Why I choose not to vote in our present system

© Bradley Lehman, 9/6/01. Send comments to bpl@umich.edu...

Our present method of public elections, Simple Plurality voting, is fatally flawed. It does not allow voters to express thoughtfully balanced opinions. In effect, it 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. It 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. And all this is caused by the mathematical flaws in the voting method!

Simple Plurality (SP) lets the voter affirm only one candidate even if several are attractive. With more than two reasonable options on the ballot, it breaks down: it does not listen to any alternate preferences the voter might have. 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.

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 the societal polarization it causes makes it even worse. So, I exercise my free right NOT to vote, as a protest against the system. My deliberate failure to show up at the polls does not mean I don't care, or that I am an irresponsible citizen. (I have heard both accusations.) Not at all. It means I am being practical and following my convictions. I feel so powerless to influence the election with a sincere ballot, my conscience honestly tells me to put my time to better use rather than voting a sham.

But there is hope. Mathematicians and political scientists have known for years about sounder and more expressive 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 I am a thoughtful and well-informed citizen, and familiar with the issues, I probably have SOME opinion about more than one candidate, and can see some merit in more than one. Approval or Preference ballots let me express those relative opinions. I can affirm as many candidates as I wish, whether it a strong choice for only one, or "any-but-THAT-one," or somewhere in between: "either of these two would be better than any of those other three." Such a ballot lets me do the best I can to help ANY of my acceptable candidates be elected, not necessarily pinning all my hopes on only one.

Both the Preference and 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. Political parties will have to present 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 merit, their public service. And 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.

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.

Leaders listening to and serving the public with thoughtful and creative solutions? Parties running clean campaigns? Voters satisfied that they expressed their convictions and were heard? That all sounds like a healthy democracy! But our present American society is only halfway there, held back by the insidious flaws of Simple Plurality voting. SP causes a "win/lose" mentality in every issue, giving us destructively polarized thinking and campaigning: everybody tries to make sure "the bad people" don't get their way. That all seems so selfish and (dare I say) childish! A better voting method would encourage us all to seek more productive and creative "win/win" solutions for as many citizens as possible.

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.

For the more extensive version of this essay, please see http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/better-voting.htm

Bradley Lehman, Dayton VA
September 6, 2001

(For a local newspaper's editorial page. This is a shorter and rewritten version of my web essay, "Away with Simple Plurality!")

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