proposed that Taiwan should employ a new electoral system, which they called “negative voting.” As I understand the proposal, this is intended for single seat elections. Each voter would still cast one vote. Currently, the vote must be a positive one, so that each vote increases the candidate’s total by one. Under this proposal, the voter would have the option to either cast a positive or a negative vote. A positive vote would increase a candidate’s total by one, while each negative vote would decrease the candidate’s total by one.
If I understand correctly, some variant of this system is sometimes used in elections for board of directors of corporations. I do not know of any sort of negative voting used in elections for public offices. (The closest thing I know of is Approval Voting, a system invented and promoted by a couple of professors at New York University. In Approval Voting, the voter can vote for as many candidates as he or she approves of. If you vote for all but one, that is mathematically equivalent to a negative vote for that candidate. However, since a voter can cast different numbers of votes, approval voting differs from the proposed negative voting in important ways. I don’t think Approval Voting has been adopted for any elections to public offices.)
Let’s look at how this system might affect who wins or loses. If there are two candidates, negative voting really doesn’t make any difference. If you prefer A to B, you either vote positively for A or negatively for B. This system is designed to affect races with at least three candidates, so let’s delve into that. Assume there are three candidates. A is a leftist, B is a centrist, and C is a rightist. If the polls say that A, B, and C have 40, 30, and 30% support respectively, we can normally expect A to win. A’s supporters are happy with this and will go ahead and cast positive votes for A. B’s supporters know that B is losing, but they don’t have a clear second favorite candidate. Some of them prefer A to C, and some prefer C to A. They could hedge their bets and vote negatively against their least favorite candidate. Mathematically, this would be equivalent to voting for both B and their second favorite candidate. C’s supporters have a much easier choice. They all prefer B to A, so they can simply vote against A. If all of B and C’s supporters vote negatively, we thus get A: -5%, B: 0%, C: -15%. So B wins with zero votes?? Hmm. I wonder if the proponents of negative voting considered what would happen if the “winner” got zero or even negative votes. That seems like an outcome the PRC would love to see! (Note: B also wins A:10, B: 30, C: 0 if A’s and B’s supporters cast positive votes and only C’s supporters cast negative votes.)
Vote totals aside, the important point is that the new system changes the outcome. Instead of the leftist (who led in first preferences), the moderate is now the winner. Some people see this as a desirable outcome. In technical jargon, B is the Condorcet winner. That is, B wins the head to head matchups against all the other candidates. (In a one on one matchup, B beats A, 60-40, and B beats C, 70-30.) Negative voting empowers moderates! Hooray!
Not so fast, but hold that thought while we first explore a different idea.
Negative voting will be most useful to factionalized parties who cannot agree on a single candidate. Image that party A has a majority in society (A: 55; B: 45), but it has two big factions that will not yield to each other. Eventually both candidates, A1 and A2, both decide to run. Assume that the first preferences now break down as follows: A1: 30, A2: 25; B: 45. In a plurality race, B is going to coast to an easy victory. However, if 80% of party A’s voters vote negatively, they can avoid losing to B, even though they were unable to resolve their intra-party squabble. The result would be A1: 6, A2: 5, B: 1.
I think this is the real purpose of the proposal. People inside the KMT fear that the Wang and Ma factions are terribly split, and they will not be able to cooperate (perhaps even if Chu runs). Or perhaps Ma simply wants to run his own candidate. Negative voting avoids the problem of resolving intra-party tensions by simply allowing KMT sympathizers to vote against the DPP. Of course, this assumes that the KMT is still the dominant party. I understand that many people within the KMT believe that the voters will come back to them when real power (ie: national power) is at stake, though I suspect they are fooling themselves. I think their fundamental problem is that Tsai Ing-wen might have over 50% of the votes, not that the pro-Ma and anti-Ma factions can’t cooperate. At any rate, I think there is tremendous value in forcing a party that wants to hold governing power to first be able to resolve basic internal conflicts. If a severely factionalized party wins power, will it be able to effectively govern?
Let’s go back to that idea about negative voting encouraging moderates. Imagine a two candidate race, with A narrowly leading B by 52-48. What could B do to change the outcome? What if an extremist candidate BB on B’s side of the spectrum jumped in? In a normal plurality race, this couldn’t help B at all, since any votes BB won would almost certainly be taken from B. However, with negative voting, it might be different. Imagine BB is a terrible person, spewing all sorts of offensive and inflammatory rhetoric. BB would be all over the news, and voters would be outraged. In fact, some might come to the conclusion that it is important to resoundingly reject BB’s horrible ideas. However, those negative votes against BB would probably come predominantly from A’s side of the spectrum, since BB’s ideas would naturally be extremely offensive to them and only moderately offensive to voters on B’s side of the spectrum. If BB won positive support from 1% (originally B voters), while 7% of A voters and 1% of B voters decided to make a statement by voting against BB, the result would now be A: 45, B: 46, BB: -7%. BB would in fact be resoundingly rejected. However, this would also throw the election to B.
I think most of us can agree that democracy is not well-served when vile extremists can affect the outcome of a race by hurting the chances of the mainstream candidate on the other side of the spectrum. This is why positive voting, in which voters have to support something, is the norm. With positive voting, candidates are not rewarded for being offensive. With negative voting, the more offensive a candidate is and the more voters that are shocked into rejecting him or her, the more power and influence that candidate has.
To put it bluntly, this proposal for negative voting is a terrible idea.
A short comment on the idea that negative voting would save money: Candidates/parties currently get NT30 for each vote, so negative voting would supposedly reduce the public subsidy.
I’m starting to believe that the surest sign that some proposed electoral reform is a bad idea is that its proponents stress how much public money it will save. It seems almost like they are trying to distract us from their weak arguments about why it will produce better politics with shiny, shiny money!
There is a good reason for the public to subsidize parties. We have a general interest in parties that have the capacity to do things like formulate policy platforms. Bureaucracy and think tanks cost money. Back in the mid-1990s, when Shih Ming-teh was DPP party chair, the DPP could barely afford to pay rent. His predecessor Huang Hsin-chieh 黃信介 routinely wrote a personal check to cover the DPP’s monthly operating costs. That party struggled to avoid bankruptcy; it certainly did not have the capacity to do long term planning or prepare a broad set of policy proposals that it might pursue if it were to become the governing party. Shih seems currently to be arguing that the public subsidy is a waste. I disagree. I don’t want to return to the days in which there was only one party with the capacity to govern.