Say there’s an independent or a third party candidate that you really like, but you’re looking at them and you think: ‘God, this person is never going to win, what I should really be doing is looking just among the major parties, and choosing a lesser of two evils.’ With approval voting, you don’t have to do that; you can have your cake and eat it too.
In 1991 Edwin Edwards won the Louisiana gubernatorial election. In 2001, he was found guilty of racketeering and received a 10 year invitation to Federal prison. The strange thing about that election? By 1991 Edwards was already notorious for his corruption. Actually, that’s not it.
The truly strange thing is that Edwards was clearly the good guy in the race. How is that possible?
His opponent was former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
How could Louisiana end up having to choose between a criminal and a Nazi sympathiser?
It’s not like they lacked other options: the state’s moderate incumbent governor Buddy Roemer ran for re-election. Polling showed that Roemer was massively preferred to both the career criminal and the career bigot, and would easily win a head-to-head election against either.
Unfortunately, in Louisiana every candidate from every party competes in the first round, and the top two then go on to a second – a so-called ‘jungle primary’. Vote splitting squeezed out the middle, and meant that Roemer was eliminated in the first round.
Louisiana voters were left with only terrible options, in a run-off election mostly remembered for the proliferation of bumper stickers reading “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
We could look at this as a cultural problem, exposing widespread enthusiasm for bribery and racism that will take generations to overcome. But according to Aaron Hamlin, Executive Director of The Center for Election Science (CES), there’s a simple way to make sure we never have to elect someone hated by more than half the electorate: change how we vote.
He advocates an alternative voting method called approval voting, in which you can vote for as many candidates as you want, not just one. That means that you can always support your honest favorite candidate, even when an election seems like a choice between the lesser of two evils.
While it might not seem sexy, this single change could transform politics. Approval voting is adored by voting researchers, who regard it as the best simple voting system available.
Which do they regard as unquestionably the worst? First-past-the-post – precisely the disastrous system used and exported around the world by the US and UK.
Aaron has a practical plan to spread approval voting across the US using ballot initiatives – and it just might be our best shot at making politics a bit less unreasonable.
The Center for Election Science is a U.S. non-profit which aims to fix broken government by helping the world adopt smarter election systems. They recently received a $600,000 grant from the Open Philanthropy Project to scale up their efforts.
Get this episode now by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or check out the transcript below.
In this comprehensive conversation Aaron and I discuss:
- Why hasn’t everyone just picked the best voting system already? Why is this a tough issue?
- How common is it for voting systems to produce suboptimal outcomes, or even disastrous ones?
- What is approval voting? What are its biggest downsides?
- The positives and negatives of different voting methods used globally
- The difficulties of getting alternative voting methods implemented
- Do voting theorists mostly agree on the best voting method?
- Are any unequal voting methods – where those considered more politically informed get a disproportional say – viable options?
- Does a lack of general political knowledge from an electorate mean we need to keep voting methods simple?
- How does voting reform stack up on the 80,000 Hours metrics of scale, neglectedness and solvability?
- Is there anywhere where these reforms have been tested so we can see the expected outcomes?
- Do we see better governance in countries that have better voting systems?
- What about the argument that we don’t want the electorate to have more influence (because of their at times crazy views)?
- How much does a voting method influence a political landscape? How would a change in voting method affect the two party system?
- How did the voting system affect the 2016 US presidential election?
- Is there a concern that changing to approval voting would lead to more extremist candidates getting elected?
- What’s the practical plan to get voting reform widely implemented? What’s the biggest challenge to implementation?
- Would it make sense to target areas of the world that are currently experiencing a period of political instability?
- Should we try to convince people to use alternative voting methods in their everyday lives (when going to the movies, or choosing a restaurant)?
- What staff does CES need? What would they do with extra funding? What do board members do for a nonprofit?
The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.