Sunday, September 30, 2012

What Is "Approval Voting"?

Libertarians (and other parties who challenge the status quo) are often accused of merely being "spoilers".  Some claim that we don't have a hope in hell of winning, but we might take votes away from Romney and give them to Obama.  Or vice-versa. 

Here's another problem: A lot of voters like the Libertarian Party's position on almost everything, but they're reluctant to "waste their vote" on a possible non-winner.  This is called the "wasted vote fallacy", and virtually guarantees that we'll keep getting shafted by those representing the false choice of Democrat vs Republican. 

So what to do....what to do....

Many Libertarians advocate something called Approval Voting.  (Hit the link for a plethora of links and explanations.)  Here's a blurb from the Approval Voting site:

Approval voting is a voting procedure in which voters can vote for, or approve of, as many candidates as they wish. Each candidate approved of receives one vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It was independently proposed by several people in the 1970s.

Approval voting has several compelling advantages over other voting procedures:

•It is eminently practicable and easy to understand
•It will reduce negative campaigning
•It will increase voter turnout
•It helps elect the strongest candidate
•It gives voters flexible and simple options
•It will give minority candidates their proper due

Unlike more complicated ranking systems, which suffer from a variety of theoretical as well as practical defects, approval voting is simple for voters to understand and use. It doesn't require redesigning of ballots and is trivial to implement in vote-counting systems. Approval voting is used today by various governments and organizations around the world, including its use by the United Nations to elect the secretary-general.   An approval voting-style ballot would look like this:  
Let's assume that Smith is a Republican.  Citizen and Doe are both Democrats.  Rubble is from the Green Party, and Hill is a Libertarian.  I'm going to vote for the Libertarian every chance I get.  So Mary Hill gets one of my votes.   

Let's assume that the Republican, Joe Smith, advocates school prayer, the Defense Of Marriage Act, the Drug War, giving more money to Lockheed to kill more babies in Pakistan, a 40% tariff on all imports, and a return to our Judeo-Christian heritage.  I wouldn't trust Joe Smith to put together Happy Meals.  Joe Smith doesn't get my vote.   

Jane Doe, one of the Democrats, has an Obama sticker on her car, and was once photographed shaking hands with the man.  Therefore she is not to be trusted.  She doesn't get my vote.   

Mr. Rubble is the Green Party candidate.  I don't know anything else about him, but the Green Party affiliation is enough to keep me from giving him a vote.   

I've heard good things about John Citizen.  He's a rare small-government Democrat, and has spoken out against a lot of pork spending in the past.  He's with the Libertarians on all social issues - not just lip service, either.  So John Citizen gets a vote from me.   

So on my ballot, I've supported Mary Hill and John Citizen.  Voting for one doesn't take away a vote from the other.  None of my votes were "wasted".    When everyone's votes are tallied in an Approval Voting election, the election is OVER.  The person with the most votes is the winner. There's no need for a runoff.  Everyone who wanted a chance to vote for these folks has had that chance.   

I like it.  Let's talk it up, folks !! 


Anonymous said...

Never going to happen. Voters won't buy voting for two people in a race with one winner. And it would be kinda crazy for a candidate to have the first choice support of more than half the voters, but lose to some milquetoast candidate who is hardly anyone's first choice.

Go for runoffs or preferential voting. They're tested.

Anonymous said...


It's ludicrous to suggest that people won't vote for more than one candidate in a single-winner race with Approval Voting. Consider that 90% of Green Party supporters from the 2000 USA presidential race claimed to have voted for someone other than Nader (most of them for Democrat Al Gore). Do you really expect us to believe they wouldn't have also cast a vote for their favorite candidate, even if doing so cost them absolutely nothing?

We don't need speculate though. Approval Voting has been used in numerous large highly contentious elections, and many voters do indeed opt to vote for more than a single candidate. Here are some examples from a political party in Germany. Notice average approvals per ballot ranging as high as 3.07.

Instant Runoff Voting (presumably what you mean by the vague term "preferential voting") is a vastly inferior system to Approval Voting. You argue that it would be "kinda crazy" for a candidate who is the favorite of a majority of voters to lose. This criticism is flawed on multiple levels. Not only is such a scenario extremely unlikely, but IRV exhibits far more paradoxes of this nature, which are both more severe and more common.

One particularly noteworthy flaw with IRV is that it can punish you for ranking your favorite candidate in first place. For example, in the 2009 mayoral race in Bulington, Vermont, a group of voters who preferred Republican over Democrat over Progressive would have gotten their second choice instead of their third choice if just a handful of them had insincerely ranked the Democrat in first place. In other words, they got a worse result for supporting their true favorite. Approval Voting satisfies the Favorite Betrayal Criterion, and so it can never have this effect.

Clay Shentrup
Co-founder, The Center for Election Science

CenTexTim said...

FWIW, calling something a fallacy doesn't make it so. My individual vote may or may not make a difference (see Florida 2000), but if enough people vote for a third party candidate it can influence the outcome. Just ask Bush I (H. Ross Perot) or Al Gore (Ralph Nader).

So the collective effect of those 'wasted' votes did, IMO, make a difference. For example, can you seriously say that if Al Gore had been elected we'd have invaded Iraq?

As for "approval voting," I'm a simple person (no jokes, please). I prefer things I can understand - like one person, one vote. That's also a system where "The person with the most votes is the winner."

And it has the virtue of being easily explained to an electorate that, sadly, seems to have difficulty understanding anything beyond which candidate is going to give them the most free stuff.

Just my $.02 worth...

Anonymous said...


Approval Voting does not violate "one person, one vote", per the meaning the term has traditionally had (about voters all having equal power).

Approval Voting is actually simpler than Plurality Voting in some ways. E.g. it actually means removing a rule — "if you vote for more than one candidate, we throw your vote away". And it leads to fewer spoiled ballots. That is, fewer voters screw up their ballot with Approval Voting than with Plurality Voting. Approval Voting is also massively simpler than lots of systems that have been in use in major political elections for decades. E.g. the Single Transferable Vote system, with proportional reweighting, has been in use in Ireland and Australia since the early 1900's, before the days of calculators.

In any case, even if Approval Voting makes some aspects of the election process more complex, the alternative is much worse. We have a highly dysfunctional election system, in which voters often feel a rational fear of voting for their sincere favorite candidate, which means that a fantastic candidate can be prevented from winning merely due to the assumption of weakness. So if voters don't think you can win, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This has catastrophic consequences for our democracy.

Plurality Voting, combined with extensive Gerrymandering, has also made many US elections virtually unaccountable. The incumbent D or R will basically win every time. Compare our USA congress incumbency re-election rate of around 98% (typically) to Germany's rate of more like 70%.