Better Voting Methods

You Can't Do Worse than
Our Present System

by Kent Van Cleave

This page originally carried only the below article by Jan Kok, "Solving the 'Wasted Vote' and Other Problems." You'll see it below, but I wanted to mention first that Jan and I both now prefer range (or score) voting even to approval voting. I also wanted to add this introduction before explaining range voting. I'm borrowing some material from rangevoting.org.

Recipe for Disaster

If you were trying to design the worst way to vote, you might:

  • Force voters to say the least possible amount – name just one candidate, and say nothing about how much you like or dislike any of the others.
  • Make it reward voters for not voting for whom they really want.
  • Guarantee that the candidate most satisfactory for voters overall, out of a field of multiple candidates, will hardly ever win.
  • Make it operate, over time, in such a way as to diminish your number of choices to the minimum – only 2 (or 1, meaning no choice at all).
  • Engenders apathy among voters, who despair of ever making a difference in the political process.
  • Make it easy for fraudsters to invalidate ballots (by "overvoting": spoiling the ballot by adding fake votes to the genuine ones).
  • Encourage voters to vote for candidates they know almost nothing about.
  • Mask how popular a candidate is among voters who do know about her.

But wait! That's our voting system now! There's a better way: range voting (also known as "score voting").

Range or Score Voting

Votes are no longer "all or nothing" in favor of just one candidate. You get to say something about every candidate on the ballot! Each vote consists of a numerical score within some range (say, 0 to 99) for each candidate. A simpler range is 0 to 9 ("single digit score voting"). Voters may also indicate "X" or "NO OPINION" if they have no opinion about a candidate. Such votes don't affect that candidate's average. The candidate with the highest average score wins.

Here is an example of how a voter's ballot with six candidates might look:

Think of how the judges in the Olympics score the competitors, with the highest average score winning. That's what voters do with candidates in a range voting system (now you see why it's sometimes called "score voting"). And if a judge falls asleep during an Olympic contestant's performance, she could simply not vote -- the equivalent of voting "X" or "NO OPINION," whichever term is used on your ballot.

No candidate is called a "spoiler" for draining off votes from one of two allegedly dominant candidates. There are no "wasted votes" when voters fearlessly vote according to their consciences instead of voting only for one the "top two" candidates. Score voting permits voters to express their opinions about any number of candidates (not just one). All candidates compete on a level playing field, whether Democrat, Republican, Independent, or other. It's simple enough to run on all of today's voting machines and to be used by kindergarteners.

Meaningful Polls At Last!

Range voting is a wonderful way for pre-election polls to guage the genuine sentiments of the electorate. With nothing to lose by responding honestly regarding all candidates, voters will experience no pressure to vote favorably for a "top tier" candidate, or to pretend they know something about unfamiliar candidates. They can wait and see if a candidate has real support or just a bunch of hype. Voters can also see how candidates with whom they're not familiar are regarded by those who know them. And they will be motivated to see why some candidates have an exceptionally enthusiastic (even if small) following. They may be impressed as well. That's why good but relatively unknown candidates can rise to the top thanks to range vote polling. Come election time the race will be among all candidates with genuinely high approval ratings. And the winner will be the candidate who is best regarded among voters who claim knowledge of her.

Solving the “Wasted Vote”
and Other Problems

by Jan Kok

Several of the problems with campaigns and elections in the US are due to the Plurality voting method we use. The Vote Buddy idea described at www.VoteBuddy.org provides a temporary, partial solution to the problems that can be used immediately in this year’s elections. However, the long-term solution is to get rid of Plurality voting and replace it with better voting methods. This page provides an introduction to the problems caused by Plurality voting, and presents some better voting methods.

Problems with Plurality Voting

Plurality voting is the method used in almost all public elections in the US. In Plurality voting, the voter is asked to vote for exactly one candidate from a list of candidates for an office.  Whoever gets the most votes wins.  This method works fine when there are just two candidates.  Unfortunately, it has major problems when there are more than two candidates competing for an office.

Consider the 2000 presidential election in Florida. If only Bush and Gore had been on the ballots, Gore would have beaten Bush by about 51% to 49%. But Nader joined the race, and some of the people who would have voted for Gore voted for Nader instead, resulting in Bush 48.85%, Gore 48.84%, Nader 1.63%, and others 0.68%.  Bush won, even though a majority of voters – the Gore voters, and presumably most of the Nader voters – would have preferred Gore.

Thus, Problem #1 with Plurality voting is that a candidate can “split the vote” and cause a less-preferred candidate to win over one who is preferred by more voters.  Plurality voting can be undemocratic!

Problem #2 is that Plurality voting can “punish” voters for voting for their favorite candidate, and it encourages voters to “vote for the lesser of two evils.” In the Florida example, the Nader voters were punished by having Bush win when they would have preferred Gore. If some of the Nader voters had voted for Gore instead, then Gore would have won. Plurality voting creates a terrible dilemma for voters who would like to vote for an alternative party candidate. As we will see, there are some better voting methods that reduce or eliminate that pressure to vote for the lesser evil.

The pressure on voters to vote for one of the two frontrunners leads to additional problems:  Problem #3 is that voting results are not an accurate indicator of voters’ true preferences, because many voters vote strategically, rather than voting according to their sincere preferences.  Problem #4 is that two parties tend to become dominant and entrenched, and all other parties and independent candidates have an extraordinarily difficult time attracting votes away from the two dominant parties. We have a two-party duopoly. This self-sustaining situation is created, in part, by our use of Plurality voting.  (See www.harrybrowne.org/articles/PraiseLibertarianParty.htm for a list of five other obstacles to alternative party growth in the US.)  The consequence is that voters usually have only two choices of candidates for any given office that have any realistic chance of winning. As Jesse Ventura says, “That’s only one more choice than they had in the Soviet Union!”

Problem #5 may be of interest to politicians and members of the establishment parties: Because only the establishment parties have any realistic chance of winning, politicians who want to win are forced to work within one of the establishment parties, regardless of how well their own political values match those of their chosen party. Conservatives who truly believe in small government must be disgusted with the Republican Party, which has supported increased levels of spending, year after year. Liberals who are truly anti-war and pro individual rights must be uncomfortable with the previous administration’s pursuit of the Kosovo War and the Drug War. Would not some of those conservatives and liberals feel more at home in one of the alternative parties? Plurality voting forces people with widely differing political values to coexist within one or the other establishment party. Approval Voting and Condorcet Voting don’t create any special advantages for large, dominant parties, nor do they create any special disadvantages for parties to split into separate, smaller parties.

Problem #6 is that Plurality voting creates some degree of hostility among parties that share similar political values. For example, Democrats blame Nader for costing them the election in Florida, and Republicans castigate Libertarians for causing the Republicans to lose a few races.  This (questionable) idea that politically similar candidates “steal” votes from each other is due to Plurality voting, which requires voters to vote for exactly one candidate for any given office; it provides no mechanism that would allow voters to support more than one candidate, or to list additional choices, should the voter’s first choice be eliminated.

Having thoroughly dissed Plurality voting, let me now present some better methods:

Approval Voting

One tiny change to Plurality voting can make a world of difference. Instead of requiring voters to vote for only one candidate, let them vote for as many as they want. As with Plurality voting, whoever gets the most votes wins.

That’s all there is to it!  What could be simpler?!

Approval Voting lets alternative party supporters vote for their favorite candidate, and they can also vote for one of the establishment party candidates as a backup choice, in case their favorite candidate doesn’t win. With Approval Voting, there is never any reason not to vote for your favorite candidate. Say goodbye (and good riddance!) to the wasted vote dilemma!

True establishment party supporters need not change their habits, and can continue to vote for their one favorite candidate.

Approval Voting even offers a benefit to establishment party politicians: Democrats don’t need to worry about Nader, Greens, and other left-wing candidates siphoning votes away from Democrats.  Republicans don’t need to worry about Libertarians and right-wing candidates “stealing” votes from Republicans....

... That is, unless one of those alternative party or independent candidates manages to attract more approval votes than any other candidate. But, what incumbent politician is going to admit that he doesn’t have the support of the largest fraction of his constituency?

Compared with Plurality voting, Approval Voting also gives a much clearer picture, in its voting results, of the political preferences of the voters. That is because Plurality voting strongly discourages voting for alternative party candidates (and thus hides the true level of support for those candidates), while Approval Voting lets voters vote freely for whichever candidates they “approve.” Making some reasonable assumptions about voter behavior, if some candidate gets approval votes from 10% of the voters, it means that 10% of the voters considered that candidate to be as good or better than the expected winner of the race (“expected winner” from the viewpoint of each individual voter at the time of voting).

Approval Voting can be easily accommodated by existing voting machines as well as by manual vote counting procedures. This makes Approval Voting a great choice for states or other voting districts that need to work within tight budgets.

Some common concerns about Approval Voting

Does Approval Voting violate the principle of “one person, one vote”?

As far as I can tell, the phrase “one person, one vote” came from discussions of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, and expressed the idea that state legislative districts should contain equal numbers of people, as nearly as possible.  In other words, people from different districts of a state should have the same amount of representation in their state legislature.  The phrase was never intended to dictate what voting methods can be used in elections.

But, doesn’t Approval Voting give more power to voters who approve more than one candidate for a given office?

Not really, according to several arguments:

  • Each voter gets the same ballot, and each voter gets exactly one copy of the ballot. Each voter has equal opportunity to vote for as many or few of the candidates as he or she wishes.
  • A ballot which approves all but one candidate for an office is exactly cancelled by a ballot which approves only that one remaining candidate. Thus the two ballots are of equal strength.
  • Another way to describe Approval Voting is: For each candidate, indicate whether you approve or disapprove that candidate. When viewed in that light, it is apparent that all voters have the same voting power.
  • Consider this slightly different voting method: Ask voters to give each candidate a rating from 0 to 5. The ratings are added up for each candidate, and whoever gets the highest rating wins. (This voting method is called Cardinal Ratings, and is discussed in more detail at www.ElectionMethods.org/Cardinal.htm.) Does this seem like a fair voting method? Assuming it does, notice that Approval Voting is just a simplified version of Cardinal Ratings, in which the only ratings allowed are 0 and 1. (As explained on the ElectionMethods web site, almost nothing is lost by restricting the ratings to just 0 and 1.)

With Plurality Voting, the total number of votes for all candidates for an office should be less than or equal to the number of ballots. This provides a check on the integrity of the ballot counting process. With Approval Voting, there could easily be more votes than ballots, so that method of integrity checking is lost.

(I was surprised to hear this objection from two different people.) I agree with this concern and offer this solution: as mentioned above, ask voters to explicitly approve or disapprove each candidate. The integrity of Approval Voting using the approve/disapprove style of ballot should be about equal to the integrity of yes/no ballot issues.  The only downside to explicit approve/disapprove ballots is that they might be confusing to some voters who are used to Plurality-style ballots.

I don’t want to vote for more than one candidate.

Fine. You don’t have to! But, giving all voters the option of approving more than one candidate gets rid of nearly all of the evils of Plurality voting that were listed above.

With Approval Voting, I can only approve or disapprove each candidate; I can’t express different degrees of approval.

Consider Condorcet Voting, which is presented after this summary.

Summary for Approval Voting

Approval Voting is by far the simplest, cheapest, easiest to implement, practical alternative to Plurality voting. It makes good choices of winners, and is a vast improvement on Plurality voting.  For further information, see:

www.electionmethods.org/Approval.htm - Provides a good introduction, also contains some pages about voting strategy under Approval Voting.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Approval_voting - Another good introduction.

www.ApprovalVoting.com - An activist site that promotes Approval Voting in the US.

www.ApprovalVoting.org - Related to the previous site, but more educationally oriented. Contains many good links and references to more information.

groups.yahoo.com/group/ApprovalVoting/ - Discussion group for Approval Voting activists and other interested people.

Condorcet Voting

Condorcet voting asks voters to rank the candidates (1st choice, 2nd choice, ...). The information on the ballots is used to determine who would win in a round robin tournament among the candidates. (Note that you can tell, from the ranking information on the ballots, whether more people prefer Bush over Kerry or vice versa. And similarly for every other pair of candidates.) If there is a candidate that would beat every other candidate in the race, that candidate wins the election. Otherwise, there is a circular tie - for example, A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A.  In that case, there are other rules that can be applied to break the tie and choose the winner.

See www.electionmethods.org/CondorcetEx.htm for details.

Condorcet voting is arguably the fairest voting method, because if there is a candidate who would beat every other candidate in head-to-head contests, that candidate will always be chosen as the winner. Unlike Plurality voting, Condorcet rarely or never provides a strong incentive to voters to vote insincerely. Thus, Condorcet allows alternative parties to grow and to provide real choices to voters.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

IRV asks voters to rank the candidates (1st choice, 2nd choice, …).  The ballots are sorted by first choice candidates. If there is a candidate who has a majority of the ballots in his pile, that candidate wins.  Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest ballots is eliminated, and his ballots are redistributed according to the next choice of candidate shown on each ballot. If some candidate now has a majority of the ballots, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate who now has the fewest ballots in her pile is eliminated, her ballots are redistributed, and the process repeats until some candidate has a majority of the ballots.

My opinion is that IRV is better than the Plurality method we have now, but it is not nearly as good as either Condorcet or Approval Voting. IRV has several problems, including: it does not always choose the beats-all winner when there is one; and it can still create an incentive for voters to vote insincerely (e.g. IRV can encourage voters to rank a lesser-evil candidate as 1st choice and their favorite candidate as 2nd choice).

See www.electionmethods.org/IRVexample.htm for more details.

www.electionmethods.org/IRVing2.html shows some examples of IRV problems.

Conclusions

The Vote Buddy idea should be vigorously promoted for the 2004 election. This technique is available now and provides some relief from the wasted vote problem.

Condorcet or Approval Voting should be promoted to state legislators for use in public elections (stress fairness, and a way to avoid the spoiler effect). Condorcet is the fairest method. Approval Voting is the cheapest and easiest alternative to implement, it frees voters to vote for their favorite candidates, and it also makes good choices of winners. IRV allows minor party voters to freely vote for their favorite candidates as 1st choices - only as long as those candidates have no chance of winning.  IRV has problems when there are three or more candidates of roughly equal strength; therefore I don't enthusiastically endorse IRV.

Postscript - To those who are interested in promoting alternative voting methods

If you want to promote Approval Voting, join the ApprovalVoting Yahoo group at groups.yahoo.com/group/ApprovalVoting/.  If you want to promote IRV in your state, join the InstantRunoffXX Yahoo group, where "XX" is your state abbreviation. If you want to promote Condorcet, I don't know of a group dedicated to that.  You could try inquiring at the ElectionMethods mailing list - join at electorama.com/em.

I tried to promote Approval Voting in Maine in Feb/March 2003. At that time, the Maine legislature was considering implementing IRV for statewide elections. (See my "Maine lobbying reports" in the ApprovalVoting Yahoo group archives for detailed reports about my discussions with several Maine politicians.)  The IRV bill was tabled in 2003 because of concerns about cost of implementation. The bill was reintroduced in 2004. This time, the bill was passed in a completely amended form which just calls for the Secretary of State to study and report on the cost of implementing IRV.

Most Democrats in the legislature voted for the amended bill; all the Republicans opposed it.  The Democrats have a strong majority in the Maine legislature. I have no idea why the support for the bill was so partisan.

I think it's a shame that they didn't consider Approval Voting this year, since cost is such a concern.  If they had considered Approval Voting, perhaps they would have passed it in time for use in this November's election.  Wouldn't that have been exciting?!

This article was contributed by Jan Kok (kok at surfbest dot net).

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