Even if you’ve never heard of approval voting, says Frank Atwood, the founder and chair of the Approval Voting Party in Colorado, you probably know what it is. “It’s familiar to us all as a show of hands,” he says. For example, when picking what movie to watch or which restaurant to go to, he says, “If friends wanna stay friends, they do a show of hands, and they don’t tell people you can only vote once.”
That’s the system Atwood believes should be used to elect pretty much every public office in the country, from small-town mayors to the President of the United States. Instead of checking one box, he argues, voters should simply be able to check off any and all of the candidates they approve of. The one with the most approval wins. Atwood touts approval voting as a fix to partisanship and what he sees as a frequent choice between the lesser of two evils. It’s easy to implement and understand, he says, and it could help break up the two-party system.
It’s a long way from achieving that goal, but it just got one small step closer. At the beginning of October, the Approval Voting Party reached over 1,000 registered affiliated voters, granting it minor party status in Colorado, which means it will be able to nominate candidates for the ballot without having to petition for signatures.
The Approval Voting Party ran its first candidates in Colorado in the 2016 general election (Frank Atwood for president, co-founder Blake Huber for vice president). It’s a single-issue, non-partisan political party. Although Atwood leans libertarian in his personal views (he also ran as a Libertarian to represent House District 1 in 2012 and 2014), the party has no platform other than improving voting methods, he says.
Atwood is very pleased about getting minor-party status, but not necessarily because he hopes it will help him or any other party member get into office. "My wife has a rule: I can run for any office I want as long as there's no chance I'll win," he says.
Rather, the goal of becoming a party is to “get the concept in front of every voter” by showing up on the ballot. The Approval Voting Party is likely to run candidates in the 2020 election, including a presidential candidate and maybe candidates for a few state government positions. The party will nominate its own candidates via approval voting, he confirms. He thinks growing as a party is the best way to gain support for the idea, at least for now.
Atwood says he first heard of approval voting in a 2008 book called Gaming the Vote, by William Poundstone, which argues that politicians are taking advantage of the majority vote system and suggests alternative options. He then learned of the academic side: NYU political scientist and game theorist Steven Brams and mathematician Peter Fishburn fleshed out a contemporary theory of approval voting in a 2014 paper in which they argue that "approval voting is the most sincere and most strategy-proof of all [single-ballot non-ranked] voting systems."
While it may sound like a quirky new idea, approval voting is arguably one of the most ancient voting methods employed in pseudo-democratic processes. According to the first-century biographer Plutarch, the Spartans used a form of approval voting to elect members to its council of elders; in this more subjective and chaotic version, an officiator would call electors' names, and electors would shout at louder volumes for those they supported more. And those with the loudest shouts would win. Approval voting was also used to elect popes in medieval Europe; the U.N. also uses a form of approval voting to nominate its secretary general.
While some minor parties (such as the Independent Party in Oregon) and private entities (like Dartmouth College) have used approval voting for internal elections, the method has never been tried before in U.S. electoral politics. But it will be tested soon. After a contentious 2015 local election in which a city commissioner won a seat in a six-way race with only 26 percent of the vote, the city of Fargo, North Dakota, commissioned an elections task force to study alternative methods. In 2018, residents voted 64-36 to change their system to approval voting.
The Center for Election Science, a 501(c)(3) research group based in California, was partially behind the effort in Fargo. According to executive director Aaron Hamlin, he and a group of other "nerdy folks," who all agreed that the U.S. voting system was not working, got together in 2011 to try to figure out something better. After studying voting methods, including instant runoff elections and rank choice voting, which the state of Maine uses, it ultimately decided that approval voting was the most utilitarian system, as well as the most fiscally feasible. It can run on even "the dumbest voting machines," Hamlin says.
After receiving a $1.8 million grant from the Open Philanthropy Project in February, the center is rolling out a national campaign to educate and push for a transition to approval voting. Its website includes a tool to practice approval voting on cute animal pictures, as well as a more serious election simulator tool that visualizes how elections would pan out with different voting systems. It is now pushing to put a measure for approval voting on the ballot in St. Louis.
Hamlin's group has helped grow the debate surrounding alternative voting methods beyond a niche field of political science. Prior to the 2016 election, Hamlin conducted a study in which a group of voters were presented with a set of actual and potential candidates in the general presidential election, and asked to independently say how much they liked each candidate. Participants were then run through four different voting methods: the plurality method, approval voting, range voting and instant-runoff voting. The study determined that approval voting most closely approximated the sum of the individual preferences of voters (who happened to favor Bernie Sanders).
Atwood views approval voting primarily as a way to ease voters' frustration at being forced into a choice between the lesser of two evils, or voting for strategic reasons rather than voting with their conscience. Say, for instance, that you like two candidates in your local school board race. In our current voting system, you might choose to vote for the one you think is more likely to win, even if you truly support the other more, because you don't want to "waste your vote" on someone without a chance. Approval voting would eliminate the need to gamble on which candidate already has the most support. You could simply vote for the candidate you really like, as well as the one you half-heartedly like but who has a better shot at beating out that really, really bad one.
If it does gain traction, approval voting could shift the way the political system runs. Because it would enable voters to support minor parties and candidates more freely, it would give them more traction, potentially elevating them to the point where they could realistically compete with the big wigs.
Once third-party or independent candidates can more easily get the momentum they need, Hamlin says, approval voting would increase the likelihood that more centrist parties, or those with more broad appeal, would win. He also says approval voting would encourage broader education. "It incentivizes voters to look further down the ballot than they may otherwise," he says.
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Like any system, approval voting could have its downsides. Critics worry that it would enable voters to approve candidates they don't know much about, or that because it only gives two options (yea or nay), voters can't express higher support for one candidate compared to another.
"I’ll acknowledge, it is possible that approval voting could be disastrous," Atwood says. "I’d like to see it tested at the local level."
That's what Atwood will try to push. The Littleton resident sits on the board of the election commission for that city; earlier this year, the commission passed a resolution pushing the city to adopt approval voting. It died at city council, but Atwood says he will keep trying to pitch the idea to municipalities in Colorado. Home-rule municipalities generally have authority to control how they run their own elections, unless the elections extend into multiple counties, in which case they are subject to parameters set by the state.
"We feel approval voting is the easiest one to implement to improve our system with optimum return on investment," Atwood says. "When I woke up to approval voting, I thought, 'Oh wow, this is a paradigm shift.'"