Taking the Fear Out of Voting

by Clay Shentrup

The Problem

My fellow voter: have you ever been afraid to vote for your favorite candidate? If so, you’re not alone. It happens to the best of us.

Take my friend Bob. Back in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, he favored Bill Richardson, followed by Barack Obama. By the time his primary election came around, polls showed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the lead. Not wanting to waste his vote on an “unelectable” candidate, Bob did what most voters would do. He lied. He voted for Obama, the “lesser evil” (from his point of view) compared to Clinton. This was tactical voting, pure and simple — Bob gamed the system in order to get a better result. But really, who can blame him?

My friend Alice once faced a similar situation, but she reacted differently. In Montana’s 2006 senate race, she preferred Libertarian Stan Jones to Republican Conrad Burns. She knew full well that Jones had little chance of winning, but she couldn’t bring herself to vote insincerely. She believes that voting is about stating one’s sincere beliefs. Nevertheless, Alice felt a sense of regret when Jones drew enough conservative votes from the Republican to elect Democrat Jon Tester. (We say that Jones and Burns “split” the conservative vote.) Alice thought to herself, “surely if people like me had simply voted for the Republican instead of the Libertarian, then we at least wouldn’t have gotten the Democrat.” And poor Stan Jones was attacked as a “spoiler” whose participation only harmed the democratic process.

My friend Eve unfortunately experienced the worst of both worlds. She preferred Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to Democrat Al Gore back in the 2000 U.S. presidential race. But she instead voted for Gore hoping to at least get a Democrat over a Republican. You can imagine her frustration when Republican Bush won anyway. Nader still got nearly 100,000 votes in Florida alone. And polls suggested Nader would have gotten closer to a million if not for folks like Eve.

While outrageous, this distortion isn’t news to most voters. Chances are you’ve experienced this phenomenon at some point yourself. But what may surprise you is how simple — actually trivial — the cure is. We just remove one tiny rule.

The Solution

To illustrate this, let’s revisit the rules of our voting system:

  • The candidate with the most votes wins.
  • If you vote for more than one candidate, your ballot isn’t counted.
  • Admittedly, this isn’t exactly how the instructions are worded. But this is effectively what happens. Now let’s remove the offending rule.

  • The candidate with the most votes wins.
  • If you vote for more than one candidate, your ballot isn’t counted.
  • You can see that we removed the rule about ignoring your ballot when you vote for additional candidates. But what does this mean for my frustrated voter friends?

    Let’s start with Bob. We peer over his shoulder as he steps into the voting booth, ballot in hand. Naturally, Bob still starts things off with a tactical vote for the more electable Obama. But he doesn’t stop there. He then casts an additional vote for his sincere favorite, Bill Richardson. And that’s perfectly okay.

    Bob is actually using a system called Approval Voting. It’s called Approval Voting because it’s like a poll where you can “approve” (vote for) as many candidates as you wish; and the one with the most approvals (votes) wins. An Approval Voting ballot would simply look like this:

    There are other interesting consequences here. Perhaps Bob would also take more time to consider the other candidates, now that it was safe to vote for them. Maybe he’d prefer Dennis Kucinich to Obama as well. It’s Bob’s call to make. Once he’s cast his tactical vote for someone viable, then he can safely vote for any other candidates he prefers.

    Bob is happy. He walks out of the voting booth smiling. Alice and Eve would have similar experiences. They would keep voting Libertarian and Green, respectively, to express their true convictions. But Approval Voting would allow them to also discriminate between the two major parties.

    It seems clear that Republican Conrad Burns would have won that senate seat in Montana, and Democrat Al Gore would have been elected President in 2000. And both Stan Jones and Ralph Nader would have gotten enough votes to accurately reflect their true support.

    Approval Voting prevents vote splitting by letting voters choose multiple similar-minded candidates in primaries. In general elections, it prevents spoilers by letting Independent/ third-party supporters include a tactical vote for more viable candidates. Consequently, without vote-splitting or spoiler fears, Approval Voting would likely have these candidates treat each other more civilly.

    Approval Voting treats third parties and independents fairly. And that fair treatment would create some much-needed competition for the two major parties. Surely, more competition can only lead to a more accountable government.

    The mounting frustration with Washington makes it clear our current system is obsolete. Voters are perversely forced to focus more on whether candidates can win than whether they should win. Approval Voting is a simple, intuitive system that ensures you will never be harmed for supporting your sincere favorite candidate, nor will you ever split your vote.

    I started by asking about your fears when you vote. I’ve also shown how Approval Voting addresses those fears. So isn’t it about time we took the fear out of voting?


    Clay Shentrup (@ClayShentrup) is a Board Member of The Center for Election Sciencea nonpartisan 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to election-related scholarship. He grew up in southeast Kansas and studied computer engineering at the University of Kansas. He works as a software engineer specializing in the Ruby on Rails web framework. Clay's hobbies include playing the guitar and songwriting, and he counts Seattle grunge acts such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden among his biggest influences. He also holds a great love for the game of table tennis.


    Learn more about Approval Voting at The Center for Election Science.

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