Why Approval Voting Should be Approved Now

So, you think Condorcet voting is too revolutionary and too complicated to be adopted any time soon. Yes, Condorcet voting will obviously take a while to gain widespread acceptance. Fortunately, however, we can still improve our electoral system in the meantime. Approval voting is no more complicated than conventional plurality voting, yet it has major advantages.

In Approval voting, each voter simply votes for, or "approves," as many of the candidates as desired (without ranking them). As in plurality voting, the votes are counted, and the candidate with the most votes wins. No new voting equipment is needed (except perhaps in rare cases), and the ballots don't even need to be changed. Moreover, the change to the current voting rules is trivial: "vote for one" simply becomes "vote for one or more."

Although trivial to implement, Approval voting goes a long way toward overcoming the "lesser of two evils" problem inherent in our current voting system, which artificially entrenches our political system into a two-party duopoly without effective competition from other parties. And although Approval voting is much simpler than Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), it is actually more effective according to important technical criteria, with no significant disadvantages compared to IRV.

Critics of Approval voting point out that it does not allow voters to specify preferences among their selected candidates. But the option to specify preferences is of dubious value if those preferences are not reliably counted. In Condorcet voting all preferences are systematically counted, but in IRV they are not. Your only preference that is sure to be counted under IRV is your preference for your first choice over all the others. Hence, you may be wise to select the "lesser of two evils" as your first choice, just as many voters do in conventional plurality voting. With more than two competitive candidates, the uncounted preferences under IRV can be the most crucial. Although Approval voting does not allow voters to express all their preferences, it gives them more control than IRV gives them over which preferences are actually counted. Hence, although Approval voting is not as effective as Condorcet voting, we believe it is actually more effective than IRV, even though it is much simpler.

In general, the best strategy in an Approval system is to vote for the candidate you'd vote for in a Plurality system, and also to vote for all the candidates you actually prefer to that candidate. This strategy does not require you to rearrange the order of your true preferences; it only requires you to draw the line between your approved and disapproved candidates at a certain point in your personal preference ranking list. Defensive reversal of true preferences is never needed as it often is under plurality and IRV.

Suppose, for example, that Approval voting has just been adopted in the United States. Voters who prefer a minor party, such as the Libertarian or Green Party, will vote for that party (and possibly others) in addition to their usual "lesser of two evils" choice between the Democrat and the Republican. Many Greens, for example, will vote for both the Green and Democratic candidates, while many Libertarians will vote for the Libertarian and the Republican. The voters who actually prefer the Democrat or the Republican, on the other hand, will vote only for the one they prefer.

The important point is that supporters of minor parties will be free to vote for their preferred candidate without concern that their vote will backfire and hurt their own cause, as can happen under plurality or IRV if they vote sincerely. The true level of support for minor parties will therefore become immediately apparent. If that level of support ever exceeds the support of either of the two major parties, then the minor party becomes a major party and its supporters can quit voting for the compromise party they consider the "lesser evil."

If Libertarians start outpolling Democrats or Republicans, for example, they can quit voting for Republicans as a hedge against Democrats. Eventually they will have a fair chance to actually win. Note, however, that Libertarians could inadvertently let the Democrats win if they pull back too soon on their support for Republicans, and the decision about when to do so could be difficult. That is one reason why Approval voting, although preferable to plurality voting and IRV, is still not as effective as Condorcet voting.

Approval voting gives voters no incentive to abandon their favorite candidate or to insincerely rank another candidate over their favorite. Our current plurality system, on the other hand, essentially forces many voters to betray their favorite candidate, and experience with IRV in Australia shows that it encourages voters to insincerely rank their preferred major-party candidate over their true favorite. In other words, voting for your favorite can be unwise under plurality or IRV, but under Approval it cannot possibly be unwise.

With a trivial change in current voting rules, and with no new voting equipment or even new ballots, Approval voting can correct a major defect of plurality voting and give minor parties a much fairer chance. It is not as effective as Condorcet voting, but it is more effective than either conventional plurality voting or IRV. Approval voting should therefore be approved now.