Away with Simple Plurality!

© Bradley Lehman, 9/5/01. Send comments to

Recently I received two mass-mailed brochures: both are purely negative campaign pieces run by one large party against a presumably dangerous opponent, the other large party, but saying nothing about the sender's own candidates or platform. This mudslinging tactic insults the intelligence of the voting public. As distasteful as it is, however, it is not the root of the problem. That root cause is in a perhaps unexpected place: our present voting method does not allow voters to express thoughtfully balanced opinions.

Our familiar Simple Plurality (SP) method allows the voter to affirm only one candidate even if several are attractive. When there are more than two reasonable options on the ballot, it breaks down: it does not listen to any alternate preferences the voter might have. Cast your vote for someone who may or may not be your own first choice, to maximize your chances that some acceptable candidate will win: we are so accustomed to this severe limitation that we hardly imagine any more expressive method of voting might exist.

SP remarkably discourages participation, since votes are "wasted" if they are either for clearly losing candidates or for runaway winners. That is not just a perception, it is a mathematical fact of the SP method: in either of those situations many voters' ballots simply do not count. A voter's failure to show up at the polls does not necessarily mean he doesn't care, or that he is an irresponsible citizen. Not at all. It might simply mean he is being practical and deliberate: he feels so powerless to influence the election with a sincere ballot, his conscience honestly tells him to put his time to better use rather than voting a sham. I know that is how I feel, anyway, considering myself a thoughtful independent.

Things get even worse when an election by SP seems close. The voter who wants to influence the outcome often must play a strategic guessing game, voting insincerely just to make sure a perceived "greatest evil" does not win. If Jane truly prefers candidate A over B or C, but feels that A has no chance to win, she must vote insincerely for B to see her vote matter at all against C, even if she doesn't really like B very much. Or if an election has two candidates X and Y with similar profiles, they might divide their supporters and BOTH lose to Z, even though either X or Y would have beaten Z directly; X and Y effectively spoil each other's chance of winning. How does Jane decide which of X or Y to vote for to best help one of them beat Z? These are serious mathematical flaws, however one feels about any of the actual candidates!

If the voting method does not encourage voters to be sincere, or to show up at all, or let us feel heard for our effort in participating, how is the outcome meaningful?

I morally object to our present method because of the wasted votes and the insincere guessing games. A method so mathematically flawed offends me enough to make me stay home. And then the societal polarization that follows makes it even worse.

In effect, our present voting method polarizes every election (and indeed every controversial issue) into only two practical choices, plus perhaps some "spoilers" that siphon popular support away from those two. This artificial polarization deeply infects every political process and leads to ongoing public resentment, even long after the elections are over. It prevents citizens and leaders from seeing the issues objectively. It stimulates argument, yes, but it does not encourage listening. It trains us all to think only in extremes, not considering the often fruitful grey areas and creative alternatives. Everything is molded into adversarial win/lose packages with only two possible practical solutions. And all this is caused by the flaws in the voting method!

That is not the only way to run an election in a democracy. Mathematicians and political scientists have known for years about more expressive (yet still simple) voting methods, and such methods are already in use in American professional societies and in other countries. For example, Preference voting allows voters to number as many alternate options as they wish, in an order of preference, and there are several practical procedures to tabulate these ballots. Another method, Approval voting, allows voters to mark as many options as they would be content with: simply a yes or no for every individual candidate, and the candidate with the most yes votes wins.

Look at it from a voter's perspective. If Jane is a thoughtful and well-informed citizen, and familiar with the issues, she probably has SOME opinion about more than one candidate. Approval or Preference ballots let her express those relative opinions. Jane can support as many candidates as she wishes, whether it is only one or "any-but-THAT-one" or somewhere in between: "either of these two would be better than any of those other three." If Jane's true preference is for A over B, and both of them over the horrible C, it does her no good to vote for only B (C's supposedly strongest opponent) without also voting for A first. As I noted above, our present system forces her to vote insincerely for only B if she feels a vote for A would probably be wasted; and consequently A never sees the honest support that might exist!

Both the Preference or Approval methods listen to deeper opinions of the voters beyond a first choice, so no ballots are ever wasted or meaningless. Voters can express their consciences honestly and feel that it is worth going to the polls: their opinions about the candidates WILL be heard even if their favorites do not win this time.

The tabulated results in an election should represent the honest proportional amounts of support for winning and losing candidates, showing how conclusive or close the mandate is for the winner. Preference and (especially) Approval methods do well at this. SP is notably bad at it: the proportions are often wildly skewed by the insincere strategic votes when it's close, or the abstentions when it's not. Again, SP results border on being meaningless.

When alternate voting methods are proposed, the obvious quick objection is: "This is America, one person gets ONE vote, that is democracy!" But look at it objectively in a deeper second breath: with the Approval or Preference methods, each voter still gets exactly one ballot and therefore it is still democracy. Every voter's ballot counts equally. The crucial difference is that the voter's single ballot can effectively express honestly mixed feelings that are just as valid as a polarized opinion is. Preference and Approval methods listen to the wishes of ALL the voters, not only the presently polarized voters. Shouldn't democracy be based on listening to all the voters?

How would a mathematically fairer voting method affect our society? More voters will participate, and will feel better served by the process. Parties will have to focus on presenting the issues intelligently and objectively, advertising the positive outcomes they will deliver if elected. The disrespectful campaign strategy of openly bashing an adversary will be self-destructive: it would lose the possibly crucial alternate-choice votes of citizens like me who value forthright honesty and a clean campaign. We will elect our leaders on their positive merit, their service, not on their ability to polarize us against their most dangerous adversary. To retain the necessary broad base of support, elected leaders will have to listen carefully to ALL the public, not special interest groups or only a majority party. All these improvements can come from simply changing the voting method! What a difference it could make!

As for the methods themselves, I personally prefer Approval over Preference for mathematical reasons too involved to describe here; the work of Steven Brams and Kenneth Arrow (among others) is crucial. Also, adoption of Approval voting would not require any constitutional amendments, many existing voting machines could still be used, and the tabulation of results is quick and straightforward. (Try it yourself with a group of friends choosing a can be done informally with a simple hand count, no ballots required!) But in the bigger picture it is much more important to me that either Approval or Preference would be far superior to Simple Plurality, and should replace it as soon as possible. SP is so deeply flawed that I cannot in good conscience participate in it. I don't plan to vote until and unless SP goes away.

Most issues really have more than two possible solutions, because life is interesting and complex. Outcomes need not be only "win/lose" as caused by our present system. We could look for third, fourth, even fifth ways that give "win/win" solutions for as many citizens as possible; is that not what elected leaders are supposed to deliver? But to get there we must first abandon the flawed Simple Plurality system because it leads directly to destructively polarized thinking and campaigning. Let each voter affirm as many candidates as he/she would be content with!

Obviously it will take plenty of work to change voting methods: why would anyone currently in power want to change the system that put them there? Presently polarized voters who think of democracy only as A vs B may have to rethink that understanding and listen to their less polarized neighbors. Small parties and independent voters will of course welcome any chance to be heard, any chance to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the large parties would naturally hate to see any respectable additional challengers with a reasonable chance of winning, and will probably viciously oppose any change: it would threaten their duopoly.

Yes, a change to a better voting method will be difficult. But I suggest it is worth trying, and worth thinking in these directions. Good creative competition can make all our options stronger, more positive, and better focused. And a fairer method of choosing a winner would allow and encourage many more people to participate in voting their convictions. I, for one, would then choose to go vote.

Bradley Lehman, Dayton VA
September 5, 2001

More about Approval voting...

See also a second version of this essay rewritten for a newspaper editorial page.

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