Commentary & Analysis

Saving the Planet—with Democracy

About 15 years ago, I joined a local political party group that was working on a variety of political issues in Texas. The work was frustrating. Even when we knew the majority of voters would agree with us, the election system seemed to bring us to a wall.

In order to get around this, some of the organizers looked into changes that could be made in the system. Knowing that change starts from within, the group bylaws specified instant runoff voting (IRV), a ranked choice method, for internal elections.  

I hadn’t heard of IRV before, and I liked the idea of not having to cast a spoiler vote. However, calculating the result seemed pretty complex to me; it was hard to explain and hard to trust because of that complexity. In Texas, we were already having issues with our simple choose-one voting system.  

Sample Approval Voting Ballot. Ballot instructions read "Vote for ALL the candidates you approve of." Candidates listed are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt. Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are selected.

So I looked into voting methods a bit more, and I found approval voting. It solved many of the issues that ranked choice voting solves—block-splitting, spoiler votes, and negative campaigning—and it is much simpler.

Being a mathematician I had to look into the theory. I saw that approval voting has a theoretical advantage over IRV by satisfying the “monotonicity” criterion. Simply put, that means the results of the election should accord with the expression of each voter. If a voter were to change a vote for one candidate in a positive sense, then that candidate should do better in the results, not worse.

At that point I was hooked on approval voting. 

In our group’s next election we used IRV (as the bylaws specified), and there was a disaster.  The most popular fellow running lost in the first round. As I remember, he was the second-place choice for almost everyone voting. But he had no first-place votes.

People were quite upset at the results, and a small group of us managed to convince the others to try approval voting next time. We used both IRV and approval ballots in the next election; approval voting was a resounding success—and led to a change in the bylaws.

Bridging the Partisan Divide

Over the years my interest in approval voting has moved more strongly to the issue of our current “partisan divide” and “culture wars”. Negative campaigning has become an ever more common trend. In my opinion, this has had a horrible effect on some core issues.  

Five years ago, a dividing issue was belief in or denial of climate change. Now there is an issue over whether or not to wear a mask. These issues are existential.

I’m not expecting a change to approval voting to be a magic bullet, but it could certainly encourage candidates to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters and support their competitors when it makes sense. In addition, the results would show how strongly people feel about issues that sometimes start as minority issues but grow in support despite our poor system.

During my first experience of lobbying in Congress, I encountered outright climate denial along with expressions of concern for the economy and doubt that this is the appropriate job for Congress. Two years later, as citizen lobbyists, my colleagues and I were being asked questions about what the representative in the office down the hall said. Concern had moved from the issue to what the other representatives were saying about it! Those we lobbied wanted to change their position and help out but were afraid of being “primaried”. 

In the last few years I’ve been working with Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), a non-partisan national group lobbying for the political will to address climate change in Congress. Through my work with CCL, I have been able to personally observe the change in attitude among conservative members of Congress. 

Unfortunately, with our current choose-one system of voting in the primaries, it seems to me that there is an advantage to being the most radical voice out there and a clear advantage to campaigning aggressively against a candidate who might be close to you on issues. This needs to change.

Now that polls show (belatedly) that the majority of Americans are worried about the climate crisis, we need to make sure that the measures that are taken to mitigate climate change don’t unnecessarily hurt the most vulnerable communities here and around the globe. There is also a myriad of other issues related to clean air and clean water. Again, many of these disasters hurt vulnerable communities the most. Who will be responsible for stopping pollution and for mitigating climate change? 

I don’t want to try tackling these issues in the current system. I’m impatient for a change, and I know that approval voting will be a good step in the right direction

Advancing the Approval Voting Movement

Since I have been supportive of approval voting for several years, I was quite excited to find that there is an organization that has an effective plan for implementing approval voting in the US.  In fact, I had thought about trying to start such a group, but quickly realized that the effort isn’t in my skill set! I believe that my strengths are in organizing information and ideas and in helping to explain new concepts to people who aren’t familiar with them.  

That’s why I was happy to agree to help out with an educational interview pairing approval voting with another cause that I care about deeply—the environment.  Trying to prepare for the Zoom interview has forced me to clarify the vague ideas running around in my head about why approval voting can help with specific causes like protecting the environment.  My relationship with the Center for Election Science has been a gift to me—and I hope I’m helping the organization as well.  

Join us on August 13th for an interview between Christine and CES board member Michael Ruvinsky as they talk about why environmentalists should care about approval voting. RSVP here to join!