Commentary & Analysis

Is Our Centuries-Old Ballot Out of Date?

Michigan voters adore Republicans and Democrats. What else explains the way these two parties completely dominate Michigan government?

By Aaron Hamlin

By: Aaron Hamlin

This article was originally published in The New Citizens Press.

Something Old: Plurality

Michigan voters adore Republicans and Democrats. What else explains the way these two parties completely dominate Michigan government?

Alternatives find their way to the ballot, so voters obviously have options.
How extreme is this void for alternatives? Say you wanted to find the last Michigan governor that wasn’t a Democrat or Republican. You’d have to go all the way back to the Whig Party in 1841. There, Governor James Gordon got elected just in time to celebrate the telegraph being invented.

The excitement continued. For Michigan’s U.S. Senate spot, there was William Woodbridge back in 1845—again the Whig party. A Progressive Party member was eventually elected to Michigan’s state Senate. But that was literally a century ago. The next year, in 1913, Michigan went wild. It elected two Progressive Party Representatives to the US House. The state’s House, however, went the whole 20th century without electing anyone outside the two parties.

So why has Michigan’s electorate consistently overlooked alternatives, even when it’s had options? To answer that, we must look at our status-quo ballot, the same status-quo ballot that elected Whig Party candidates back in the early 1800′s.

Virtually everyone in the U.S. (including Michigan) uses a voting method called Plurality. Plurality is used in single-winner elections. It requires voters to choose only one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. But think about that. If the purpose of a ballot is to express your political will, then can you imagine anything less expressive than choosing just one candidate? Surely Michiganders have more on their minds.

Something New: Approval Voting

What if we updated our ballot (just a little) to make it more expressive? And I don’t mean 1st-2nd-3rd-type ranking. Go simpler. Instead, let voters choose as many candidates as they want. The directions, “vote for one” become, “vote for one or more.” Everything else is the same: there’s no way to give a candidate multiple votes, all votes count the same, and the candidate with the most votes still wins.

This small change is called Approval Voting. Approval Voting is so basic that it works on current voting machines and is a cinch to hand count. So how does this play out?

Approval Voting lets voters choose multiple candidates based on similarities. This feature incentivizes candidates to point out common ground while also highlighting their own strengths. Imagine primaries where candidates (the similar ones, at least) were actually nicer to each other. That sounds better than infighting.

There’s more. Allowing voters to choose multiple candidates keeps third parties from “stealing” votes from major parties and thereby spoiling elections. Major parties should love that one.

Removing the spoiler effect helps Independents and third parties, too. It means that voters can be more honest by always choosing their favorites regardless of viability. That’s unheard of right now. And if voters can choose their honest favorites, then these alternative candidates can benefit from a level playing field that more realistically reflects their support.

So why does realistic support for Independents and third-parties matter? Firstly, voters would actually be motivated to learn about these candidates. Moreover, their issues could be heard, and they could even build momentum. And then—just maybe—an Independent or third party could get elected more than once a century. Can you say real competition?

Approval Voting also makes it harder to marginalize these candidates. And third-party candidates do get marginalized. For example, the 2010 Michigan gubernatorial debates left out the Green, Libertarian, and U.S. Taxpayers Party candidates despite their presence on the ballot. This is the norm.
Debates excluded them because current Plurality Voting (through polling) gave them artificially low support with its vote-for-one rule. More bizarrely, not every poll even bothers to include all the candidates.

In the end, Plurality Voting gave them less than 2% of the votes-combined. But the notion that over 98% of voters disagreed with their ideas is just silly (not that voters got to hear those ideas).

Something Now

Switching away from Plurality Voting isn’t that farfetched. In fact, Ann Arbor used an alternative voting method in 1974 to elect its mayor. It happened to be a clumsy, semi-complicated ranking method that was later repealed. But the point is that it existed. Also, a Michigan Circuit Court ruled that Ann Arbor’s system was constitutional. That’s because ballots being more expressive is unrelated to the equal weight idea behind “one person, one vote.”

Michiganders were willing to try a clumsy ranking method in their desperation. So surely they are willing to try a smart, simple method that addresses Plurality Voting’s bleakness.

We’re smarter than we were in the 1800′s. We have, after all, moved beyond the telegraph. Yet we still use the same inexpressive ballot. Approval Voting is an easy upgrade. And even easier is figuring out what to do with our centuries-old Plurality ballot. Put it where it belongs—in a museum.