When voters look for the results on election night, the natural inclination is to look at who won or lost, and by what margin. This simple assessment represents the maximum information you can get from a choose-one voting system. While a winner is selected under choose-one voting, this limitation yields an inaccurate measure of true voter intent, leading to misinterpreted conclusions and confusion for voters and elected officials alike. By limiting a voter’s choice to just one candidate, our election results tell us very little about the decisions voters wanted to make when they cast their ballot. That’s why the voting method is so critical.
Beyond the bare objective of selecting a winner, a good voting method provides an accurate and informative measure of voters’ true candidate support, and uses that information to select the right winner with the most support. Simply put, a good voting method means the candidate with the greatest voter support should win.
While this outcome seems intuitive, this is not always the case with our choose-one plurality voting system. When voters are limited to one candidate choice during the electoral process, it is far from certain that the candidate with the most support wins. Voters are forced to vote strategically, considering factors such as electability in place of their true preference. Thanks to increasingly crowded races with packed candidate rosters, similar candidates often split the vote among the majority of the electorate, which typically means that the winning candidate only does so with a small portion of the vote. This common outcome is called vote splitting.
The 2022 congressional primaries were particularly awash in vote-splitting on both sides of the partisan divide. Overall, 30% of the congressional primaries featured a contest with vote splitting—that is, a contest without a majority winner. In fact, some of the high-profile congressional contests last year that received the most national media attention and money were affected by a vote split.
The Ohio Senate Primary: Was it a good election?
The US Senate primary in Ohio is a perfect example where choose-one voting may have failed as a voting method. On the Republican side, this election was billed as a bellwether indicator of the national mood and a test of the enduring power of President Trump’s endorsement. The seven-candidate field, predominantly representing the bilateral Trump and slightly anti-Trump wings of the Republican Party, set the perfect conditions for a vote split. As expected, the final results showed a split electorate.
These results indicate a classic vote split in which the winner – JD Vance – advances with less than 35% of the vote. But are these results a true representation of the electorate? Did choose-one voting produce the right result? We set out to address this question with a post-election experimental survey that comparatively assesses how voter behavior may differ across three voting methods: plurality, instant runoff voting (IRV), and approval voting (AV).
Dr. Whitney Hua – our Director of Applied Data & Research – designed a polling survey with separate question sets embedded for Republican-and Democratic-identifying likely voters residing in Ohio.
Choosing the best voting method has nothing to do with changing the outcome. Sometimes all voting methods lead to the same final result. That’s the case with our experiment, as JD Vance was the top preference of our respondents across all three voting methods we tested. But the results can be far more informative based on the method used.
Give Voters More Choice and the Results Tell the Whole Story
Approval voting gives voters more freedom to express the full spectrum of their political opinion. In most cases, the results of an approval voting election reveal a consensus candidate with majority approval. The results from Dr. Hua’s experiment demonstrate this benefit of the voting method. According to the results, Republican JD Vance is the consensus choice among the Republican electorate. When given the opportunity to select more than one candidate, Vance has 55.6% approval. In comparison to the official election result based on choose-one voting (32.2%), this result significantly clarifies the support among the Republican electorate.
But beyond highlighting Vance’s majority approval, the results also illuminate significant approval among other candidates. When empowered to choose more than one candidate, two options separate from the pack.
Josh Mandel – who received just 23.9% of votes in the official primary, tallied 46% approval, according to our poll, putting him firmly in second place. The official results suggested that Mandel and Matt Dolan – the two main competitors to Vance – enjoyed almost identical levels of support, separated by just over 6,000 votes. However, when voters can choose more than one candidate, Mandel significantly outperforms Dolan. Once again, approval voting clarifies the competitive field.
Nearly Half of Republican Ballot Respondents Chose More than One Candidate
Successful implementation of any reform requires public awareness. Our poll was taken from a population with no prior public education about approval voting, other than what was provided in the question. Even with no public awareness campaign, our respondents selected an average of 1.79 candidates per ballot. We polled a substantial sample of 26,260 voters, from which 47,721 approvals were given.
How did Different Racial Demographics Approach an Approval Vote?
Demographic differences in voting are one of the most commonly studied electoral subjects in American politics. Choose-one voting creates huge differences in voting patterns and determinative factors between white and non-white voters. For example, we saw the electability factor play a huge role in Joe Biden’s victory in the Democratic primary in 2020. Biden’s victory was powered by his strong support among black voters. In theory, approval voting dilutes the necessity for strategic voting and gives all voters the power to choose any candidate they like. The results of our poll show that differences in approach persist when approval voting is applied, but each demographic group exercises this enhanced choice. Here is the racial demographic breakdown of the votes per ballot on the Republican side:
Our results show that Asian voters and White voters approved of more candidates per ballot compared to Black voters and Hispanic voters. Beyond votes per ballot, some of the approval percentages are clear indicators of candidate-specific preference among racial groups. Black voters disproportionately approved of Josh Mandel (37.9%) and Mike Gibbons (26.0%), while the eventual winner, JD Vance, amassed just 16.2% approval. Asian voters approved of the most candidates per ballot, and every single respondent approved of Mike Gibbons.
Since the 2016 election, educational attainment has become increasingly predictive of voter behavior. Our poll shows that when given an approval voting ballot, voters with a 4-year degree or more tend to make more selections than voters without a degree. According to the results from our Republican primary poll, voters with a high school equivalence or less gave an average of 1.74 approvals per ballot compared to 1.96 approvals per ballot for respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Would ranked-choice voting change the result?
Some elections yield a comparative difference in the final results based on the voting method. These differences are at the heart of the voting method debate that is picking up steam across the country. As part of our experiment, we sampled the same voters using ranked-choice voting. As you can see from the visual, JD Vance wins an RCV election in the sixth round of tabulation by a margin that is similar to approval voting.
Was the Republican Primary a Good Election?
A common misconception about voting-method reform is that advocates work to change who wins elections. Ultimately, we want elections that empower voter choice, and results that show an accurate picture of voter intent. In the case of the Ohio Republican primary, all three methods pick the same winner. In this case, plurality voting selected the right winner. But other voting methods offer much more information about voter intent.