A key factor in the tumultuous primary season in 2012 is misplaced trust in the literal idea of “one man, one vote.” This concept is realized through plurality voting where the winner of a contest must obtain the most votes among the total ballots cast. In the theoretical world of issue-based, positive campaigns, the plurality system seems reasonable enough. However, it falters in practice, which pushes voter choice towards the “not-[insert here]” candidate. The solution to these woes can be found in the election system known as approval voting.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that four candidates existed where A is preferred by 35% of the population, B and C by 25% respectively, and D by 15%. As is typical of many primaries, candidate A would win in a plurality election having bested her opponents by ten points. Not so bad, right? Now let's flip the equation and consider the same voters by their disfavor. In this case 35% prefer not-B or C, 50% prefer not-A, and 15% prefer not-A, B, or C. If you replace A, B, C, and D for Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul, the failure of plurality voting becomes apparent.
A coordination problem exists for the B/C voters in choosing which candidate to support. This isn’t a problem in a caucus because of the open discourse amongst voters. However, this just pushes the coordination problem up to the precinct level rather than with individual voters. The Internet allows for the unprecedented connectivity necessary to coordinate voters at the state level but is not sufficient as evidenced by the volatile primary race.
The solution to this problem is approval voting (which is a special case of range voting). The term was coined in 1976 by Kellogg School of Management professor Robert Weber who had been burned one too many times in elections with split votes. In this system, the constituent may cast a vote for every candidate for which they approve. The candidate with the most “approval” would win the election. This system allows for preference votes where only one candidate is selected. It also allows for “not” votes by voting for everyone but a particular candidate.
Let’s go back to the previous example and see what would happen under approval voting. In this case, the candidates will at least get their supporters' vote for totals of 35, 25, 25, and 15 for A, B, C, and D respectively. However, some of the B voters would cast a vote for C and/or D. The same is true for the C voters. The end results might look something like 38, 39, 42, and 25 with candidate C winning. In this case, there is no doubt at all that the winner is preferred the most over the other candidates.
Beyond improving the selection of candidates, there are other benefits to approval voting. For one, it would increase the viability of third-party candidates. A voter could cast a ballot for their top choice and throw away another vote at the same time without consequence. This only serves to increase voter choice and improve the quality of representation. Another benefit is an incentive of candidates to broaden their appeal and run a more positive campaign. Convincing the electorate a particular candidate should not be in office only serves to dampen that particular vote total. In this way each vote must be earned.
Given such a compelling argument, the next step is to shift approval voting from theory and into practice. Two approaches to achieve this shift include a top-down legislative and a bottom-up grassroots approach. The legislative approach will vary by state and locality. For instance, the Illinois code states, “If the voter marks more candidates than there are persons to be elected to an office ... his ballot shall not be counted for such office.” As such, this provision would need to be repealed in order to apply approval voting at the state level. This may be difficult without extensive education of both legislatures and the electorate. The other option is to build acceptance of approval voting for legislative action by implementing it in settings, such as boards, where decision rules are not prescribed. The more approval voting is used in the public sphere, the greater the possibility for acceptance.
The mathematics of voting systems is not likely to register on a poll of important issues facing the country. Though, what does it help if the candidate we hire to tackle the job isn’t our first choice?
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