Voting Method Reform
The way people in power are chosen is the most consequential mechanic of how a nation operates. Currently in the US (and many other democratic countries), we primarily choose government officials through a process called Choose-one Voting, where every citizen gets to make one mark per race on their ballot to show support for a single person to represent them in government. This voting method (sometimes called a voting system) is one of the worst voting methods ever created. Choose-one Voting mechanically polarizes people, feeding the toxic idea that we can only advocate for one group or one set of ideas at a time. This contributes to the dreaded “spoiler effect” you may have heard of, where similar voters split their votes between two similar candidates, potentially causing both of them to lose to a third candidate who may be disliked by all of those similar voters. Fear of this mechanical problem that’s baked into Choose-one Voting leads to the strategic “lesser evil” voting we find ourselves constantly hearing about and an inevitable, unavoidable trend toward this two-party system we’ve found ourselves stuck in. It’s the math of the method, not a vice of the voters or a crime of the candidates. Fortunately, there are dozens of different voting methods to choose from. One of the blessings of modern voting science is the whittling down to two primary recommendations for voting method reform in the US right now: STAR Voting and Approval Voting.
I like to describe STAR Voting as the ultimate culmination of modern voting science. It was invented in Oregon in 2014 as the unlikely outcome of a conference with the world’s leading voting scientists attempting to determine the best voting method. STAR is an acronym for Score Then Automatic Runoff and it allows voters to honestly express themselves on their ballots while remaining simple enough to understand. On your STAR Voting ballot, you score each candidate on a 0 to 5 Star scale, much like an Amazon rating. After adding up all of the scores for each candidate, the two candidates with the highest scores become finalists who move on to the automatic runoff round where the finalist you scored higher gets your one full vote. Whichever finalist gets the most votes wins! This voting method produces astoundingly accurate results and there's a ton of fantastic science that goes into that determination, which I encourage you to discover for yourself. In summary, STAR Voting delivers on expressiveness, honesty, simplicity, equality, and accuracy. STAR Voting completely eliminates vote splitting (spoiler effect) and will be a powerful tool in increasing the power of our vote to elect politicians who better represent the people while easing the political and cultural tension currently exasperated by Choose-one Voting.
Even though STAR Voting is a remarkable voting method, real-world implementation always needs to be considered. In many jurisdictions, STAR Voting may be the best candidate for voting method reform, but that doesn’t apply in every case, which is why I, and many other voting enthusiasts, also advocate for Approval Voting.
Approval Voting is comically simple. It's nothing more than changing the instructions on your ballot from “CHOOSE ONE” to “CHOOSE ONE OR MORE”. This means that instead of bubbling in next to just one candidate, you're free to bubble in next to as many candidates as you like, or rather all the candidates you “approve” of. Then, the tallying is exactly the same as what you’re familiar with: add up all of the votes, or all of the “approvals”, and the most approved candidate wins! This one tiny change has dramatic positive effects on election results that almost completely eliminates the “spoiler effect” and flips the dynamic of our voting from polarity to consensus. The real power of Approval Voting is its simplicity. I like to describe switching from Choose-one Voting to Approval Voting as the highest and fastest return on investment for any voting method shift in the US right now. Because it's fully compatible with existing electoral infrastructure throughout the country, the only real financial cost to shifting to Approval Voting is voter education, which can be done rapidly and cheaply compared to other methods. Additionally, Approval Voting is compatible with more existing election codes across the states than any other alternative voting method. That’s partly why I’m currently working with the Center for Election Science to bring Approval Voting to Austin (even though it won’t affect my election).
While I may work to provide federal support for jurisdictions that want to implement quality voting methods like STAR Voting, Approval Voting, Score Voting, 3-2-1 Voting, Smith//Score, and most Condorcet voting methods, I believe voting method reform needs to be a ground-up change that takes advantage of the decentralized nature of the US much like marriage equality and marijuana legalization. Regular people need to understand and believe in better voting, and this issue is too important to let Congress screw it up.
Voting science is a deep field and a huge personal passion of mine. If you like systems, puzzles, or math, I believe you’ll find it quite interesting as well. Below are links to some sites I deem generally reliable for learning about voting science, in order of recommendation.
What about Ranked Choice Voting?
Unfortunately, most of the commonplace rhetoric around Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) right now is filled with misinformation. There are many, many reasons RCV is not only a distraction but also a potential step backwards for the US from our already terrible system. For a primer into that reality, check out my article about RCV and the many links scattered throughout it, but in summary, RCV is just simulated iterations of Choose-one Voting. In each round, voters can only express support for one candidate at a time. This leads to RCV suffering from the same extreme vote splitting as Choose-one Voting many times over every election, which will keep us entrenched in a two-party system. The problems of Choose-one Voting cannot be solved by iterating it many times.
Additionally, RCV dramatically increases the complexity of voting and uniquely threatens our election security by forcing tabulation to be centralized to a single point of failure. Often, the full ballot data is not released after an RCV election, preventing third-parties from verifying election results, a stark and dangerous contrast from our current accountability measures that happen at the precinct level. Major advances in voting science since 2000 have explained why RCV reforms continue to fail more than half of the time in the US and really dug the grave for this voting method that was invented by an architect with no mathematical background by stealing someone else’s method and blindly applying it to the single-winner case without performing any analysis. Modern analysis has shown that over time, the results of RCV actually trend toward being less representative than Choose-one Voting. Remember when I said voting science is a deep field? This is a prime example. Check out my article I linked earlier for a deeper explanation of the mechanics, but RCV throws out so much voter preference data and weighs the data it does use so unevenly that it ends up shooting itself in the foot. Other problems with RCV include high expense for implementation, incompatibility with state election codes, unconstitutionality, incompatibility with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and high rates of near-tie nightmares.
If you’re an activist for RCV, don’t take my word on any of this. I beg you to look into all of these issues that FairVote hasn’t told you about. I used to support RCV as well, but then I discovered on my own that the practicalities of reform in the US and modern voting science don’t. It’s taken me hundreds of hours of study, interaction with qualified experts, talking to voters, analyzing previous elections, and preparing for ground-level reform to piece it all together, but I can confidently report that I’m not the only person who has figured out that RCV is the wrong move for us right now — I’m just the loudest.
If the resources on this page are too daunting and you have questions about specific properties of RCV, please reach out to me publicly or privately. I make it my business to give personalized responses to questions about voting method reform.
What about voting rights?
Voter suppression in all of its forms is abhorrent. However, it doesn’t matter how many people vote if everyone hates the choices and their votes don’t have much power. I support all forms of voter empowerment including at-home voting, extended voting periods, government GOTV campaigns, free transit to polls, holidays for voting, and improved voter information resources. My point is that the voting method is objectively the most important factor in this puzzle, which we can actually model and measure.
What about gerrymandering?
I’ll have a dedicated page on gerrymandering in the future, but I’ll briefly recognize it as an important issue. Shifting to STAR Voting and Approval Voting will actually do a lot to naturally fight gerrymandering, and this is important because districting using anything other than a deterministic algorithm is inherently rigging the elections. However, I don't foresee any state switching to the shortest split-line method, so I would push for a combination of Canadian-style independent redistricting commissions and (non-deterministic) algorithmic drawing leveraging tools like efficiency gap and various A.I. systems to be adopted across the country. Multi-winner districts with a far bigger House would also help, but I’d rather skip straight to liquid democracy and citizens assemblies given the effort that transition would take. If I’ve lost you, that’s okay; I just want you to know that this stuff hasn’t escaped my radar.