An Incremental Win

Between Rob Richie’s lead essay and the responses from Jason Sorens, Jason McDaniel and myself, the main takeaway I get from this discussion relates less to the virtues or defects of any particular voting method than to its ultimate purpose.

All four of us seem to agree that the technical goal of an election is to reflect, in aggregate but as accurately as possible, the diverse preferences of voters.

Single member districts with first past the post plurality winners don’t do that very well. Even the most lopsided outcome — many U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators win election after election with 60% or even 80% of votes cast — tends to leave a significant percentage of the electorate unrepresented in its preferences. That’s not even counting those who abstained from voting for reasons other than the apathy usually ascribed to them. The glass gets filled for those who like the winner; it remains empty for everyone else.

Ranked choice voting, approval voting, score voting, and the like all mitigate this problem to a degree. Even if the voter’s most preferred candidate doesn’t win, there’s a decent chance that his second or third choice might, and that his glass will come out half full at any rate. Even as an anarchist, I have to call that a win.

But as an anarchist, I’m also compelled to interject a sentiment expressed by a distinctly non-anarchist historical figure, Abraham Lincoln: “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.”

The best way of giving expression to diverse preferences is to take as many matters and decisions as possible out of the hands of government altogether. Politics, including representative democracy, really amounts to some of us telling the rest of us what to do. Put that way, I assume most of us would like to see as little of politics as possible.

In the absence of politically determined mandates and prohibitions, most of us should be able to have our own way most of the time. The exception that lends credibility to political methods is when having our own way constitutes aggression against others. Yes, that is a real problem, but I don’t consider it obvious that politics ever has been, is, or can ever be, an optimal solution to that problem.

I’ve followed experiments in voting method closely for years, and will continue to do so with interest. I do genuinely hope that ranked choice voting makes voters in Maine happier with outcomes. I also hope it makes them more free. If not, well, at least it will add to the body of information we can draw on for purposes of improving (or, says anarchist me, justifying rejection of) American voting and election systems. Either way, as I said before, a win.

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