Home Statewide Politics Approval Voting: Electoral Reform That Makes Sense

Approval Voting: Electoral Reform That Makes Sense


[Originally published as “Approval Voting” on The Least of All Evils blog, re-posted with permission. For additional information about Approval Voting, check out this Center for Election Science [VIDEO] – part of an Indiegogo fundraising drive that ends on March 23.]
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. And the essential component for democracy is voting. So it seems reasonable that a better way of voting would lead to better democracy. That’s the motivation behind the Center for Election Science, the book Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It), and this post.
Let’s break voting down. You have 1) a group of mutually-exclusive options to choose from. We don’t have to be talking about candidates for office; we could be deciding between different pizza toppings, or names for your new band. You have 2) a group of people with opinions about those options. Finally, you have 3) a system which takes those opinions and uses them to select one of the options. Actually, you have a whole lot of different systems, and you get to choose one. Your system could be “pick one of the options at random.” That’s not a good system, since you could end up with an option that everyone hates. Or, you could pick one of the people at random, and let them choose. That’s a little better—you know you’ve picked an option that at least one person thinks is the best—but what if everyone else thinks they’re wrong? Shouldn’t we consider everyone’s opinions?
Okay, so what if we let each person name their favorite option? And then, whichever option the most people choose, that’s the one we go with. This is the system you’re probably most familiar with. It’s called “plurality” or sometimes “first past the post.” And since you’re familiar with it, you’re probably also familiar with some of its shortcomings. For example, sometimes you might really like one of the options, but you also know that there are two other options where almost everyone else thinks one of them is the best. If you also have a strong opinion between those two, you need to decide if you’re actually going to support your real, no-hope favorite, at the risk of getting something popular that you don’t like. Or perhaps, there are two options which both seem equally good to you, and another popular one that you think is terrible. It can be difficult to determine which of the two good ones to get behind, and if people split evenly between them, it’s quite likely both will lose. You shouldn’t have to distort your opinions in order to vote effectively. Instead, you could use a voting system which collects more information about the voters’ opinions on the options, and incorporates as much of that as possible into the process.
It turns out, there are many other systems to choose from that are better than plurality. Some of them ask you to rank the options in order from your favorite on down. However, every single one of those methods suffers from at least one of the same shortcomings we identified for plurality: either there will be situations where you have a compelling reason not to vote for your real favorite first, or multiple too-similar options will stomp on each others’ support. Or both! This problem is a consequence of a very famous (and Nobel-prize-winning) theory from economics called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Arrow’s theorem is usually pithily summed up as “There is no perfect voting system.” The whole truth is, of course, much more complicated than that. And while actual perfection probably is impossible, there has recently been a push in favor of voting systems which achieve what Arrow proved to be unachievable. Arrow wasn’t wrong; rather, his proof simply—and intentionally—ignored another class of voting systems, a class that doesn’t ask voters to rank the options, but rather, asks them to rate them.

Think of it like giving “stars” to products on Amazon, or “liking” comments on social media. You don’t consider each product by directly comparing it against all other products you’ve ever purchased, or each comment by directly comparing it against every other comment you’ve read today. Instead, the process is more indirect. This book was about a 4. That banana slicer was definitely a 1. You like your aunt’s comment enough to say so, or you don’t. What are the best products? Probably the ones with the highest scores. What are the best comments? Probably the ones where more of the people who saw it, liked it.
Approval voting is the simplest of this class of voting methods. It’s exactly like “liking.” For each option, each voter can either approve of it, or not. The option with the most approvals wins. You can expand on the idea by using an idea like “stars.” Each voter gives each option as many points as they like, up to some limit, often 5 or 9 or 99. This method is called score voting. (And you can think of approval voting as score voting with a limit of 1.) Because you rate each option completely independently, similar options don’t ruin each others’ chances, and you can always give top mark to the choice that’s your true favorite. By fixing the problems that encouraged people to distort their opinions, by collecting more information from people about their opinions, and by incorporating it into the process in an intelligent way, a group is better-able to select the option that is the best choice for it. Approval voting is better democracy.


  1. I’m assuming with this model, multiple people could run under the same parties. That could decimate the party (money) system. I mean good riddance, but the ill informed voter just looks for their letter and marks the box; political parties just throw money at their favored horse hoping that the checked box is theirs. Without the caucus/convention support how do the names even get on the ticket?
    I could see this working really well for local politics, but on a national level I’m on the fence. I would fear a ticket with 100 names… and somehow we end up with President Bieber.

  2. I would love to see this implemented (and I personally think it would have to be) at a ground up level. So, possibly, the partisan brinkmanship broken along the way as the new system gained local footholds could create a chain effect as implementation spread upwards? That would be my utopian vision for how this would play out.

    • Absolutley, John.
      I think current Alaska state law provides a bit of a hurdle though; I believe it requires all local elections to be done by plurality. There’s a bill in Arizona (which has already passed the house and is on its way to the Senate) because they had the same problem. All it does is _allow_ local municipalities to use approval if they want.
      We might need somthing like that up here, too, before we could do anything local. Someone want to point Les Gara to this page?

      • Are you sure it is prevented by current law? Nothing in the the state constitution barring coming up with our own system (article five) and nothing I could see in statutes (Section 15). I think that if a city council wanted to switch into a new program they could.

        • I am not sure. I only briefly looked over sec. 15, and wasn’t sure if the bit requiring plurality was just for state-wide and national offices or if it also applied to localities. If you’re more familiar with the statute, and would like to clarify, that would be a great favor to me!

  3. Here’s the quote:
    “Think of it like giving “stars” to products on Amazon, or “liking” comments on social media.”
    I can’t think of a better reason to entirely reject the scheme out of hand.
    For every assumption the author wants you to agree with there are arguments to be had that question those assumptions. The ‘author’ doesn’t want you to question his assumptions, his premise hinges on you buying into his assumptions without question.
    Nice trick, but it’s better as a technique for winning high school debates, we’re talking about higher stakes and not questioning assumptions is really stupid.
    The problem isn’t with the structure of the vote process, the problem is with the apathetic, uninformed and unaware state of the electorate, you fix that through education, …no repurposed voting mechanism is going to fix the apathetic, uninformed and unaware state of the electorate.

    • Curt, what about the “star” system analogy makes you rule it out? That seems like an arbitrary dismissal just so you can blather on about the dumb electorate.

      • here and now, comparing any scheme to internet activities such as ‘liking’ this or that, or internet scoring by ‘stars’ won’t give you an objective rating, it won’t result in any kind of reasoned comprehensive analysis, it’s a badly flawed polling method that is basically not worth the effort to even look at it, let alone think to hold it up as a rational analogy for a completely different polling method.
        You might not like hearing about the uninformed, apathetic electorate, but you can’t refute the reality. …….(well, you could try, but it would have no credence.)

        • Gasp! You mean internet polls aren’t flawless!? Well, it’s a good thing that real elections have registration, poll books, poll watchers… and that all of those things will still exist under approval voting. Come on people, don’t bother with arguments that apply just as well to the current system as the proposed one, they clearly aren’t relevant if they focus of your complaint is not being changed.
          Also, people are more-apathetic when they don’t believe their vote matters. Part of this is to make people’s vote matter.

    • No, the ‘author’ is perfectly happy to answer your questions.
      I have four years of question-answering posts on the blog, but for some reason, John didn’t want a 100,000 word dissertation, just a 750 post, so a few things had to be cut.
      So ask away. Which assumptions do you question, ‘curt’?
      I will say that I believe that being able to better-represent their opinions WILL encouraged at least some voters to become more involved, by showing up to vote at all or by becoming better informed.

      • So, Dale, was it coincidence that you only wrote your pep talk without mention of any of the critiques of your approval voting methodology?
        You begin with the assumption that Poundstone’s premise is valid and unquestionable, then your next step is to attempt to compare election polling with choosing band names or pizza toppings.
        (of course, election polling is nothing like picking band names or pizza toppings, but hey, you’re trying to sell a product here and you don’t want to have to do the hard work, you want to make it appear as if we’re talking about things of little consequence, as if they were similarly analogous to things of much greater consequence.
        Really, ….your claim is that those activities are analogous ? I guess if you believe the world is a simplistic construct within some limited imagination, …that might work for some people.
        There’s a good reason that people responsibly addressing public policy don’t over-simplify, it’s not a good method to find or arrive at objectively comparable actualities.
        You can take the rest of your assumptions and show where or how they are or should be unquestioned, you can share openly the many possible downsides and the problems that arise out of approval voting schemes, (surely you’re aware of the problems, right, ..you liking to write about voting. or is it just your preferred voting scheme you like to write about? )
        ….before you go on to assert that we should adopt this scheme you’re promoting, that this scheme you’re promoting is without question and that it’s truly better than what we have now, you should be able to provide objective and undeniable proof that your assertions are what you claim.
        You’ve penned an entry level fluff piece promoting your product, you haven’t provided concise, objective analysis of all the many varied voting schemes and shown any kind of ranking or rating, good points bad points for all the varied and sundry schemes that are offered up, providing proof that your preferred method is better than the rest or even better than what we have now.
        All such schemes start with varying assumptions that it’s the voting method that leads to problem A, B, C, D, or E etc etc etc. Funny thing about all those various alternative methods of voting, they don’t agree on what it is they are trying to accomplish with their many varied changes they wish to implement. One scheme is likely to produce result A, another is likely to produce result B.
        Before you attempt to sell your product, (approval voting), there should be some disclosure about how approval voting is apt to skew the process to produce which preferred result, and whether that preferred result is actually an improvement over what we have now. Without disclosing the negatives and addressing justifications to go ahead and risk the negatives, you’ve only brought hype, little more than unabashed propaganda.

        • I began (four years ago) with the belief that Poundstone was wrong. But I read his book anyway; it was quite persuasive, and recommend you try reading it too. If that’s too much, I direct you to my blog (some of it was quite rough, but I like to think I’ve become a better writer over the years.) Some of my most-visited pieces include:
          http://leastevil.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-do-you-mean-by-best.html (my recommended “start here” page on the blog, including the mathematical model highlighted by Poundstone, May 2010)
          http://leastevil.blogspot.com/2012/04/cgp-grey-is-wrong-on-one-important.html (about my biggest pet peeve about instant runoff voting, with hypothetical examples using animals, April 2012)
          I’d like to respond to your specific arguments, but you don’t see to have any, beyond vague hand-waving about some sort of alleged ulterior motive. But if you come up with any, I’ll answer to the best of my ability.

  4. Nothing _has_ to change for current parties. Running, and supporting, just one candidate would still be the best way to focus limited resources. But you may recall a certain recent Senate race, where the Republican that won wasn’t the Republican-primary winner. This sort of system lets that kind of situation occur with much less strife.
    There’s no reason to think that hundreds of candidates would be on the ballot. You don’t _have_ to change any other election laws, so the rules about party support, or signatures, or winning a primary, those can all stay the same.
    The only change is, for instance, when there’s one candidate you’re terrified will win (for example, Miller) then you can vote for *both* the candidate you actually like (McAdams) and the candidate who you think has the best chance of beating the crazy (Murkowski), instead of being ruled solely by fear. (Public Policy Polling had some very interesting numbers that suggest that McAdams might have won with approval voting.)
    You can vote for any third-parties you like, too, without “throwing your vote away.” This is more of a long-term plan; 3rd parties still probably won’t win right away, but when they start posting numbers like “20%,” instead of “0.2%,” everyone’s going to have to take notice.
    (Aside about President Bieber: Someone makes this same foolish “argument” every time any change is suggested for voting. Women get the vote? Look out for President McSexy! 18 year olds get the vote? Look out for President McCool! Luckily, real people–not crazy hypothetical people–actually seem to have respect for the responsibility of voting, and do go electing under-aged Canadian pop-stars just because they can.)

    • You say approval voting lets ‘that kind of a situation’ occur with less ‘strife’. Stife as it’s used here is some as yet undefined non-objective value judgement yet we’re supposed to just agree that this undefined strife can be, number one, avoided, and number two, we can also just agree that this undefined ‘strife’ should not be occurring, right?.
      (let me just say that ‘situation’ you reference had better produce strife of some sort, if crazy people being promoted for public office by an extremist fringe doesn’t produce some sort of strife, we’re in bigger trouble than picking between varying voting schemes.
      Just as you say there’s no reason for hundreds of names on a ballot, there’s no reason there wouldn’t be instances of hundreds of names on a ballot. You judge that to be conclusive somehow in propping up your assertion? That’s pretty slim ground to be staking out, no?
      You go on to assert the ‘only change’ is …… when in fact, there are any number of possibilities you don’t address that are just as likely at any one moment in time. PPP had some interesting ‘numbers’ based on pure speculation and nothing else, and you’re picking that as having actual substance? Please, do you imagine your audience is that compliant?
      And no, it’s not a long term plan, that’s rhetorical nonsense, ….things can go very wrong on the very first implementation of this scheme. It’s not a system that works by averaging results over time, it has consequences each and every time it has a chance of being implemented.
      What you dismiss as ‘foolish argument’ is hardly foolish argument, what’s foolish is to dismiss very real possibilities in favor of unfounded supposition.

      • Oh please enlighten us sire, you seem to be guilty of the same thing you are accusing him of with your comments. It sounds good to me, but since you seem to be so inclined I would love to hear some of the weaknesses of this method.

      • Does it make you feel better if I say the average Bayesian regret is approximately three times smaller with approval voting than with plurality voting? Because I wouldn’t expect it to. I’d expect you to say “What the hell is Bayesian regret?” What if I told you that approval satisfies independence of irrelevant alternatives? You might have heard that one, but it’s not something I’d expect from the general populace, and I was already over my word-count.
        If you want to dive into the details, I can do that for you. Asserting I can’t provide them, without asking a single concrete question, is a waste of my time and yours.
        If you want to discuss, discuss, but this is the last time I’m going to beg you to.

  5. My issue with this system is that it assumes each voter will evaluate each candidate in isolation in a kind of “yes or no” approach. But that’s not how voting works.. People look at a GROUP of candidates and make relative judgments about them. Approval voting seems to very simplistically I assume anyone I like gets an equal “yes” or an equal “no.”
    When I vote, my decision is often one where I say “I really want this person, but if that person can’t win, I’ll settle with this other person.” But with approval I lose all ability to express that kind of simple psychology.
    Also, it looks like a candidate could lose despite being the most preferred candidate of more than half the voters. That could be a tough sell.

    • Two good points, both true. First, of course, let me point out that plurality is worse for the first problem. So there’s already going to be improvement there, since, if you think “I want this guy, but if he doesn’t win, I’ll take that one” you can just vote for both with approval. Yes, you can’t differentiate, but in the worst case, what you’ll manage to do is elect your second-favorite choice instead of your most-favorite. And while that’s not perfect, in (almost) all rank-based systems, you run the chance of electing your LEAST favorite candidate if you rank honestly; typically, the incentive in ranked systems is to rank your “lesser evil” candidate first, and your true favorite second, in order to avoid that. And that’s horrible. That keeps new parties, and new ideas, from being able to gain traction
      On your second point, yes: It is possible that if say 51% prefer one candidate over another, they still might lose. But consider what has to happen for that: a large number of voters would have to approve both candidates. if two of your friends prefer pepperoni to pineapple, but still _like_ pineapple, while the third is vegetarian, what pizza do you order? Approval voting lets the majority choose to compromise–if they want!–and that can lead to a decision that is better for the group.

  6. The most popular candidate can lose. Say that again.
    You try to tell people that approval voting does all these things:
    Allows the majority to choose to compromise – the most popular candidate just lost.
    Allows people to think their vote is important – the most popular candidate just lost.
    Approval voting results in less strife – the most popular candidate just lost.
    Approval voting better represents the opinions of voters – the most popular candidate just lost.
    You have stated that approval voting satisfies independence of irrelevant alternatives. That’s fine except it’s not universally accepted that the criteria is not inerrant. You’re speaking of unproven theory thinking you’ll dazzle someone with your bs.
    If you know approval voting like you claim, you could have included the downside risks to approval voting. You didn’t. And anytime someone has raised a question about negatives to approval voting, you’ve deflected or diverted away from the question. You won’t address what are merely your unsubstantiated assertions, you don’t wish to enumerate all of them and reveal just how shaky your argument is.
    I was wondering if you’d tell people what the greatest danger of approval voting was, what the downside risks might be. You didn’t. It took someone else pointing it out.
    The most popular candidate can lose. Yeah, that’s better. Just what we need.
    Approval voting is slanted to favor outliers having a better chance to defeat the most popular choices of the majority. Lots of wing nut libertarians and fringe elements would love to adopt approval voting methods.
    The candidate most people think will best represent their interests can lose in approval voting.
    Isn’t that great? Yeah, let’s do that, that’s going to solve all our problems.