New adventures in electoral systems. Approval voting

New adventures in electoral systems. Approval voting

Settle down at the back, I can tell you’re getting overexcited. The midterm elections in the US have been endlessly pored over. One result, however, may have more far-reaching effects than most. Or not.

Politics does not want for different voting systems. We have first past the post, the method used to elect MPs. We have the single transferable vote, the method used to elect TDs in Ireland. Around the world you find a variety of systems of proportional representation for selecting legislatures, such as the D’Hondt method, the Webster method and the Imperiali method. The Labour party selects its leader by the alternative vote. London selects its mayor by the supplementary vote. The Conservative party selects its leader by an exhaustive ballot (with a different electorate in the final round).

A new contender has emerged from Fargo, North Dakota. Previously most associated with a series of cinematic and televisual grisly murders (unfairly, since none of these murders actually took place in Fargo), that town has just voted to adopt Approval Voting in future elections.

What is Approval Voting? The successful campaigners explained it here. Simply, you vote for all the candidates that you approve of. The candidate who receives the most votes wins.

You can hear the game theorists sharpening their pencils from here. The permutations are much more complex than with most systems. For any given number of candidates n, you can cast your vote in (2n-1) different ways (casting your votes for all candidates and no candidates is substantively identical). So if there are seven candidates, there are 127 different ways of voting. Let no one complain about voter choice.

Candidates will do best who are acceptable to the widest number of voters. That should favour pragmatists over purists in most circumstances. It also blows up the party system. The party machine can’t impose an apparatchik on a constituency because a popular local candidate can simply stand anyway as an independent. Parties are going to have to pay attention to what the electorate wants as opposed to what the party wants them to have. More likely, parties are probably in due course going to put more than one candidate before the electorate and let them choose their preference, or anyone with an agenda that has a substantial body of support is going to chance their arm anyway.

Different groups of voters will have different challenges. Hardliners are going to need to consider how far they compromise their principles. If they decide to vote only for the ideologically pure, they could well see their vote rendered irrelevant by more flexible citizens. So they might need to hold their noses and give the nod to other candidates in order to try to exclude the really unacceptable choices.

Voters near the centre of the political pendulum, on the other hand can afford to be picky in the knowledge that many voters will be having to make greater compromises. They can encourage candidates with similar positions to stand and then choose on nuances.

There looks to be a danger that alternative voices will tend to be shut out even more firmly than under first past the post.  This is unhealthy if the consensus needs challenging. One of the key features of any effective electoral system is that it is able to move with changing political opinions. If approval voting takes too long to adapt to changed circumstances, we can expect in due course to see it fed through the wood chipper.

Alastair Meeks

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