Commentary & Analysis

Approval Voting on the #SundayCivics Podcast

“Methods of Voting” The Sunday Civics Podcast with Aaron Hamlin

In this episode of #SundayCivics, L. Joy interviews Aaron Hamlin, executive director of The Center for Election Science, about different voting methods. He explains how alternative methods can improve our current plurality (choose-one) voting system and why approval voting is a better option. He talks about the importance of making our voices heard and how we can use our votes to create change. This kind of voting would allow for a more accurate representation of the population’s preferences. 

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How other voting methods overlooked by our current system can be used to represent the population’s preferences more accurately.
  • What approval voting is and how it works.
  • How approval voting can improve our democracy.
  • The power of our voting rights and how we can use them to create change.

Check out a snippet of the conversation below, or listen to the full conversation here:

L. Joy Williams: So Aaron, I want to get to the meat of our conversation and talk about approval voting. For someone you are talking to for the first time about what this means, how do you explain what approval voting is and what this voting method is?

Aaron Hamlin: I think a lot of times, we overlook the voting method itself, which is just the information that we put on the ballot and how that’s calculated. It’s easy to kind of overlook, like the whole point of this, which is we have some people who represent us, and their view should parallel that of the electorate that they’re representing. And they’ve got a lot of power. They decide the policies that govern our day-to-day lives, and they spend a lot of money concerning our tax dollars, and there’s only one instance when they can’t ignore us. And that’s on election day when we’re deciding whether they keep their seat or someone else takes their seat.

For me, looking at this, if we’re given the wrong tool, our main tool for being able to decide who sits in the seats if that tool is broken, then we have some pretty big issues on our hands because that’s the only time when they can’t refuse to listen to us. And so right now, when we go to the vote, we have this really limited tool, this “choose one” voting method. There are different names, like “plurality voting” or “first past the post.” But it’s this “choose one” voting method. And it causes all kinds of issues. So you like multiple candidates, you can’s choose multiple candidates, you can’t support them, you have no way to do that. And so you can only support one. And so, as a consequence, the support for all these candidates gets divided, and they get an artificially low amount of support. 

This can also lead to more polarized winners; you don’t get the same kind of consensus winner. And then also, in 2000, there were some interesting candidates in that election. That was the election when Ralph Nader ran. And for me, as an 18-year-old kid, looking at that, I didn’t think about any of that. And I think part of that was the environment where you’re told, “Hey, these are the frontrunners. Vote for one of the frontrunners. If you vote for anyone else, if you even think about voting for anyone else, you’re going to be wasting your vote.” And that produces some pretty terrible things. And approval voting addresses all those things in a very simple way.

So with approval voting, you simply select as many candidates as you want. And the candidate with the most votes wins. You’re not ranking or anything complicated; you just check as many as you want. The only difference on your ballot is the directions that just tell you to choose as many as you want, instead of just one. And so if there are multiple candidates, and you can choose multiple of those candidates. If there’s even a third party or independent candidate that you like, even if they don’t seem viable or likely to win, you could support them. And then if there’s another candidate that you like, that you think is more viable, you can support them, too, or not. Do whatever you want. You just have a lot of flexibility in a way that voters really haven’t been given the advantage for previously.

Additional topics discussed:

  • The two cities implemented approval voting in the US: Fargo, North Dakota, and Saint Louis, Missouri.
  • How election reform can help create a more representative democracy.
  • The role of status in politics and how voting reform can help reduce the influence of special interests.
  • How voting reform can help increase voter turnout.

Host / Podcast Bio

Joy Williams is a well-known political strategist, public speaker, and social justice advocate. She is the host of The Sunday Civics Podcast, a show that explores how to create change through activism and civic engagement. She is a trusted voice in the political landscape, and she has been featured in SNBC (“Up with David Gura,” “Melissa Harris-Perry Show,” “AM Joy”), and NY1 (“Inside City Hall”). She is the current President of the Brooklyn NAACP, which shows her leadership and dedication to her community.

Guest Bio:

Aaron Hamlin is an attorney and the executive director of The Center for Election Science, a non-profit dedicated to implementing approval voting in cities across the United States. He earned two graduate degrees in the social sciences and has appeared as an expert on electoral systems on, NPR, Free Speech TV, Inside Philanthropy, 80K Hours, and Popular Mechanics. He has also written about elections for Deadspin, USA Today Magazine, the Independent Voter Network, and other publications.