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.

Vote splitting

This construct has long been a feature of Approval Voting advocacy. It refers to the possibility that two or more likeminded candidates in a plurality election appeal to the same group of voters, thereby dividing that group’s support.

Advocates of Approval Voting (and derivative rules) naturally gravitate to this construct. It is intuitive. It seems like it happens often. And, on its face, it makes a great case for Approval Voting. Heck, you just vote for both candidates!

With the entry of “vote splitting” into high-profile RCV advocacy, it may be time to take a critical view.

Nagel has shown that, under Approval Voting, two candidates appealing to the same group of voters actually have an incentive to encourage vote-splitting. The reason is that each cares about winning.

I am told of similar results for the Alternative Vote (aka IRV/RCV).

What about vote-splitting where everyone thinks it happened? I am talking about prominent presidential elections with minor-party candidates. Two recent studies suggest relatively little vote-splitting in practice: one on Libertarians, then a second on Stein/Greens and Johnson/Libertarians alike.

To find that third-party voters don’t break reliably in either direction is not surprising. Typically, such candidacies reflect the activation of some alternative issue dimension (e.g., climate).

That issue may even be so important (to third-party voters) that they refuse to rank (or approve/score) putative lower choices. Hence the Australian solution: compulsory ranking.

My personal view is that “vote splitting” has become an indulgent kludge. The obvious solution to the purported problem is to unite behind a single candidate. But this just will not do for a certain kind of reformer (indulgent). And it is a kludge because the problem is not demonstrated (nay, demonstrable) empirically — at least without considerable data on the policy preferences of voters and candidates alike.

Yet we will continue to hear about “vote splitting” because, without it, the case for single-seat reform evaporates.