Voters are exhausted by political polarization. 87% of us agree that polarization is a threat to the country. The House of Representatives has an approval rating that consistently hovers around 20%. It leaves many of us to wonder: How did so many of these unpopular candidates get elected in the first place? And why are they so divisive? After all, Democracy is supposed to bring us together, not drive us apart.
It may seem that increased polarization is the cause of America’s problems, but the bigger problem is much more mundane: America is being pushed to its breaking point because of the way we vote. Our choose-one system of voting is hurting our country.
We’ve always used choose-one voting, but recent trends have exacerbated its problems:
Gerrymandering creates more “safe” districts that are reliably blue or red. This makes general elections less competitive. Whoever wins the primary election is basically guaranteed to win the general safe districts.
The average number of candidates in a Congressional primary has gone up 40% since 2010. On average, we have at least 7 candidates per primary! More choices sounds like a good thing – but under a “choose-one” system, like minded voters wind up splitting their votes between similar candidates. This is known as vote-splitting, and it can cause an unpopular winner to emerge without broad support from their party. Sometimes with as little as 25% (or less) of the vote!
The easiest way to get a plurality of votes in a crowded race is to appeal to a dedicated fringe. In crowded primaries, candidates need a way to stand out in a crowded field. Often they do this by being increasingly extreme or divisive. That may alienate most voters, but candidates don’t need broad support to win under our choose-one system. They only need a simple plurality.
Nationwide, candidates win their primary without a clear majority roughly 30% of the time.
Because so many districts are considered “safe”, and incumbents almost always win re-election, these candidates can remain in power for decades.
In competitive districts, vote-splitting causes an opposite problem: a divisive or fringe candidate can easily win a party primary, but are oft-putting to moderate voters. These fringe candidates have no chance of winning in a general election, but the majority of primary voters have no way to stop them under “choose-one” voting.
This interactive map shows which House districts had a primary winner that emerged without a clear majority of support. You may recognize some of the names as some of the most partisan, divisive, and unpopular members of the House. Perhaps they were even elected in your district!
Luckily, there’s a simple solution to both partisanship and unpopular candidates. By allowing voters to choose as many candidates as they like, we can put an end to vote-splitting. This is called approval voting, or “pick-all-you-like”.
Pick-all-you-like gets better results because it helps candidates win by building a broad consensus, rather than using divide-and-conquer techniques. It’s easy to understand, and voters never have to choose between two candidates they love – or between the lesser of two evils. Simply put, approval voting gets better consensus results.
Other voting methods like “ranked-choice voting” have gained popularity in recent years. But ranked-choice voting can take months to tabulate, is difficult to audit, and doesn’t really address vote-splitting in any meaningful way. Some voters might like the idea of ranking their candidates, but ranking the candidates is not statistically significant when it comes to choosing a consensus winner. Plus, it’s expensive to implement and can do some weird things.
On the other hand, approval voting, or pick-all-you-like voting, uses existing ballot infrastructure – so there’s little cost. It’s easy for voters to understand without having to introduce a complicated ranking system. Best of all, it’s already been implemented in St. Louis and Fargo, where it broke a years-long trend of vote-splitting and bad elections.