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.

Changing the Game

Today voters express their disaffection with politics and traditional parties in multiple ways. Some voters cast protest votesoften 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 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.

Read the full article about voter engagement and democracy by Kimana Zulueta-Fülscher at Journal of Democracy.