Commentary & Analysis

Elections are evolving, but our voting method isn’t keeping up

Have you ever scrolled through Netflix for hours just trying to choose a movie? Has a chain restaurant’s laughably long menu left you too stressed to relax at dinner? Do you struggle with tasks like booking a trip, online shopping, or even online dating with endless opportunities at your fingertips? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve experienced decision fatigue. This is the sensation by which the sheer amount of options available drowns a decision-maker in uncertainty, ultimately affecting their mental state and ability to have confidence in their choices.

As our world evolves, decision fatigue has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, voting included.

That’s because more candidates are running in key primary races than ever before. In fact, according to our analysis at The Center for Election Science, the average number of candidates on a primary ballot for Congress has gone up 40% since 2010. In 2020, 7.34 candidates ran for nominations in partisan and nonpartisan primaries, compared to 5.39 at the beginning of the decade. 

From 2010 to today, 485 new members have entered Congress. Over that decade, on average, each member had to beat a primary field of six candidates. On its face, this isn’t a bad thing. More options are good, right? 

Well, as we noted before, more options can cause stress. And our democracy is feeling that stress. Our election system and voting method isn’t keeping up with the growing number of candidates. 

That’s because it’s hard to choose between six candidates, especially in a party primary, where most of the candidates will largely agree on issues. Imagine that six candidates run, including a few popular but very similar candidates, and one unpopular but attention-getting wildcard. A majority of the votes could get “split” between the similar candidates, leaving room for an upset by the most uncompromising or extremist politician to win. For seats that lean strongly right or left, the best way to stand out is actually to take the most extreme positions. 

Plurality voting, the method most of us are familiar with of “choose one”, is outdated, and is creating issues in our democracy. It is the root cause of that vote-splitting effect. The fact is that for each new candidate in a race, the fewer votes a fringe candidate needs to win. This helps explain some of the most bizarre upsets we’ve seen in recent elections. 

How do you stop a fringe candidate from winning a primary, and in most cases, a seat in Congress for decades?

As long as we have plurality voting, you really can’t. With only one vote to give, voters have to decide – do they vote for who they like, or do they just try to stop the fringe candidate? Candidates are then pressured to drop out and unify behind a rival.

That is not likely, democratic, practical, or fair.

This trend of crowded primaries isn’t likely to slow down any time soon, either. In the six contested primaries of 2021, 85 candidates ran.  In the first races of the 2022 cycle, most voters were choosing between an average of 14 candidates for Congressional primaries. Meanwhile, Gen Z is old enough to not only vote, but they’re also eligible to run for office and are constantly encouraged to do so. As politically active young people rush not only to the polls, but the podium, the future is ripe for even more candidates, but not for a system that accommodates them.

Gen Z is not going to “wait their turn.” Nor should they, or anyone else for that matter. A vibrant democracy needs a diversity of voices.

The reality, though, is candidates have to win primaries in order to eventually lead. If Gen Z or any other group wants their best shot at governing in the next decade, fixing plurality voting as quickly as possible should be a priority.

Luckily, there is an alternative voting method picking up steam in the US, recently used in St. Louis and Fargo elections and up for a ballot initiative in Seattle. Instead of instructing voters to “choose one” it says “choose one or more.” During primaries, voters can “approve” of as many candidates as they like. Think of a meeting poll for work, where you select all the times that work for you. The time that works for everyone wins, and everyone approves of the choice.

Approval voting prevents vote splitting. The most popular candidate wins, plain and simple. It provides an accurate reflection of actual public support which empowers both the voters and the candidates. Its benefits are nonpartisan, which explains why it has supporters across the political spectrum. 

It’s also ready to go right away. Unlike other methods, approval voting is extremely easy to understand and implement. It’s an inexpensive option that requires no complex math, new voting equipment, or relearning for election boards. With just a few simple changes, our entire election system could be caught up with the age of many candidates and prepared for the influx of new hopefuls ready to take the stage.

As we look ahead to our next political era, it’s expected to be just as divisive and crowded as ever. Approval voting can’t necessarily change the overall nasty and ever-competitive nature of politics, but it can take the burden of decision fatigue off the voters. Allowing voters to approve of multiple candidates, rather than narrow down one choice of many, is a relief that can protect our democracy from the dangers of one wrong choice.