Who Approves of Approval Voting?

Like many folks with a passion for math and a dusty collection of West Wing DVDs, I’m attracted to political systems. Not just politics, but the meta-systems in which politics unfolds.

Forget the sport; I’m interested in the arena.

Peculiarities and asymmetries fascinate me. I can’t help trying to smooth out the wrinkles, to imagine a more elegant approach, whatever it might be. Take the Electoral College, which, if you were to start from scratch, is probably not where you’d land.

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Just one problem: I’m never sure how much this systems-level thinking matters. Political institutions do not reside in a Platonic, abstract realm. They are instantiated in actual nations, with their own quirks of history and culture.

A system can be great in theory, but flop in practice. Or vice versa. And the same system may work smoothly in one place yet lead to ruin in another. Is analyzing a political system in the abstract, then, like trying to describe a city without reference to its people?

Here’s an example. As the 2020 Democratic primary consumes an increasing share of my peripheral vision, I can’t help reaffirming my love of approval voting. In this system, you vote for as many candidates as you want, and the one with the most votes wins.

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It seems a good fit for primaries, which are arguably about seeking a consensus candidate that excites and unifies the whole party. (It’s also a good fit for my own psychological quirks; when picking restaurants, for example, I’m happy to name a few possibilities, but I hate having to narrow it down to one. This goes extra when we’re talking not about lunch, but about entrusting a single human with the awesome and absolute power of the turkey pardon.)

But here’s the thing. Approval voting would shift the dynamics of primaries, and a systems-level approach isn’t enough to tell us how they’d shift.

Would there be more alliance-building? (“Senator Petunia and I have very similar views, so vote for both of us!”) Would such alliances become to sharper, better-defined factions within the party, thereby (paradoxically) increasing acrimony? Or would there be fewer direct attacks between candidates, letting the eventual winner enter the general election less scathed? And if so, would this leave said candidate stronger (because undamaged) or weaker (because untested by battle)?

These are not logical or systemic questions. They are particular and historical, a matter of how humans would act in the full complexity of circumstance.

Oh well. When it comes to politics, I’ll stick with what I know: groan-inducing puns.

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7 thoughts on “Who Approves of Approval Voting?

  1. As the Parties are currently constituted I’m guessing that with “approval voting” you would end up with Biden, Warren, and Sanders, facing off against Trump, David Duke, and Putin (but just an educated guess).

  2. The Arrow impossibility theorem says that there is no perfect voting system. Which flaws would you like to institutionalize into the system?

    Every system has inefficiencies. If there are inefficiencies, successful politicians will exploit them.

    All political systems evolve to maximal inefficiency!

    1. In an interview, Kenneth Arrow made a nice analogy. He said there is no perfect voting system in the way that there is no perfect engine (in an engine, some energy must be lost to friction and the like). However, in the same way that some engines are better than others, some voting systems are better than others.
      I can’t help but think that in America we can do better.

  3. Ben: congratulations on another work of thought, humor and intellect. And thanks for the signed copy to Deb and me. Best wishes. Jim


  4. Katherine Gehl and Micael Porter have an interesting idea for voting reform (gehlporter.com, featured in Freakonomics ep. 356). Have a single primary election for all candidates, open to all voters – in this primary, voters use approval voting. Then the top four candidates move on to a second round of voting that is ranked-choice/instant-runoff.

    Ranked-choice has been shown to be pretty good, but it’s hard to rank when you have a lot of options. That’s why I like their strategy of approval voting to narrow down the field.

    (Hmm. Upon closer reading of the Gehl/Porter proposal, it’s not clear that they actually intend approval voting for the primary. However, I still think this would be a perfect use for approval voting.)

  5. Please meet Condorcet voting.
    The political system should be built such that the motivational structure supports the intended function of the roles.
    Condorcet prefers the strategy of integrating every views for the candidate. The current voting system prefers those who create fear and hatred.
    Condorcet motivates the voters to state their preference honestly. The current voting system motivates them to lie (a.k.a. tactical voting).
    Condorcet creates a situation when voters drive out corrupt politicians from the profession. The current situation keep them in power.
    The above are results of proven game theory theorems, supported by real-world observations.

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