[EM] Approval Voting Op-Ed material

Alex Small asmall at physics.ucsb.edu
Sun Mar 17 15:14:00 PST 2002

As per Anthony's advice, I expanded the pro-AV essay to 800 words, more
appropriate for an op-ed.  I tried to trim it to serve as a letter, but I
couldn't decide what to trim.  I flesh out a few points, and also critique

If anybody comes up with the contact info of newspapers in areas with IRV
ballot initiatives (e.g. Alaska) send me the contact info and I'll submit
it.  For that matter, send it to the whole list, since I'm sure plenty of
people here have some good material on their hard drives.

Here it is:


By Alex Small

Every election cycle many Americans lament the lack of a strong third
party.  Some say that the two parties are corrupt.  Others don’t fit in
with either party, perhaps being conservative on economic issues and
liberal on social issues.  Whatever their reasons, many Americans want more

Unfortunately, even if there is a third candidate whom you feel is superior
to both the Democrat and the Republican, the best bet is usually to pick
the lesser evil between the two contenders.  Victories like Jesse
Ventura’s, where people boldly vote for their true first preference, are
rare and will remain rare so long as we only have one vote to cast.
Fortunately, elections don’t have to be run that way.

There’s an easy way to determine the true, honest favorite of the voters:
Approval Voting, where you simply indicate yes or no for each candidate.
The candidate with the strongest approval from the electorate wins.  We
could do it without new voting machines.  And, since voting laws are
handled by the states, grassroots efforts could bring this about without
conducting a massive nationwide campaign.

Who will benefit from Approval Voting?

1)  We the People:  We’ll have the freedom to vote our conscience and still
hedge our bets against our least favorite—have our cake and eat it too!
We’ll also see competitive third and fourth options, and benefit from a
greater range of choices.  Those of us who don't really like either of the
two major parties will finally have serious alternatives to support.

As far as strategy under Approval Voting, if our main concern is defeating
a particular candidate we can say yes to all of his major competitors.  If
our main concern is only electing a particular candidate we’ll be free to
approve him and no other.  We’ll also be free to take an intermediate
course of action.

2)  The Democrats and Republicans:  Surprised?  Right now, candidates often
win primary elections with less than 25% of the vote.  With Approval
Voting, whoever has the broadest support within the party will win.  The
parties will go into the general elections united behind strong
candidates.  They also won’t have to worry about candidates who could never
possibly win acting as “spoilers” in close general elections (e.g. Ralph

3)  Third Parties:  Third parties will go into the election without
worrying about the “wasted vote syndrome.”  They will win or lose based on
whether or not the people agree with their proposals.  A third party
candidate will be able to say his piece, and face questions of policy, not
questions like “Why should I waste my vote on you?”

In short, everybody will benefit.  This is no surprise, because people
benefit when they have more freedom to make choices.  Interestingly, the
Russians embraced a slight variation on Approval Voting when Communism
collapsed.  Isn’t it ironic that in the voting booth American voters have
less freedom of choice than their Russian counterparts?

Of course, Approval Voting isn’t the only proposal out there for bringing
more choice into our elections.  A popular alternative, embraced by many
third parties, is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).  With IRV, each voter
declares his or her first, second, third, etc. choices.  If no candidate
has a majority of first choice votes the candidate with the fewest first
choice votes is eliminated, and his supporters’ votes are transferred to
their second choices.  This continues until somebody has a majority.

This method sounds good, but it has unexpected problems.  First, in many
states there are seven or more parties on the ballot.  That requires us to
keep track of 7*6*5*4*3*2 = 5040 different orders of preference for each
race.  Florida serves as a cautionary tale:  keep your ballots and your
counting as simple as possible, or chaos may ensue.

Also, runoffs created unexpected “spoiler problems.”  Suppose that in 1992
Clinton could have beaten Perot head-to-head and Bush could have beaten
Clinton, and that Perot’s supporters, being fiscal conservatives, would
take Bush over Clinton.  If we had used this method, and Bush had been
eliminated first, Clinton would have won.  The Perot supporters actually
would have been better off if some of them had defected to Bush.  Even more
perverse, Clinton supporters would have had an incentive to defect to the
Perot camp, to make sure that the runoff was Clinton vs. Perot, where
Clinton would win.

Approval Voting faces none of these perverse problems.  The counting is
simple.  There are no strategic questions beyond asking what your
priorities are and whom you’ll support.  The choice for real voting reform
is clear:  Approval Voting.

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