Commentary & Analysis

Bipolar Politics: The Beginning and End of the Two Party System

By Eric Sanders

This article was originally published on Big Think.

Do you enjoy being forced to choose between one of two candidates?

Now, you may say, “There are other candidates on the ballot.” But you are unlikely to vote for any of them. Why? Because you don’t want to throw your vote away. Why do you feel like you’re throwing your vote away by voting for one of these other candidates? The main reason has nothing to do with money, TV exposure, a conspiracy, or anything of the kind. It has to do with one thing only: the fact that you are legally required to vote for one candidate and one candidate only.

Like two candidates? Go ahead and try voting for both of them—your vote will be thrown out. It will be considered “spoiled,” an “overvote.” And this small law, enshrined in the legal code of every state in the US, is the primary reason why we have a de facto two-party system at every level of US politics, from the town to Federal level.

Plurality Elections

Plurality elections are elections where the winner simply receives the most votes. At first glance, this system almost makes sense. Shouldn’t the person with the most votes win? Yes, but not if voters are forced to vote for only one candidate.

Todd Akin, the disgraced Congressman from Missouri who made the comment about “legitimate rape,” won the Republican primary for Senator with only 36% of the vote. But the second-place candidate had 30% and the third-place candidate had 29.2%. Now, do you think these near-60% of voters who voted for the second- and third-place candidates may have preferred either one of them to Akin? We’ll never know, because their preferences for anyone other than the single candidate they chose weren’t taken into consideration.

However, it is likely that if these voters were allowed to vote for more than one candidate, then many of them would have also voted for someone else and not Akin–meaning that the second- or third-place candidate might have won, having had broader overall support amongst voters.

Another example: Mitt Romney built up enough early “momentum” to win the Republican presidential primary by winning most or all of the delegates from New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio, even though his percentage of votes from those states was, respectively: 39%, 46%, 35%, 47%, 41%, and 38%.

Was Mitt Romney the most broadly supported candidate amongst Republican voters? We’ll never know.

When voters are forced to vote for only one candidate, similar candidates are likely to “split” votes, meaning that candidates with less broad overall support can win.

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I get why plurality elections are stupid, but what about requiring a majority (more than 50% of the vote)? Doesn’t that solve our problems?”

Runoff Elections

A commonly proposed remedy for a situation where no candidate receives a majority of votes is to hold a “runoff” election between the top two finishers. But this also poses problems. In some cases, a candidate who would beat all rivals head-to-head fails to advance to the runoff. This means the so-called “majority winner” of a runoff election is not necessarily the candidate with the broadest overall support. Take a look at this example:

35% Liberal > Moderate > Conservative
33% Conservative > Moderate > Liberal
32% Moderate > Liberal > Conservative

In this case, although it seems counterintuitive, the Liberal and Conservative candidate would advance to the runoff, even though the Moderate candidate would beat both in a head-to-head contest.

The Fiction of the Majority

Here’s another example:

Choose one:

– Hitler

– Stalin

In this case, where there are two candidates on the ballot, unless we have an exact tie we are mathematically guaranteed to produce a majority winner. But just because voters may prefer one of these candidates over the other does not mean that voters actually support that candidate.

This is the fiction of the majority. It is a complete mathematical fabrication that makes it seem like the winning candidate has the support of more than half of the voters. In reality, voters may not support either of these candidates but may feel obligated to vote for “the lesser of two evils.”

The Solution: Approval Voting

So what can be done? The answer is simple–so simple that even a child could understand it. We need to remove the restriction that forces you to vote for only one candidate. Ballots could now read, “Vote for any and all candidates that you wish.” This is called Approval Voting.

If you support only one candidate, that’s fine too. But now voters who support more than one candidate will no longer be forced to arbitrarily vote for only one.

Why is this so beneficial? Imagine you are a progressive who supports the Green Party candidate for president. You may not love Barack Obama, but let’s say you definitely prefer him over Romney. Because you are currently forced to vote for only one candidate, you are likely to vote for Obama and not the Green Party candidate because you don’t want to waste your vote on someone you don’t think can win–you want to make sure your preference for Obama over Romney is counted.

Our current laws encourage you to vote strategically, giving your one and only vote to the candidate you think is more likely to win, not the candidate you most want to win.

But if you are no longer forced to vote for only one candidate, you can vote for both the Green Party candidate and Obama (if you so choose). And the votes are still counted like before–the candidate with the most votes wins. Now, however, you can vote for any and all candidates that you support. You can give an honest vote to your favorite candidate, in this case, the Green Party candidate. And you can support Obama over Romney, just like before.

Of course, this reasoning works just as well regardless of your political views. Say you are a Libertarian or Tea Party supporter who does not love Romney but prefers him over Obama. You are now free to vote for your favorite candidate and Romney (if you so choose), ensuring that your vote benefits the candidates you like while also registering as a vote ‘against’ candidates you dislike.

The true advantage of Approval Voting is that it significantly diminishes strategic voting. Because you are no longer forced to vote for only one candidate, there is no longer a near-guarantee that only one of the two “front runners” will win, freeing you up to vote honestly for any and all candidates you support. Say you hate both Obama and Romney equally: you can now feel excited about voting for another candidate, since you know that he has a chance to win if enough other voters–who now feel free to vote for him in addition to Obama or Romney–support him as well.

Once we are no longer forced to vote for only one candidate, the candidate with the broadest overall support will win.

Even Better: Score Voting

Let’s say Approval Voting feels a little “funny” to you. “I get it,” you might say, “but it seems weird to vote for two candidates when I don’t feel exactly the same about both of them. Let’s say I’d give one of them a 10/10 and the other a 7/10. I support both–and I hate the other candidates, but I’d like to be able to distinguish between the two.”

You have just made the ideal argument for Score Voting, a simple voting method where you give each candidate a score, say from 0-10, and the candidate with the highest total score wins. It’s basic arithmetic. Most importantly, Score Voting guarantees that the winning candidate has the broadest overall support. It’s even better than Approval Voting, because now voters can further distinguish between multiple candidates that they support (and do not support).

The End of Bipolar Politics: What Must Be Done Now

In summary, Approval Voting means simply voting for any and all candidates that you wish. Score Voting means simply scoring any and all candidates that you wish. In Approval Voting the candidate with the most votes wins. In Score Voting the candidate with the highest total score wins. Both of these simple solutions are only possible if we stop forcing voters to vote for only one candidate.

We live in a world where people have subtle opinions about many things, from politicians to restaurants to apps to movies. When companies like Zagat wish to score the best restaurants in New York City, they do not force voters to pick only one they like and ignore all the rest; they let people vote for (or give a score to) any and all restaurants that they wish. This is how companies such as Zagat,, Yelp, IMDb, and the Apple App Store help us select the best from amongst multiple options.

This is not a complicated solution for politics. It requires only one thing to get started: voters must understand that the reason we have a de facto two-party system in the US is because we are forced to vote for only one candidate. Once that law is changed, we will no longer be slaves to “bipolar politics,” forced to choose between the lesser of two evils for fear of wasting our one and only vote. We will now be free to express our preferences honestly about any and all candidates on the ballot.

Modern American society is built on the twin concepts of “democracy” and “freedom.” But feeling forced to choose between two candidates is often not a huge step up from having no choice at all. If we truly believe in democracy and freedom, and wish to do more than merely talk about them theoretically, then we have no alternative but to get rid of these archaic laws that force us to vote for only one candidate.