This city just approved a new election system never tried before in America

Voters during the 2018 midterm elections.
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There are a lot of different ways to hold a democratic vote. Experts think the system most Americans know best — called “first-past-the-post” — might be among the worst of them. Under our current system, you vote for one candidate; the candidate with the most support at the end of the day wins.

So what’s wrong with that? Quite a lot, actually. First-past-the-post favors two-party systems. It makes it unnecessary to appeal to a broad share of the electorate in multi-candidate races. Voters often have to vote strategically — for the major party candidate they dislike least — rather than honestly — for the candidate they actually want.

Last week, the voters of Fargo, North Dakota, decided to opt out of this way of electing people. They voted overwhelmingly — 64-36 — for a different voting system, one that has never been tried anywhere. It’s called approval voting, a system that allows you to vote for more than one candidate — basically, any of the candidates you approve of on the ballot. The move toward it is part of a growing interest in improving our democracy by changing the way we vote, toward methods that promote less polarization.

Fargo elects its city commissioners. In 2015, there was a six-way race for one seat and the winning candidate won with 21.8 percent of the vote. That inspired members of the commission to wonder if that was really the output of a healthy democratic process. They created an election task force, and the election task force set to work looking at different options for conducting Fargo elections.

They hit on approval voting. The resulting landslide vote in favor of the system — which goes into effect the next election cycle — suggests that voters are intrigued by the idea of improving our political processes.

First-past-the-post might be contributing to political polarization

Fargo’s election task force reached out to the Center for Election Science, which researches better voting systems and works to get them put into practice. Aaron Hamlin, its executive director, told me of our first-past-the-post system: “It’s the worst voting method there is.”

Because it forces a voter to vote strategically from a slate of candidates, it’s demoralizing for voters, and it likely contributes to the predominance of the two major American political parties.

First-past-the-post is particularly badly equipped for elections like the one in Fargo, with six candidates running — a candidate who is loathed by most of the electorate can still win (though to be clear, this isn’t necessarily what happened in Fargo).

First-past-the-post, Hamlin told me, “tends to split votes for moderates. ... It favors more polarized candidates. Third parties and independents often get an artificially low amount of support.”

Of course, a moderate candidate isn’t necessarily a better one. But anyone who is poorly represented by the platform of either major party might be excited at the idea of more alternatives on their ballot.

One of Hamlin’s favorite examples of the failures of first-past-the-post voting is the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election. There was a moderate candidate: widely liked Democratic incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer. Among the other candidates were the notoriously corrupt Democrat Edwin Edwards, later sentenced to a decade in federal prison for racketeering, and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, a Republican.

Roemer did overwhelmingly better than Edwards in head-to-head polling. Roemer also did overwhelmingly better than Duke in head-to-head polling. But he lost to both of them in the three-way open primary, so the general election was between a racketeer and a white supremacist — even though the electorate of Louisiana preferred Roemer over either of them, according to Hamlin. (Edwards eventually won, after a runoff election known for bumper stickers that said “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”)

Approval voting seeks to avoid such scenarios. The system is exceptionally simple: You just vote for all the candidates you like. Say there are six candidates on the ballot and you happen to like three of them. Under approval voting, you mark all three on your ballot. Whoever nets the most approval votes win.

“Approval voting allows you to always support your honest favorite,” Hamlin told me. “It seems simple, but it’s surprisingly hard to do.” In approval voting, you don’t have to vote strategically — you are never better off leaving your favorite off your ballot.

The Center for Election Science has argued that approval voting is better than most other voting systems at electing a candidate who would beat all other candidates in a head-to-head match, if there is such a candidate. That might mean we’d elect more candidates who had broad favorability and fewer who appeal to a narrow base.

How many ways can you hold a vote? Lots.

In an election with more than two candidates, it matters a lot which voting system you’re using. One way it matters is the effects on third-party candidates. In ranked-choice and approval voting systems, you can express support for more than one person, which can be a good way for third-party candidates and independent candidates to get a toehold. That’s strongly disincentivized by first-past-the-post.

There’s actually an entire field of study dedicated to ways of holding a democratic vote. No voting system is perfect across the board. No system is simple, fair, proportionate, incentivizes honest rather than strategic voting, and chooses the candidate voters want in every single election. But that doesn’t mean some systems aren’t much better, or much worse, than others.

Approval voting is one such alternative. Another is something called ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, lets voters list their first, second, third, etc. choice of candidates. “You vote for whoever you want,” said Lee Drutman, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributor to Polyarchy, an independent blog published on Vox and produced by the political reform program at New America. “And then you pick your second, third, and fourth choice, and when your top choice is eliminated, your vote gets transferred.”

Ranked-choice voting has been put into use in municipal elections from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco, and in 2018 it was used in a congressional election for the first time, in Maine. (Maine is still figuring out who won.)

Ranked-choice voting means that a third-party candidate is less likely to be a “spoiler.” It could allow more third-party candidates to run. It also means that candidates can form informal alliances — telling their supporters “vote for me first, and vote for this other candidate second.”

Drutman thinks this might make vicious attack ads against your opponents less appealing as a strategy: “You need to get the other candidates to vote for you a little bit, to say, ‘Vote for me, but put them second,’ which encourages more civility.”

Critics of ranked-choice voting complain that it doesn’t fully solve the problem of strategic voting. In a contested three-way race where all three candidates have a credible shot at winning, it can still make strategic sense to rank someone else above your favorite.

Critics also worry that, while ranked-choice voting should in theory promote the growth of third parties, it doesn’t seem to have done that in the cities where it’s been implemented so far. But Drutman emphasized that ranked-choice voting has increased viewpoint diversity and ensured winners better reflect the cities they represent — it’s just that most cities are single-party in the US. All three of the candidates in San Francisco’s recent ranked-choice mayoral election were nominally Democrats — but they had genuine differences in ideology and worldview, and voters used the ranked-choice system to select a moderate.

“Ranked-choice voting has been used for 100 years in Australia,” Drutman said, “A proportional form of it has been used in Ireland.” He is optimistic it will catch on here, too.

Experiments in democracy

Ranked-choice voting encourages voters to pick their first, second, third, etc. choice. That allows for more nuanced ballots, but it also makes for more complicated ballots. Some research has found that ranked-choice voting produces an unusually high rate of spoiled ballots. That might just be because voters aren’t used to ranked-choice voting. But it’s also inspired some cities to experiment with other voting systems.

As for approval voting, some people worry that it might be frustrating or unclear for voters. “Approval voting just says, ‘I’m okay with all these people,’” Drutman says, “but it doesn’t allow you to say that you’d like one more than the rest.” It’s not clear how much voters will make use of their opportunity to vote for more than one candidate.

But what Hamlin and Drutman both agree on is that the current system is plainly worse. “Any elections expert will tell you that it’s probably the worst voting system for broader representation,” Drutman told me, echoing Hamlin’s lament.

Fargo decided to heed these critics’ calls. Their new election law will go into place the next time they go to the ballot box.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who served from 1916 to 1939, once said that the role of states in America was as “laboratories” of democracy. Each state, and each city, can try things that haven’t been tried before. Others can observe and copy the methods that are working the best. In that way, these small-scale experiments with obscure voting systems can grow into something that transforms American politics.

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