Approval Voting and Proportional Representation

At Independent Political Report, Ross Levin relays a lengthy and informative article from The New Yorker by Anthony Gottlieb that provides a short history of voting methods and systems in the modern world. The piece compares and contrasts plurality, winner-take-all voting with proportional representation, instant-runoff voting and approval voting. An excerpt dealing with approval and range voting from the end of the article:

Range and approval voting deal neatly with the problem of vote-splitting: if a voter likes Nader best, and would rather have Gore than Bush, he or she can approve Nader and Gore but not Bush. Above all, their advocates say, both schemes give voters more options, and would elect the candidate with the most over-all support, rather than the one preferred by the largest minority. Both can be modified to deliver forms of proportional representation.

The fact that they escape Arrow’s proof, though, doesn’t mean that approval and range voting have no hidden kinks or paradoxes. Whether such ideas can work depends on how people use them. If enough people are carelessly generous with their approval votes, for example, there could be some nasty surprises. In an unlikely set of circumstances, the candidate who is the favorite of more than half the voters could lose. Parties in an approval election might spend less time attacking their opponents, in order to pick up positive ratings from rivals’ supporters, and critics worry that it would favor bland politicians who don’t stand for anything much. Defenders insist that such a strategy would backfire in subsequent elections, if not before, and the case of Ronald Reagan suggests that broad appeal and strong views aren’t mutually exclusive . . .

Mathematics can suggest what approaches are worth trying, but it can’t reveal what will suit a particular place, and best deliver what we want from a democratic voting system: to create a government that feels legitimate to people—to reconcile people to being governed, and give them reason to feel that, win or lose (especially lose), the game is fair. The novelty of range and approval voting in modern politics is so great that we can’t know how they’ll work out without running experiments.

While instant-runoff voting is likely the most well known alternative voting method, polities that have implemented it have already begun struggling with its limitations, thus underscoring the need for voting system experimentation at the state and local level. Dale Sheldon-Hess writes at Least of All Evils:

Dr. David Schultz . . . has posted his report for the Minneapolis Elections Department on the use of ranked choice voting [PDF] (more commonly known as instant runoff voting or IRV), as it was used in that city's recent elections. Schultz was (and apparently still is) a strong supporter of the use of IRV, having previously served as a board member for FairVote Minnesota, a fact he plainly states in his paper's Conflict of Interest heading. And this refreshing honesty continues throughout the document... which probably isn't good news for FairVote's or Dr. Schultz's objectives.

First on the chopping block is the claim that IRV increases turnout . . . We also find that the well-advertised claim of decreased election costs turned out to not be true . . . But my "favorite" part of the report is the section on Spoiled Ballots and Voter Error. Schultz begins by assuring us that "[T]he worst fears were not realized." By which he means IRV only quadrupled the ballot-spoilage rate, from 1.0% to 4.1%. . . . The true measure of an electoral system's quality is how well it can handle highly-contested and close-to-call elections. The predominant examples suggests that IRV would handle such elections poorly; but the Minneapolis data provides no real information for or against that proposition.
Read the whole thing. Dale is, of course, a strong supporter of approval voting and range voting; he's also has recently been involved in an on-going debate with David L. Wetzell, an advocate of strategic election reform and "American Proportional Representation." David sums up his position in the debate at A New Kind of Third Party. I don't know if David is acquainted with
Pete Healey of the Proportional Representation Party, but if not, they should consider getting in contact. In comments to the above-mentioned post at IPR, Pete wrote:
“One size fits all” [voting systems] is a poor guide. Our concept for New York isn’t a complete abolition of single-member districts and isn’t fully proportional (at least at first). It’s a transitional system that would have the state legislature elected half from single-member districts and half by party-line proportional vote. Each voter enters the booth with two votes, one for his/her local rep and the other for the party he/she wishes to represent him/her in the legislature.


JB said...

Approval voting/range voting are pretend reforms that no one uses. Find me a lawmaker who will adopt a system that can un-elect a candidate who 51% of people want as their mayor!

Proportional representation makes a lot of sense. But if you want to change plurality voting, you have to basically go to runoff elections or instant runoffs.

InfoHedon said...

This comment by JB seems an off-sight analysis. It appears that this comment refers to mandating an absolute majority. Yes, it is possible that someone can win in approval voting with less than 50% approval. But that shouldn't detract from that winner's legitimacy, especially since people can give their honest favorite(s). And at worst, range voting is approval. But to the extent any voter votes more expressively, it is better.

Anyway, plurality already fails to demand an absolute majority. And the fact that IRV fails to even look at all the information and incentivizes voting against one's favorite, this can hardly be called progress. A top two runoff is only helpful when a candidate is in the top three of first place preferences--still plenty of opportunity for failure (though better than IRV). IRV's inferiority to range and approval is heavily apparent when the systems are objectively compared by computer analysis. (

Proportional systems are better than single-seat systems regarding representation. But we can still look at proportional range and approval methods, and not all PR systems are equal. And, of course, there are some positions that are inherently single-office. So this is an issue that proportional systems can't solve entirely.

Approval voting does have a history in the US, albeit small. But to state that because a system is a newcomer to the field is to write it off is to be cynical in the worst way. The stakes are too high to take the position as a fatalist. In fact, it is irresponsible.

JB said...

I wasn't clear, InfoHedon. What I means is that a candidate who would win 51% or more in a plurality system can lose in approval voting. That's a tough system to sell to lawmakers and the public.

Approval voting has been around for awhile. There's a reason it hasn't made any headway.

DLW said...

Hi Eris, I do know Pete...

We've gone around a couple. Our diffs center mainly on his desire to help get a 6th or 7th party(fitting his ideological temperament) to win seats.

I'm more ideological flexible and care less about leaving no third party behind, and more about getting a multi-seated election used asap.

JB, it stands to reason that one of the biggest obstacles to any election reform is the fact that the incumbents might be less likely to get reelected when the rules change. Thus, IRV3's bias in favor of incumbents makes it easier to get support for from incumbents.

I push for the use of a limited form of Approval Voting(everyone must give approval to 2 or 3 of 5 or 7 candidates) first in a primary leading up to a 3 or 2 way general election that uses the more widely understood IRV in the general election. Unfortunately, some AV types look on this sort of pragmatism with disdain, since their Bayesian Regret simulations clearly have proven that AV or Range Voting is the best of all possible elections...

DLW said...

I shd add that I also think that American PR would be easier to get adopted in the US sooner and could prove to be a gateway election reform leading to the sort of PR stuff that pete healey wants.

IDK, I want strategic election reform asap!!!


Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

JB: "a candidate who would win 51% or more in a plurality system can lose in approval voting. That's a tough system to sell to lawmakers and the public."

That's true. But, in practice, tends to be irrelevant.

Consider: in a two-candidate race, voters will vote the same whether it's plurality or approval. In a three candidate plurality race though, some voters will have to decide whether to go with their true-favorite (typically a third party) or the "lesser of two evils"; strategically, they should always choose the lesser evil. Meanwhile under approval they will always approve their true-favorite, and will consider also approving the lesser-evil; strategically, they should also approve the lesser-evil.

The only way that a candidate could get >50% under plurality but also LOSE under approval is if voters perceived them as the lesser evil, but many of the voters for BOTH of the major-parties considered the approval-winner to be their true-favorite.

Is that, really, a WORSE outcome?

"Approval voting has been around for awhile. There's a reason it hasn't made any headway."

The recent push for it is based on new data that came to light since 2000. It hasn't made headway because it's only recently begun to be pushed. But expect to hear more of it as time goes on.