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.

General effects of Final Five Voting

I am reproducing here a Tweet thread from last week:

I expect a two-serious-candidate equilibrium, with ballot exhaustion driven by the supply of hopeless candidates.

The basic logic comes from Cox (1997). Winning-minded elites will be thinking about the IRV round when deciding whom to back in the “final five” round.

That means we need to think about the strategic context of an IRV election, which will ‘contaminate’ the first round.

What does a winning-minded-elite do in an IRV election? They get together with other winning-minded-elites and coordinate on the person most likely to win.

It turns out that humans have routinized such coordination. The general term for this is “political party.”

It follows that ‘resources’ will not flow to hopeless candidates, leading us straight back to two-party equilibrium. Or, in lopsided districts, two-faction equilibrium.

I covered these issues in my Apr. 2021 review of The Politics Industry. That review included discussion of ‘nonpartisan IRV’ in a two-party-competitive city (Cleveland, 1913-19). TLDR: lots of ballot exhaustion, no independents elected.

People (like me) who oppose Final Five are aware of the dynamics above. Our worry, I think, is that all we’ll have done is weakened political parties even more.

You can’t get parties out of politics… but you can confuse voters in the short term

…and we don’t know what the world would have looked like if all these nonpartisan elections had never been adopted. Small changes have big consequences… even if parties adapt to nonpartisan elections.

The one-vote system

Kevin Kosar of the American Enterprise Institute generously invited me to do a Q&A on the ‘one-vote system’ — and candidate-based forms of list PR in general. The Q&A builds on my recent op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer. You can read the Q&A here.

There’s a tendency in reform circles to ask too much of voters. I’m thinking here of elaborate schemes like RCV, STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff), and approval. Ballot reforms like these basically ask voters to pick a better coalition. One-vote flips that around — give voters representation, then have their representatives form the coalition. It’s a lot more realistic.