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Could Approval Voting Prevent Electoral Disaster?

Question: What is approval voting, and how is it currently used?


Steven Brams: Approval voting is a voting system for multi-candidate races. Races with more then two candidates, which are typical in, say, Presidential Primaries with five to 10 major candidates starting off in Iowa and New Hampshire. In those kinds of races, approval voting would permit you to vote for, or approve of, as many candidates as you’d like. So, if there were nine candidates in the race, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire in 2008, and you were a liberal Democrat and you had identified three people as liberal in the Democrat party, then you wouldn’t have to make an arbitrary choice in one of the liberals. You could vote for all three and thereby better express your preferences. So, you can do everything you can under the present system, vote for one candidate if you have a clear favorite. But if you don’t have a clear favorite, if you’re relatively indifferent among several candidates, like the liberal democrats, you can vote for all of those. Or, if you despise someone you can vote for everybody else.


So, it gives you great flexibility in being able to express your differences. It’s on a ranking system. Each person that you approve of gets one vote, and the person with the most approval wins the election. And we’ve shown that it would have had major consequences in a race like the 2000 Presidential election. Presumably, many Nader supporters would have also voted for Gore to prevent their worse choice, Bush, from winning. So, they would have cast two approval votes. Some would have bullet voted, we say, voted exclusively for Nader and Gore would have, of course, his exclusive supporters. But it’s quite clear that a sufficient number of Nader supporters would have also approved of Gore such that he almost surely would have won the election in Florida or in the Presidential elections. So, it would have obviously made a difference in that election. And there are many other examples with significant third or fourth party candidates in which the outcome almost surely would have changed.


We can’t surely quite ascertain that it would have changed in the end because when you change the rules, any change in the rules by allowing approval voting, the nature of the campaign would change and we can’t simply extrapolate from the present campaign. But I think there’s good enough information in the 2000 election to say that under approval voting Gore almost surely would have won.


So, besides giving the voter more flexible options, it tends to elect the strongest candidate overall. Not the strongest minority candidate. And we have examples where significant candidates on the left or the right, have beat out a centrist candidate, a centrist is hit from both sides so to speak by the left and right candidates in a three-candidate race, and comes in third, let’s say. So, even if there’s a run off, which is something proposed as a solution and used as a solution to try to find the strongest candidate, the runoff would put the left candidate against the right when it’s pretty clear the centrist candidate in a pair wise contest against the left candidate would beat the left candidate, a pair wise contest against the right candidate would beat the right candidate. So could beat each of his competitors in a compare wise contest. We actually have a name for that candidate in these multi-candidate races. He’s a Condorset candidate, after the Marquise de Condorset in the late 18th century France, who proposed this kind of candidate and showed that one always doesn’t find such a candidate. It almost surely would elect Condorset candidates winners in these multi-candidates contests. So, generally in the United States, the contest comes down to two major candidates in a general election, even an election like the 2000 election. But in party primaries, when you get 5 to 10 major candidates, it’s often the case that the Condorset winner gets cut out. The field is crowded, the centrist is squeezed, the strong left candidate or the strong right candidate wins.


And it’s a disaster, in my opinion, for the country. It happened in 1964 when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, an extreme right-wing candidate. He lost disastrously to Lyndon Johnson that year in the general election. It happened to the Democrats in 1972. They nominated George McGovern, a far left candidate, who lost massively to Richard Nixon that year. And that’s not good for democracy because the election is essentially decided when one party nominates an extremist against the centrist of the other. And I think if approval voting were used, especially in primaries, it would tend to surface the strongest candidate in the party and make the contests much more competitive with two centrists running against each other rather than extremists, who usually gets beaten in these kinds of contests.


So I think not only does it help the individual, it helps the social choice, the candidate elected making him or her a much more plausible candidate than a **** of extremists like Goldwater in ’64, and McGovern in ’72.


Question: Would this system encourage strategic voting as opposed to voting one’s conscience?


Steven Brams: No, I actually think the opposite. I think when you can approve of more than one candidate, you are less likely to vote strategically. If you mean by strategic voting, ignoring a first choice because he, a Nader, is our of the running and voting for a second choice or a third choice to prevent your worst choice from winning, under approval voting you could have your cake and eat it too. You can vote sincerely for the candidate who can’t win, the Nader, and you can cast a second approval vote, or strategic vote for the candidate who can, Gore in the 2000 election. So, I think it actually minimized the strategic voting. 


The two arguments that have been made against approval voting; first, that it would tend to elect the lowest common denominator, the centrist candidate who tries to be everything to everybody. But I think the candidate who is the lowest common denominator is generally going to be unappealing to most voters. You try to be everything to everybody; you’re not going to be acceptable to very many people. A good example of a candidate who would win under approval voting would be Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan won in landslides in 1980, and 1984. He was a right-oriented candidate, but he was appealing to a substantial majority in each election. Nobody ever accused Reagan of being weak or pusillanimous; he had strong convictions, and he would have won not only in approval voting, but virtually any other system.


So, I think that’s the kind of candidate who is generally appealing, maybe right of center or left of center, who’s going to win. It’s not always going to elect the candidate – inoffensive, bland, who has nothing to say. So, I think that’s my argument that it wouldn’t have that affect. 


The other argument sometimes made against approval voting is that it would undermine the two-party system. Well, first of all, I think there is nothing sacrosanct about the two-party system in the United States. Most western democracies have multi-party systems and in my opinion they’re just as democratic, if not more so, than the United States. So, I would argue that if the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats were so derelict as to nominate extremists in the same year, there should be room in the center for a centrist to come in and win. And approval voting would tend to promote that.


Ross Perot, for example, in 1992. He was a significant third-party candidate who ran against Bush, the father, and Clinton that year. And he got 19% of the popular vote. Almost an all time high for a third-party candidate. If there had been approval voting, he conceivably might have won because Democrats might also have approved of Perot. He was liberal on social issues, and so might conservatives. He was conservative on financial and economic issues. Now, he was also a little crazy. So, that dispirited many of his supporters in the end. But a more credible centrist candidate, I think, should have that opportunity to win. And right now, our two-party system is pretty much impregnable under plurality voting. You have to vote for one or the other candidate. You’re generally going to ignore the third or fourth party candidate. So, that candidate has no chance.


With approval voting, you can afford to vote for additional candidates and if there is sufficiently strong third or fourth party candidate, I think he or she should win. 

Recorded on February 2, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

One of the originators of "approval voting" explains how his model would prevent the kind of foregone-conclusion elections that discourage voters from participating.

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