Why I worry about approval voting

Stephen Wolf and a few others have asked me to compile my views. This post is an attempt to do that.

1) For all of their apparent differences, RCV and approval (and derivative ballot reforms) are philosophical bedfellows. Both proceed from the assumption that ‘better rules’ can get us closer to the general will. They therefore presume that such a thing even exists. This presumption is bolstered by inattention to well-known determinants of vote choice (e.g., party identification, cues from preferred candidates).

2) The foregoing philosophical orientation makes either cause a likely ally of those who want to eliminate political parties. Some of those people are frustrated voters (lacking, as they do, leadership to the contrary). Others are would-be elite political actors who want to replace party cues, as determinants of vote choice, with direction from the media and independent expenditures and so forth.

3) RCV may well discredit itself. Its record in the last century is one of failure. Election officials tend to dislike it, and evidence is accumulating that voters are easy to persuade to repeal it.

4) The sorts of elites described in (2) above may therefore have an easier time getting what they want through the ‘cardinal methods’ movement instead. I say “therefore” because approval has not had a chance to show its warts — at least in recent memory — and because it is objectively easier to administer.

5) Cardinal methods will fail, just as ranked ones did in the last century. The approval version of ‘ballot exhaustion’ is ‘approval truncation.’ This is a special version of the spoiler effect in which winning-minded candidates encourage bullet voting. Elite cues matter. Politics is not an unmediated transaction between citizen and state. And the result will be failure of the rule to fulfill its core promise: majority winners.

6) So the question is what other compromises the movement will make in order to get ‘demonstration cases’ of the approval ballot. In other words, what will be left in its wake? The St. Louis experience is a good signal: fully and newly nonpartisan elections.

7) Problems with nonpartisan elections are beyond the scope of this short post. For many readers, they do not need review. Other readers may be so angry at the current party system — rightly so, in my view — that some comment is warranted. I recommend this historical essay.

6 thoughts on “Why I worry about approval voting”

  1. But elites don’t always get involved in local politics. And if someone genuinely convinces voters that they are the only worthwhile choice, neat. But given how many people vote third party even when they know their candidate won’t win, and how many others express that they like a third party candidate but can’t vote for them because of the spoiler effect? Approval voting is our best bet.

  2. That there is such a thing as the general will of the people is not an assumption, but simply a fact. That gray decision making machine between your ears has been honed by natural selection over the eons to maximize the expected number of copies of your genes you make. Your affinity for anything that can boost your reproductive success, from sugar to clothing, has been formed by this selective filter.

    The point of decision making is to maximize your expected utility. Some voting methods are objectively better at this than others.

    If you dispute that some states of the world can be more in line with people’s overall welfare, that is tantamount to saying that mass atrocities are not inherently worse than thriving democracies where everybody has enough to eat. This is obviously untenable. Some states of the world make people better off and happier than other states of the world.

    Yes people can be influenced to vote for politicians who actually end up hurting them. This is not a rebuttal of anything voting method experts are saying. We allow for ignorance. Literally a disparity between how well off a candidate makes you and how well off you think that candidate will make you when you vote. That you cannot tell the future is not a repudiation of the fact that some future outcomes are better for you than others.

    1. We depart company on “the point of decision making” (which I take to mean voting in this case). I see it as a way to participate in the selection and/or formation of a governing coalition.

      1. We _know_ what the point of decision-making is. That gray decision-making machine between your ears was _literally_ optimized by evolution to maximize the expected number of gene copies you produce. This is actual fact.

        The product of this is that your pleasure/reward center is built around the notion of “utility”, such that an organism is incentivized to maximize expected utility. You can see this when a person accepts a guarantee of a 1 million dollar payoff over a 50/50 shot at a 3 million dollar payoff. Due to “decreasing marginal utility”, the former actually has a higher expected utility than the latter, even though it has a lower expected value in monetary terms.

        This is obvious in how people strategize in elections. You might vastly prefer the Green to the Democrat, but since expected utility is a function both of preference intensity _and_ probability, and since you know (in virtually all cases) that the Green has an incredibly low probability of winning, your expected utility is maximized by voting Green.

        Literally everything we know about human behavior aligns with this model. If you’ve ever read a basic introduction to evolutionary biology and game theory, like Richard Dawkins’s excellent “The Selfish Gene”, this is broken down in astonishing detail, including game theory: the prisoner’s dilemma, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, etc.

        Literally nothing in economics or ethics makes sense except in light of evolution by natural selection, and its resultant utility maximization.

        > I see it as a way to participate in the selection and/or formation of a governing coalition.

        Why? What is the _point_ of selecting a governing coalition? You…write laws? Right? And executives issue orders. And that affects the state of the world, in ways that affect your personal welfare. The end goal is the _state of the world_ and how it affects your utility. Selecting elected representatives is merely an implementation detail.

        Suppose we could have a benevolent and hyper-informed A.I. that could scan our brains and determine which public policies would best optimize our wellbeing, completely free of any elected representatives. That would be, in principle, completely superior to the entire notion of “governing coalitions”.

        And indeed, it isn’t even about participation at all. For virtually everyone, the expected utility of participating (voting) is _negative_, because it costs you time and energy to vote, and your odds of changing the outcome are incredibly tiny (in most elections, with some exceptions). The ideal is that _other_ people (irrationally) vote, and in the statistical aggregate, they represent your interests fairly well. For you or I to personally participate in elections is irrational. I mean, I often do it anyway, because there’s some psychological reward built in, from my mammalian ancestry and the resultant sense of obligation to society. But in pure rational terms, it’s irrational. I could do more good by using that time volunteering at my son’s school or a million other endeavors.

        This whole notion of voting being able electing representatives, as if that’s the ultimate goal, rather than to actually affect policy and future states of the world, is incredibly detrimental to having a clear and coherent mental model of reality.

        1. > your expected utility is maximized by voting Green.

          Typo of course. I meant Democrat, not Green.

        2. Electing representatives to affect policy is exactly what I’m talking about. I’d argue that a clear mental model of reality includes competing interests and all that those come with, even if a brain scan could, in theory, get the same answer from everyone. IIRC, Rousseau came to the same conclusion about his General Will.

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