We Know Majority Voting Is Flawed, but What Are the Alternatives?
By Ruben Michael Montejano, President of STAR Voting Action, and Nate Allen, Executive Director of Utah Approves
“My vote doesn’t matter.” “They’re two sides of the same coin.” “If I vote my conscience I risk wasting my vote.” These are just some of the sentiments we hear when talking to people across the country about voting. According to a recent Ipsos survey, 53% of non-voters and 24% of voters in 2020 agreed that “it makes no difference who is elected president—things go on just as they did before.” This isn’t just a new concern either. In a 2016 Pew Research poll, as many as 15% of nationally registered voters said they didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election because they didn’t believe their vote would make a difference. When a trend like this arises, we have to ask ourselves: How did our representative democracy get to the point where it no longer feels representative or democratic, and how can we fix that?
One key answer lies in our voting method: plurality or “choose one” voting. This type of voting, used predominantly in the U.S., often suffers from vote-splitting and the spoiler effect, allowing candidates to win with far less than a majority of the vote. This leaves voters hesitant to vote for their favorite candidate out of fear that they could be helping their least favorite win.
So how can we fix this? One widely discussed alternative—instant runoff voting or ranked choice voting (RCV)—has been hailed by many reformists as a panacea to our electoral issues. The system, however, has drawn concern among electoral scientists for some time, and after being implemented in Maine and Alaska, real-world evidence is starting to show that it falls short in several notable areas. For instance, a closer look at the ballot data in the recent special election in Alaska shows that the system actually failed to elect the candidate who was preferred over all others. This should give us pause.
When discussing a right as fundamental as representation, we need to be careful to choose a method that works best for voters, not because it is preferred by one party or because it has momentum. Fortunately, there are promising alternatives to plurality voting and RCV, including approval voting and STAR voting.
Approval voting simply allows people to vote for as many candidates as they wish, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This differs from our current voting method in that voters can show support for multiple candidates instead of being limited to only one.
Approval voting has been implemented in two places in the U.S. so far—Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri. In both places, we have seen the winners earn far more than 50% of the vote. The results in St. Louis are particularly motivating: For instance, in the Democratic mayoral primary race before approval voting was implemented, the winning candidate earned just 35% of the vote. After the implementation of approval voting, the top three Democratic mayoral candidates earned 57%, 46%, and 38%, respectively. In other words, the third-place candidate earned more votes with approval voting than the winning candidate under plurality voting.
In contrast to RCV, approval voting uses all ballot data. A central problem with RCV is that a large percentage of voters’ given rankings are never counted. By the time a voter’s favorite is eliminated, their second choice may have already been eliminated—or, for voters whose favorite is eliminated in the last round, none of their other choices will ever be counted. Ignoring relevant ballot data can lead to candidates being eliminated in the wrong order, which can skew outcomes.
In addition to electing candidates with stronger mandates and facilitating more representative outcomes, approval voting is cost-effective and eliminates the spoiler effect. For these reasons, approval voting is quickly building momentum and may prove to be more politically viable than RCV in the long run.
STAR voting is another innovative voting method that produces more representative results. Under STAR voting, voters score candidates from zero to five stars. Voters can give candidates equal scores if they want, and candidates left blank receive a zero. Ballots are then counted in two rounds. First, scores for each candidate are added up and the two highest-scoring candidates overall are finalists. In the next round, ballots where a voter scored one of the finalists higher than the other are counted as one vote for the higher-ranked candidate. The finalist with the most votes wins.
The five-star ballot in STAR voting is more expressive than both RCV and approval voting. Under RCV, voters can’t give candidates the same rankings, even if they like them equally. Furthermore, a second-choice ranking, for example, gives no indication of the level of support for that candidate. They could be as good as their favorite, or they could be a lesser evil the voter doesn’t actually like. When compared to approval voting, STAR gives the ability to show more levels of support than just “yes” or “no.”
The five-star ballot empowers people to vote their conscience because if their favorite doesn’t make the runoff, their vote will still go to their preferred finalist. This, in turn, incentivizes candidates to broaden their appeal so they may gain more votes in the runoff.
Another benefit of STAR voting is that it can help combat the influence of money in politics. In the current system, voters need to be strategic, and in order for one’s vote to make a difference, they need to vote for a frontrunner. In both STAR and approval voting, voters are free to vote for who they actually support without the risk of throwing away their vote. Candidates backed by big money may still be perceived as the front-runners, but in STAR voting, working-class candidates compete on a level playing field, and voters are free to vote for them without risk.
A key consideration when selecting a voting method should be its accuracy in electing the most representative winner. STAR Voting has consistently topped the charts in statistical models that test how each voting method would perform across a wide variety of scenarios in electing the candidate with the most support. Furthermore, STAR does better than RCV at reducing incentives for voters to vote strategically. Approval voting is also superior to plurality voting in terms of accuracy, especially when paired with a top-two general election.
Reimagining Our Elections
At the end of the day, what voters want most is for their votes to matter and for their voices to be heard. Our current voting method, plurality or “choose one” voting, falls catastrophically short. Although RCV does marginally reduce the occurrence of problems associated with plurality voting, its limitations are becoming hard to ignore. Like the current system, it can encourage voters to rank a less preferred candidate higher out of the same fear that it’s not safe to vote their conscience.
Approval voting and STAR voting offer more representative methods that amplify our voices and ensure our votes matter. Both methods effectively do so by simply counting all of the voter-marked preferences. Knowing their vote will be counted, will make a difference, and will help to elect a winner who will best represent them, voters can feel safe to list their honest preferences under these systems.
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