What is Approval Voting, and How Can It Help America?
AWritten by Christiaan Mitchell
Published 26 January 2019
With political turmoil being the centerpiece of the daily news cycle, it has become almost mundane to say that American democracy is at risk. We should, however, pay attention to this troubling crisis of faith, if for no other reason than American democracy, among a significant portion of the U.S., earned this disapproval.
Young people today are facing political and social systems that have shown them, time and again, that they think nothing of lying to them and have little-to-no interest in serving them. Sadly, this has led many to reject the idea of democracy itself, when the actual problem lies with the particular procedural and legal manifestations of that idea that we call “the American government.”
In response, numerous proposals for major alterations in the way we conduct government in the U.S. have appeared. For example, over at Vox, the idea of switching to a parliamentary system has come into vogue. While at least some of these proposals are worth development and exploration, it is hard to see these as much more than academic exercises. Even still, these discussions pose questions of less dramatic revisions to our political system that may provide positive outcomes for American governance.
One that has recently been getting more attention is a system known as approval voting. Thanks to a rigorous campaign supported by nonprofit groups Reform Fargo and the Center for Election Science, the city of Fargo, North Dakota adopted approval voting, making it the first city in the country to do so. But how does it work, and why might it be better than our current system?
How does approval voting work?
Approval voting is an alternative voting method in which voters are allowed to select as many, or as few, candidates for a given office as they want. Voters’ choices are unranked and indicate simply that the voter “approves” this set of candidates. In essence, it renders an election a sort of referendum on each candidate. After voting has taken place, the votes for each candidate are tallied, and the candidate with the most support is declared the winner.
That’s it. No major ballot redesign. No labyrinthine rules for how ranked votes are allocated and reallocated. No need for a complex (and likely futile) effort to amend the federal constitution. All that needs to change in order to implement this style of voting is a revision to the current election rules that allows for selecting more than one candidate on the ballot as well as a vote counting system able to register more than one vote per office on each ballot.
Wait, what? How does this help anyone?
If you’re like me and coming to the idea of approval voting for the first time, then two questions immediately spring to mind: “how is this not completely absurd?” and “how am I just hearing about this?”
While this approach to voting contradicts basically everything we have ever been taught about how voting works, it promises several benefits over our traditional “first past the post” system.
1.) The “End” of Tactical Voting
Anyone who has voted in more than a couple of elections, and particularly any primary election, faces the tactical voting problem. A candidate on your ballot really caught your eye. Their policies excite your mind, are true to the spirit of America, and, at least in your estimation, herald a new era of global peace and prosperity. Only problem is that they’re sitting in a federal prison and may also be unstable. Consequently, as much as you’d like to give them a chance, they’re not terribly likely to win a general election.
Instead, you vote for the candidate with a more conventional set of policies and a clean rap sheet. They may not lead us to the Promised Land, but the other major party candidate is a racist demagogue who ruins everything they touch, and you’re not willing to take that chance (…unless, of course, you are).
Virtually all of us have faced this dilemma. Even if you never had to actually cast that vote, you’ve more than likely thought through the analysis. And even for those of us who fancy ourselves “the adults in the room” and take pride in a kind of principled practicality, there’s something icky about voting for the lesser of two evils, rather than what our nobler selves tell us we should do.
An approval voting system eliminates this problem almost entirely. Voters are not faced with the problem of their principles calling on them to waste their vote and risk being blamed for the fallout. Instead, they are free to cast that vote for the “wacky” libertarian and still hedge against a disastrous outcome by also casting a simultaneous vote for the more reasonable, moderate candidate.
2.) Better Ballot Access
One of the more egregious examples of tactical voting showed up in the most recent presidential election. Readers will recall the 2016 “Never Trump” movement’s effort to “trade” votes for Hillary Clinton in must-win swing states, for third-party votes in safely Democratic states.
The theory behind this move was that a vote for Clinton in California and for Jill Stein in Pennsylvania were equally “wasted” in the sense that neither would have any discernible effect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. However, an extra vote here or there for Clinton in a closely fought swing state could push her over the “plurality” mark. Because of the way the electoral college interacts with our first-past-the-post system, this can have a dramatic result on the election’s outcome. Similarly, someone voting for Jill Stein likely well understood that there was no chance she would actually win, but they were still interested in registering support for her out of principle or personal ideology.
Of course, it’s easy to see how approval voting can completely eliminate this approach. Our California Clinton supporter can cast her vote honestly, and our Pennsylvania Stein supporter can register his support for the Green Party while still hedging their bet against a Trump victory.
Where this becomes particularly interesting is in the very many states that key ballot access for political parties to past election performance. Gaining and maintaining ballot access can be a laborious and expensive process. By adopting an approval voting system, one key barrier—the fear that supporting a minor party may inadvertently contribute to a catastrophic result—can be significantly weakened. Voters can both ensure that their support for a minor party is registered and still promote the likelihood of winning for a more electable and acceptable alternative.
3.) More Representative Election Results
This brings us to perhaps the most important advantage that approval voting promises to offer: election results that better represent the population. Many of us as simply holding our noses as we vote. A vote in 2016 for Clinton by someone who supports a single-payer healthcare system was not necessarily a vote in favor of the status quo, but rather against a buffoon maniac hell-bent on destroying all the progress made during the Obama years. Under our current system, there is no direct way to capture that information.
In all likelihood, if the electoral college results actually tracked the popular vote, Clinton would have entered office and claimed that the people voted to keep and improve upon the Affordable Care Act. Of course, the truth turned out to be quite different. If an approval voting system showed, however, substantial support for a pro-single-payer third party along with a narrow Clinton victory, the electoral results and implied partisan support would look very different.
While that may be unfair to Secretary Clinton, it illustrates the ways in which our current system skews voter data. Our winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system creates a self-reinforcing system of absolute identification with the two major parties. Any attempt to introduce new ideas or a new approach has to be filtered through the overarching, deep-rooted interests represented in those parties. It may well be that there is significant support for a “third way” forward between the two major parties, but there is scant room for those ideas to get a foothold in the current voting system.
Of course, adopting an approval voting system will not singlehandedly solve all of the manifold issues facing our political system. And of course it’s not without its problems. But it does represent a concrete and actionable step forward toward a more representative and democratic electoral system.