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Opinion: The case for voting against presidential candidates

George Leef

Our elections often compel voters to choose “the lesser of two evils.” Among the candidates, there may be no one that the voter truly wants in office, so the choice comes down to, “Who is the least bad?”

But what if our ballots gave us the option of either voting for a candidate or voting against a candidate? In doing the latter, we would be saying that our strongest wish was for that candidate to lose.

Looking at this year’s presidential race, many voters abhor both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but must vote for either of them, or a minor party candidate they know little or nothing about. They have to hold their noses and vote for someone. Many won’t bother.

In my view, they’d be more engaged if their ballots could register their strongest desire, which might well be to see one of the candidates defeated.

In politics, people are often more animated by their dislikes than their likes, Leef writes.

Under such a system, election results would be tabulated by totaling the votes for each candidate and subtracting the votes against each. The winner would be the candidate with the highest positive total.

Making changes in elections is within the purview of the states, and voting innovations are not unheard of. Nevada allows voters to choose “None of the Above,” and Maine is going with a ranked-order voting system that goes into effect in case no candidate achieves a majority in the initial vote. There is nothing to prevent states from allowing voters to “go negative.”

Ballots would tell voters, “You may vote either for or against one candidate.”

Would it matter if voters had that option? In politics, people are often more animated by their dislikes than their likes. Participation would probably rise if negative voting were an option.

That idea finds support in a survey conducted in 2016 by the Rand Corporation, which concluded that there would be increased interest in elections if voting against candidates were allowed. That survey found that a majority of the Clinton and Trump supporters would have preferred to vote against a candidate rather than for, and that nearly half of those who decided not to vote would have done so if they could have cast a negative vote.

Another reason why it would matter is that third party candidates would have a chance at winning. If, for example, large numbers of voters in a state think that four more years of Trump is the worst possible outcome, his positive total would be small or even negative. But at the same time, there might be equally large numbers of voters who believe that a Trump or a Biden presidency would be ruinous for the country, and avoiding that was their strongest desire, those candidates’ positive vote numbers would be driven way down. 

With so many votes against both major party nominees, it’s possible that the most favored candidate would be the Libertarian or Green no. And if that happened, or even came close, the populace might demand that third party candidates be included in debates, rather than excluded as has always been the case.

Perhaps negative voting would even reduce the hubris of winning candidates. As things stand, the winner usually proclaims his or her “mandate” to govern on the basis of a majority of votes cast. They might act differently if their victory was just a matter of being marginally less unpopular than the rival candidates.

Last but not least, if Americans could vote against candidates, that might make them more inclined to think about the damage that government does to them, and less about the promises politicians make for supposedly beneficial new laws and programs.

It’s interesting to note that when the United Nations chooses a new secretary general, nations are allowed to vote against candidates they don’t want.

Voters in the United States ought to have the same ability.

George Leef is the director of research at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Previously, he was on the faculty at Northwood University in Midland, Mich.