Atwood Pitches Approval Voting

Frank Atwood promoted “approval voting” at a recent Liberty On the Rocks event:

While I was skeptical of approval voting at first, Atwood convinced me that it’s a good idea — even better than the “instant runoff voting” I’ve previously praised.

What is approval voting? You the voter can vote for any number of candidates on the ballot for a given position. For example, in the last gubernatorial race, you could have voted for both Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo, rather than just one of those candidates.

Now, in fact, John Hickenlooper won more votes than Maes and Tancredo combined, so it’s hard to claim that either Maes or Tancredo “spoiled” the race for the other candidate. (Democrat Hickenlooper won 50.7 percent of the vote, lackluster Republican Maes won only 11.1 percent of the vote, and third-party Tancredo won 36.7 percent of the vote.) But let’s consider a realistic possibility of a third-party conservative “spoiling” the race for the Republican or a Green candidate “spoiling” the race for the Democrat, meaning that if the minor-party candidate were not in the race, enough votes would go to the major-party candidate to make the difference.

In such cases, approval voting would allow a voter to approve both a major and a minor party candidate. Let’s consider a hypothetical three-way race with 100 voters under the two scenarios:

Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 38 votes.
Maze gets 14 votes.

Under the “winner take all” voting we currently use, Chickenpooper (who we’ll assume is the left-leaning candidate) is the winner.

Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 49 votes.
Maze gets 25 votes.

In this scenario some voters are voting for both Tancledo and Maze (so the total number of votes cast exceeds 100), and Tancledo emerges victorious. In this case, whereas Maze otherwise would have “spoiled” the election for Tancledo, under approval voting people can vote for Maze and still allow Tancledo to win.

Of course, in the real recent election, many people thought Maes was a complete joke, so some might have preferred both Hickenlooper and Tancredo over Maes and voted accordingly.

I favor approval voting because it allows minor-party participation without creating the risk of “spoiled” elections.

Why do I now think approval voting is better than instant runoff voting? Approval voting is both easier to implement and less prone to quirks.

Under instant runoff voting, a voter may rank candidates. For example, a voter could have picked Maes first and Tancredo second. Then, assuming Maes again came in third, all the votes that ranked Maes first and Tancredo second would go to Tancredo.

But think about ranking candidates in the voting booth. On a paper ballot, one would either have to write in numbers for the rankings or mark a candidate for the same race in successive votes. Electronic voting would require successive votes. But this process would confuse a lot of voters. For example, a voter may not realize that a second-place vote is not required.

Approval voting is a lot easier to set up. A voter simply marks a bubble (or the equivalent) for as many candidates as desired. It’s easy to understand and easy to implement.

It is true that any system of voting is subject to possible quirks; today’s quite pronounced quirk is that a minor-party candidate can “spoil” a race. Either instant runoff voting or approval voting would be less quirky. But I think approval voting would be best of all.

The Wikipedia entry on instant runoff voting suggests a problem which I’ll illustrate with the following scenario:

Suppose Lefty Lou is a fire-breathing leftist who excites his base but genuinely frightens much of the citizenry; for 34 percent of voters Lou is the first choice candidate. Suppose Righty Rick is a social conservative and the first choice of 35 percent of voters. And suppose Centrist Cal, a war hero and former NFL quarterback, is liked by pretty much everybody but the first choice of only 31 percent. Cal is the clear second choice for everybody who more strongly prefers one of the other two candidates. Let’s say that, due to imprecise polling, every poll shows the candidates within the margin of error, so voters have little idea who will actually win.

If voters simply voted their first choice under a winner take all system, Rick would win. But of course people can vote strategically under a winner take all system. Cal can argue, “Look, I know many of you are tempted to vote for Lou or Rick, but if you do that, you’ll risk putting your least-favored candidate in office. So vote for me!” And such an appeal may very well work.

But consider what happens under instant runoff voting. Assuming people vote their preferences, Cal is eliminated in the first round, throwing the election to Rick, despite the fact that, for 100 percent of voters, Cal is either the first or second choice. That seems like a bad outcome.

Under approval voting, Cal would easily emerge as the victor.

Nor am I persuaded by the critics of approval voting. For example, FairVote offers the following scenario:

To illustrate how approval voting violates majority rule, consider a primary with 100 voters and two candidates liked by all voters. 99 voters choose to approve of both candidates even though slightly preferring the first candidate to the second. The 100th voter is a tactical voter and chooses to support only the second candidate. As a result, the second candidate wins by one vote, even though 99% of voters prefer the first candidate.

The first problem with this example is that it is totally unrealistic. In a race with only two candidates, most voters would pick between the two based on their preferences. If someone were truly ambivalent between two candidates, voting for neither would have the same effect as voting for both. If 99 voters truly preferred the first candidate, many or most of them would vote that way. Does this involve a certain amount of strategy? Yes. But every system of voting does. The difference is that approval voting is more likely to generate a winner most voters can live with.

Another significant problem with the example is that obviously the 100th voter prefers the second candidate. Let’s say 99 voters barely prefer the first candidate to the second, and therefore vote for both candidates, not really caring which one wins. But one voter truly loathes the first candidate and therefore votes only for the second. Why should the very strong preferences of the one voter not outweigh the nearly-nonexistent preferences of the 99? But again this scenario is so implausible that we can safely ignore it.

Of course, if every race had only two candidates, a winner take all system would be fine (and a voter could approve of neither candidate simply by not voting in that race). The entire point of approval voting is to handle races with more than two candidates and thereby prevent scenarios of “spoiled” races.

Frank Atwood is right: Colorado should adopt approval voting.

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