I spend a lot of time talking to people across the country about our work at The Center for Election Science to strengthen democracy. I’ve found that people are ecstatic to hear that there is a way to do so simply by changing the way we vote. But there are dozens of voting methods out there. So how do we decide which is best?
Well, that depends on who you ask and what criteria they’re using. But as experts in this field, we’ve developed a short list of criteria that we find to be critical for any voting method.
Does it Choose a “Good” Winner?
People often ask me what makes a “good” winner in an election, and they’re surprised when I share that it has nothing to do with the candidate and their platform. What we’re really asking is “How happy are voters with the chosen winner?”
Ideally, the voting method should consistently elect a candidate who makes the average voter feel satisfied with the outcome—not one who leads to further political polarization.
Does it Foster Real Competition?
Nearly 40 percent of voters in the United States identify as independent, yet there are only four independents serving in Congress. Right now, independents can certainly run, but they face a low likelihood of winning as they’re labeled “spoilers” who will make it harder for the similar, mainstream candidate to win a race.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Other voting methods allow voters to honestly vote for the candidates they like without fearing they’ll be a spoiler. They can even help candidates really see how much support they have from the electorate, even if they don’t win. By allowing candidates to see that they’re supported, even if they’re not the favorite, we encourage those candidates to run and express their opinions. And greater diversity of candidates running means more choice for voters.
Is it Simple?
There are already many barriers that discourage people from voting, from the complicated process to get registered or just the fact that life can be really busy. For that reason, the voting method should remain as simple as possible so it isn’t an additional reason voters don’t turn out to the polls. We also want the method to be simple to implement. Some voting methods require new software that election administrators don’t have. And even if the machine’s software supports a voting method, it may still require added complexities such as counting every ballot at one central location.
So, how do alternative voting methods stack up against these criteria? Unfortunately, this isn’t an exhaustive academic paper on voting methods, so we’ll focus on just a few of the alternative voting methods with the most momentum right now.
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)/Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)
Probably the only alternative voting method you’ve heard about, after being the first alternative voting method to be implemented at the state level. IRV allows voters to rank the candidates in an election in order of preference, and the candidate with the majority of first-choice votes wins. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the least first-choice votes is eliminated, and those voters’ second-choice candidates receive their votes. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of the vote. IRV does a better job of electing voters’ true favorite candidates than our current method and encourages more competition. But, it can be costly for cities with older voting machines to implement and can lead to unexpected results in tight races.
STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff) Voting
A newer method, STAR, allows voters to score each candidate on a scale and then the two candidates with the highest scores enter an automatic runoff, with voters’ ballots cast to whichever candidate they scored highest. It hasn’t yet been studied to determine its effectiveness at selecting a “good” winner, but it appears that it should lead to more competition and better winners. It also hasn’t been implemented in an election yet, so some questions about implementation remain.
Studied since the 1970s and often cited as one of the best alternative voting methods, approval voting simply asks voters to select all the candidates they approve of and the candidate with the most votes wins. It’s been shown to easily elect a “good” candidate and encourage competition. However, this simplicity comes at a cost that frustrates some, as voters can’t differentiate between how much they like or dislike candidates.
As you can see, each alternative voting method has its strengths and weaknesses, and none is perfect. However, all are better than our current voting method, which is why organizations around the country are working hard to see these methods adopted. In the next part of our series, we’ll share more about what The Center for Election Science see as the best solution, and how can you help make that a reality.
Original Contribution by Kirsten Elliott, Director of Philanthropy at The Center for Election Science.
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