Commentary & Analysis

The GOP Can Find Its Center with Approval Voting

By Aaron Hamlin

Originally published at Independent Voter Network.

The G.O.P. is trying to redesign its nomination process aiming to rein in the recent rash of extreme nominees who keep losing winnable races. These fringe nominees have secondary effects as well. Many blame the duration of the government shutdown on moderate Republicans fearing Tea Party primary challengers. So how can the G.O.P. regain its balance and find its center?

Go basic. Look to the voting method itself. Our choose-one method, plurality voting, limits G.O.P. voters to choose only one candidate – even when voters prefer more than one. Limiting voters to choose only one candidate can easily split the vote between multiple moderate Republicans. This vote splitting lets vocal fringe candidates use that opening to sneak in and win the primary.

This effect of dividing voters between candidates, vote splitting, is pervasive. The oddity is that we don’t call out the culprit more often. That culprit is our choose-one plurality voting method. Note that attempting to remedy the problem with open primaries won’t help. If you’re still using plurality, then you’re still going to have vote splitting problems.

Of course, we see vote splitting in general elections, too. There, we just call it the spoiler effect. A Libertarian candidate runs. That Libertarian candidate shares some views with the G.O.P. candidate, and conservative voters divide themselves between the two candidates. This vote splitting gives the Democrat an undeserved win. We saw this play out just recently when Libertarian Robert Sarvis ran for governor in Virginia. Unfortunately, the profoundly undemocratic solution has been to pressure these challengers not to run. Shaming them afterwards is just as bad.

Plurality voting is the clear dud among voting methods (yes, there are other voting methods). One intellectual giant within social choice theory is Dr. Kenneth Arrow. He won the Nobel Prize in ‘72 with his impossibility theorem, which described limitations among certain types of voting methods. He stated in an interview with us, “I’m really inclined to feel that we don’t want plurality as a voting system. It’s likely to be very stifling.”

In 2011, The London School of Economics and Political Science brought together 22 of the world’s experts and asked them to evaluate numerous voting methods. All 22 experts agreed that plurality voting was terrible. Not a single one gave the status-quo method any support. Among academics that think about this sort of thing, plurality is the consensus loser.

The university’s convention did have a favorite method, however. Fortunately, it was an easy one. Their favored method allows voters to simply select (not rank) as many candidates as they want. And the candidate that is chosen/approved the most wins. This method is called approval voting. The only difference between plurality and approval voting is that approval voting removes plurality’s choose-one restriction, a restriction with no rational basis.

The big draw of approval voting is that it gets around vote splitting. Say you like several candidates that represent your preferred platform. Approval voting lets you choose all those candidates. That expressive option is exactly what the G.O.P. needs if it wants to preserve its moderate base and start winning elections.

Approval voting lets moderate G.O.P. voters stick with moderate candidates while letting partisan G.O.P. voters compromise with both moderate and partisan candidates. The partisan voters will want to take this road to prevent opposite-minded candidates from winning. Importantly, approval voting gives these voters that option. Notice that moderates are strongly favored here. Those are the moderates the G.O.P. has been looking for.

Approval voting also removes the spoiler effect in general elections. Libertarians can support their favorite candidate while also supporting the Republican. This tactic helps ensure conservatives that the Democrat doesn’t win. The result is that the G.O.P. happily avoids the spoiler problem, and Libertarians get to support their favored candidate.

Approval voting has recently seen legislative efforts in places like New Hampshire and Arizona. It’s also currently being pushed as a ballot initiative in Oregon where it’s being paired with a top-two primary. And organizations already know approval voting works. Predictably, academic groups are on the front lines. The Society for Judgment and Decision Making and The National Academy of Sciences are among the numerous groups that use approval voting for internal decisions.

G.O.P. voters should be able to express themselves as they wish. But that means more than just having options. Conservative voters also need the ability to freely choose as many candidates as they want.

The G.O.P. can pull out its own life raft by using approval voting in its primaries. That will get them the moderates they need. If the G.O.P. abandons this life raft, however, then the Democrats can feel free to use approval voting in their own primaries. And the G.O.P. can’t afford to have Democrats shove them any further under water.