“The ballot is stronger than the bullet.”
Voting is the cornerstone of democracy. It allows each individual among millions to make their preferences heard in a quantifiable way.
But there are many methods of quantifying preferences as votes and they are not all made equal.
Much like adding different proportions of flour, milk, and eggs can create everything from cookies, to pasta, to pancakes, the way each vote is counted can produce very different election outcomes.
So, how does your vote get counted, what options are out there, and which voting method is the best? We’ll shed some light on these questions and let you be the judge.
What Voting System Do We Use in America?
The majority of US elections fall under the single-winner plurality (meaning most votes wins) system, also known as First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting. In this system, the candidate with the most votes wins whether or not they have the majority of the votes. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), this method of voting is the second most widely used across the globe and is becoming less popular over time. The most recent data from International IDEA shows 26.6% of 222 countries use FPTP for their legislative elections, and even fewer (10.3%) use it for presidential elections. (This lower number is explained in part because a number of nations allow the party which controls the elected legislative body to appoint the government leader without an election.)
Pros and Cons
According to the ACE Project, FPTP is known for being simple to use and easy to understand no matter how many candidates enter the race. Each voter simply selects one candidate from a list. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. As with all methods, FPTP also comes with inherent advantages and disadvantages.
The nature of only being able to express a single vote for a single candidate creates a dilemma known as the spoiler effect, in which votes split between popular, similar candidates can result in a less popular candidate winning. As seen in the graphic below, if 60% of the population prefer similar candidates Luke (in orange) or Leia (in white) over Vader (in black) and Luke and Leia split the light side votes, under FPTP, Vader and the dark side would win the election with just 40% of the total votes.
Due to this spoiler effect, parties are incentivized to remove candidates who have similar ideologies. We saw examples of this in the 2020 US presidential election with the Democratic Party attempting to kick Green Party candidates off the ballot and the Republican Party attempting to kick Libertarians off.
Because FPTP collects a single data point, it also creates a “large number of wasted votes which do not go towards the election of any candidate.” If we think of voting as a game of darts, each voter would get only one throw to hit the bullseye. No points for coming close. No second throw. With this cut-and-dry method we’ve come to expect that nearly 50% of players will lose—meaning that it has become an acceptable outcome that half of the country may not have voted for their current leader. This is not necessarily true of systems that collect more than one data point of candidate preference.
Because a FPTP election is based on a simple plurality, it favors the most broadly-acceptable candidate and can successfully exclude extremist parties from attaining power. This tends to cause power to alternate between a major Left and a major Right party. While this is praised for providing stable legislatures where one party with the majority can theoretically use it to get things done without being “shackled by the restraints of having to bargain with a minority coalition partner,” it also sets a nearly unattainable threshold for third-party candidates to be successful contenders. For the same reasons, there is “strong evidence that ethnic and racial minorities across the world are far less likely to be represented in legislatures elected by FPTP.”
Importantly, FPTP systems are highly vulnerable to manipulation based on where electoral boundaries are drawn (we call this gerrymandering) and may be unresponsive to shifts in public opinion unless enough districts are highly competitive.
What Other Options Are There?
While FPTP has been used since the founding of the United States, there are actually more than a dozen voting methods in existence. Here, we’ll introduce the four most popular alternatives. In fact, some are already being used in certain state or local settings.
Generally the most well-known of the alternative voting systems, in ranked-choice voting (RCV) voters can choose what order they want to rank candidates on the ballot. If, after all first-choice votes are counted, one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, that candidate wins. However, if no candidate has the majority of the votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. Votes for the eliminated candidate are then reallocated to those voters’ second choices. This process is repeated until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.
Though RCV has already been used for more than a hundred years in countries such as Australia, RCV has only recently begun making an appearance in US elections.
In November 2020, Alaskan voters approved ballot measure 2, which established Alaska as the second state to use a variant of RCV for their general elections, including the presidential election. Maine is the only other state that currently uses RCV. A number of cities have been using RCV since 2004, and New York City is preparing to hold its first mayoral primary using RCV.
The Pacific Northwest seems poised to follow suit in the movement towards an RCV system. Washington’s legislature is currently considering a bill to allow localities to make their own decisions about whether or not to implement this alternative voting system.
Approval Voting allows the voter to choose any number of candidates on a given ballot. This requires no ballot redesign except rewriting the instructions to say that instead of only selecting one candidate voters can select as many candidates as they like. In this way voters can more fully indicate their preferences, limiting the spoiler effect; because voters are not required to choose only one person, they can simply vote for both.
Fargo, North Dakota became the first US city to implement approval voting for citywide elections in 2018 and held their first election using approval voting in 2020. St. Louis, Missouri just joined them by voting to adopt approval voting for their citywide elections in November 2020.
Just like giving a review on Amazon, Yelp, or IMDB, score voting asks voters to rate candidates on a scale based on how much they support or don’t support each candidate. For example, if there are five candidates on the ballot, one could go through and give each one a rating on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes a “no opinion” option is also given. This fine-tuned expression of preference effectively eliminates the spoiler effect.
In 2004, Jan Kok discovered a way to implement score voting using current FPTP voting machines. However, according to the Center for Election Science, score voting has yet to be used in any state or city elections.
A variant of score voting, STAR stands for “Score Then Automatic Runoff.” It uses the well-known five-star rating system. Voters give each candidate up to five stars to indicate level of support. After candidates are scored, an automatic runoff is conducted for the two candidates with the highest scores. In the runoff, the rating score of the top two candidates is converted to a simple yes/no tally and recounted.
Which is the Best?
Voting methods can be analyzed in a scientific, quantitative manner, but they must also be assessed within the context of the real world. This includes the impact on voting behavior and candidate selection as well as our own preferences about what we value most in a voting system. What advocates for alternative voting systems all agree on is that our current plurality FPTP system is significantly limited in its ability to express voters’ true preferences once the election involves more than two candidates.
The advantages and disadvantages of the current FPTP system have been well documented, and the growing debate about which system is the best alternative makes clear the exciting opportunities for change.
In our democratic republic, ensuring that the voting methods used truly reflect the will of the people is crucial. The US Presidential election in 2020 had the highest voter turnout in 120 years, and that was only 66.7% of the eligible voting population. Though there may be numerous factors contributing to low voter turnout in the US, could it be that without an adequately expressive voting system American voters are feeling hopeless, like their vote won’t make a difference?
With more and more states and municipalities beginning to adopt alternative voting systems, there is hope that Americans will find the method that ensures everyone’s voice is fully and clearly heard in electoral politics.
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