Alternatives to plurality voting: Approval voting

Approval voting is one of many alternatives to our system of plurality voting, but how does it work?

In most elections in the United States, the winner is decided by plurality voting. That is, whoever gets the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not they win a majority of votes (at least 50 percent +1). There are other methods of selecting elected officials that are used in parts of the United States, mostly at the local level. These methods seek to better represent the will of the voters and give voters different choices in electing their representatives. This is the third article in a series examining some of those methods. The first article looked at our current plurality voting system, and the second examined ranked-choice voting.

Approval voting is one of the most widely supported alternatives to plurality voting. One of the primary reasons for that is its simplicity. Approval voting would not require any changes to currently used voting machines or traditional ballots.

The key difference between approval voting and plurality voting is that approval voting allows voters to choose as many candidates as they want. Then, all the votes are added up, and the candidate with the most votes win. It’s that simple.

Supporters of approval voting often point out these benefits of approval voting, compared to other alternatives:

  • It allows voters to be more expressive, showing support for multiple candidates if they want
  • There is no vote splitting or spoilers
  • A voter can never get a worse result by voting for their favorite
  • There are significantly fewer spoiled ballots
  • Results are easy to understand
  • It tends to elect candidates who would beat all rivals head-to-head
  • Alternative candidates get a more accurate measure of support

For an example of how approval voting works, and why many feel it leads to better outcomes than plurality voting, check out this video from The Center for Election Science.

In the first example in the video, the candidate aligned with a minority of the voters wins the election because the other two candidates split the votes of those who supported both of them. This has happened many times in our plurality voting system.

The second example shows how using approval voting, the candidate who aligns with the majority of voters wins and the candidate who had acted as the “spoiler,” splitting votes from a similar candidate, in the first example, actually ends up with the second most votes.

While there are multiple alternatives to our current system of plurality voting that are presented as better alternatives, one of the significant advantages to approval voting compare to these other alternatives is that it would function using our current voting machines and traditional ballots.

What do you think? Would approval voting be a better way to elect our representatives? Could it lead to more unity around candidates and campaigns that are more positive? Give it some thought, and stay tuned for future articles on this topic.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information. 

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