Approval Voting: Works Great, Less Complicated

Nearly a quarter of a millennium into the American experiment in constitutional representative democracy, I am far more surprised the system has survived for so long than that it suffers from numerous problems. I have lived through less than a quarter of the history of U.S. elections, and heck, I’m falling apart already.

A basket of methods intended to serve a population of not much more than 3 million now serves a population of more than 300 million. Yes, it has evolved. In 227 years we have gone from suffrage only for white male landowners to “universal” (okay, not really - ask a convicted felon) adult suffrage. We have gone from hand-written or party-printed ballots to a government-printed “Australian” ballot with candidate access controlled and limited in each state by the ruling parties. U.S. Senators, once chosen by state legislatures, are now chosen by popular vote. And so on.

Replacing plurality voting with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) - as lead essayist Rob Richie recommends - or with some other new voting system, strikes me as more in the nature of a knee replacement than a heart transplant, but hey, why not? I’m a market anarchist myself, but if we are going to take democracy seriously, I suppose there is something to be said for continuously tweaking technical voting methods to most accurately reflect real voter preferences. Along the way we may still do well to recall H. L. Mencken’s conception of democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Democracy by my lights is never going to be perfect.

Rob makes two especially strong arguments for RCV:

  • It provides for majority rather than plurality winners. Even if there is nothing magical about majority versus plurality vis a vis “the popular will,” there is a longstanding and visceral appeal to majority rule.
  • It eliminates the need for separate “runoff” elections when a majority is required and no candidate receives one.

So far, so good. But I cannot approve of the complexity of RCV versus my own preferred voting alternative, Approval Voting.

Those who paid attention to the Florida presidential vote recount in 2000 probably recall quite a bit of controversy over the use of “butterfly ballots.” Many voters claimed to find those ballots confusing and difficult to understand. Some even claimed that in retrospect they had probably voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore.

No, I’m not saying that voters are stupid, although some undoubtedly are. I am saying that those of us with an ongoing, even obsessive, interest in politics tend to forget that most American voters don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the technical aspects of casting a ballot. They show up every two or four years to spend an hour standing in line and five minutes in a booth filling out an unfamiliar form. The more complicated that unfamiliar form becomes, the greater the likelihood of error.

Some voters seem to have a difficult time looking at lists of candidates, picking one for each office to be elected, and accurately recording their choices. We can hardly expect those voters to do a very good job of looking at lists of candidates and ranking all those candidates on all those lists in order of preference. If they even bother to try, the ratio of noise to signal in results will presumably rise.

Some voters will blithely choose one candidate, unaware that they should rank their choices. Others will get the numbering system or other measuring mechanism backward when ranking their choices and end up weighting the power of their votes in favor of the candidates they like least instead of most. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! Well, okay, maybe not that last part. But if the goal is to align outcomes with real voter preferences, there are real potential defects in RCV as the method of doing so.

Approval Voting is simpler. Here is how it works:

The voter votes for all the candidates he or she likes.

And that’s it! Let’s consider an example. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein all appear on the ballot for president.

The voter is okay with Clinton or Stein, but not with Trump or Johnson, so the voter votes for Clinton and Stein.

Or the voter is okay with Trump or Clinton, but not Johnson or Stein, so the voter votes for Trump and Clinton.

Or the voter is only okay with Johnson, so the voter votes only for Johnson.

The candidate who receives the most votes wins. Easy peasy. One variant of Approval Voting requires that the winning candidate, in addition to receiving the most votes, must receive votes from a majority of voters.

Are there problems with Approval Voting? Sure. In the majority requirement variant, a runoff might be required. RCV avoids that. Approval Voting can also be gamed. If I prefer Johnson but am okay with Stein, I might vote only for Johnson because I would rather have Johnson and don’t want to put any gas in Stein’s tank. And Johnson’s campaign might encourage his “base” voters to do exactly that.

But of course RCV can be gamed in the same way. A voter doesn’t have to rank all the available choices. In the above example she could rank Johnson first and rank no other candidates, so that only her vote for Johnson counts no matter the circumstances.

Simpler is better. If the purpose of a voting method is to align outcomes with voter preferences, simplicity matters, because complexity produces noise that interferes with our ability to understand those preferences. Is simplicity the only consideration? Of course not. But it’s an important one, and in my view Ranked Choice Voting’s virtues are not sufficient to offset its complexity versus Approval Voting.

A final thought: Maybe voting method isn’t really as earth-shakingly important as those of us who spend time thinking about it want it to be.

In his essay, Rob points out that “[e]xtensive data analysis from more than 125 RCV elections in the Bay Area show that … every single winner has been the ‘Condorcet’ candidate who would defeat all others head-to-head…” But if something was broken in Bay Area election outcomes, RCV didn’t obviously fix it, and it may have been that nothing was broken at all. To be fair, I’m not sure Approval Voting would have fixed anything here either. Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place for better outcomes.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Rob Richie of FairVote explains why he thinks ranked choice voting is better than the system that most of us now use. Rather than marginalizing all outsiders and shoehorning everyone into two big, unwieldy parties, a ranked choice system would tend relatively more toward the representation of multiple viewpoints and toward the enactment of all policies that could command a majority, even if they do not command a majority within a given party or division of the electorate. RCV isn’t just better for our politics, says Richie; it’s been tried successfully in a wide array of settings, and it deserves to be seen not as an experiment, but as a well-known alternative. Given the shortcomings of our current system, RCV looks better and better, he argues.

Response Essays

  • Thomas L. Knapp recommends the use of approval voting, in which voters simply signal their approval of as many candidates as they find acceptable, without ranking them; the candidate with the most votes then wins. Knapp’s case for approval voting is that it is simple and easy to understand, and that it will produce fewer headaches for voters than Ranked Choice Voting. In the universe of possible systems, none are perfect, but simplicity is a factor that should not be discounted entirely: Simple elections encourage turnout and foster confidence in the legitimacy of the results. Whatever problems our democracy may have, Knapp concludes by arguing that voting method is perhaps not so high on the list.

  • Jason Sorens admits that Instant Runoff Voting has some advantages over our current plurality system. Yet he too recommends approval voting, and he supports his choice with reference to both the system’s mathematical appeal and certain real-world considerations. Approval voting will be easier to administer and count; parties will be discouraged from running divisive candidates; and even certain recent elections would, if run by the approval system, likely have returned results that he finds much better.

  • Jason McDaniel dives into the empirical literature on ranked choice voting. He finds that RCV tends to produce confusion rather than consensus. Many voters rely on party identifiers and a small number of candidates in order to make relatively informed decisions; these voters will be perplexed as parties and candidates proliferate. Rather than a rush to the amiable center, RCV is likely to provoke a mass exodus from the polls. Although RCV may have some upsides, the reality of an already polarized but not terribly well-informed electorate suggests that it will not likely achieve the outcomes that well-informed political scientists hope to see. New voting systems must be tested using experimental evidence drawn from real electorates, and by this measure, RCV is not as great as its proponents would have it.

The Conversation