This article was originally published in edited form in the May 2016 edition of USA Today Magazine.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire 41 times over, decided that the system was stacked against him. He won’t run for president as an independent this year. This is a man who if you were asked to count his money at a rate of a $100 bill each second, it would take you over three and a half decades to finish.
Merely because he’d be running outside the two parties, this multi-billionaire becomes an underdog. That should worry all of us.
I don’t care about Bloomberg’s politics. That’s not what this is about. This is about a former three-term New York City mayor worth over $40 billion who still can’t compete—just because he’d be running as an independent. Within an electoral system marred by campaign finance issues, apparently even an absurd amount of wealth doesn’t help those running outside the two parties.
And why can’t Bloomberg compete? By not running as a Republican or Democrat, he’s afraid he’d be splitting the vote.
Bloomberg says, “I love our country too much to play a role in electing a candidate who would weaken our unity and darken our future—and so I will not enter the race for president of the United States.”
You can make your own guesses at which candidate he thinks would cause that darkened future.
Unfortunately, his alternative proposal is rather empty: “… all of us have an obligation as voters to stand up on behalf of ideas and principles that, as Lincoln said, represent ‘the last best hope of earth.’ I hope and pray I’m doing that.”
Hopes and prayers to stand up for ideas and principles. That’s his proposal. Hopes and prayers will not fix our electoral system. But you know what will fix our electoral system? A new electoral system. So let’s focus on that.
Bloomberg highlights the problem as he reasons why he can’t run. The problem is vote spitting. And the reason we have a vote splitting problem is because we use the worst voting method there is, a voting method that asks us to pick one person and then shut our mouths.
Experts Agree: Plurality Voting Is Awful
I’m not the only one bashing our current voting method. Others agree, too. A group of the world’s leading experts on voting theory got together through an organization called Voting Powers and Procedures. They’re affiliated with the London School of Economics and Political Science. This group of experts voted on what they thought was the best the voting method. When they got to our choose-one method—called plurality voting—it came in last with zero votes. That’s right. Zero. Not a single one of these experts thought that plurality voting was any good.
And they were absolutely right.
The voting method is almost universally overlooked, so I want to make sure that we’re on the same page. Plurality voting—what we use now—is a voting method where you’re given a selection of candidates on your ballot and you’re told to choose just one. Then the candidate with the most votes wins.
There’s nothing that requires us to vote like this. And there are a bunch of other voting methods we could choose from. The only reason we’re using this terrible plurality voting method is because we’ve used it so habitually that the process has become mindless. But now that habit needs to change.
Some Voting Misconceptions
Before I move on, I’m forced to correct a common misconception, the term “one person, one vote”. This term comes about from some Supreme Court cases about district size. The cases involved unequal district sizes so that the weight of the vote for people in a less populated district was much greater than the weight of the vote for others in a more populated district. This has nothing to do with the voting method itself or forcing people to use our choose-one voting method, plurality voting.
And so it’s around this point where most readers will think about the Electoral College. The thought will come up that we need to switch to a national popular vote. Now I’m not going to defend the Electoral College here, so don’t worry. There’s no doubt that it’s an awful system.
In fact, there’s a strategy to make the Electoral College moot by using an agreement between states (called an interstate compact) on how electoral votes are cast. While ridding ourselves of the Electoral College’s dysfunction is certainly an improvement, one thing must be clear about this specific proposal. This alternative popular vote proposal still uses our current plurality voting method, the worst voting method there is.
Now let’s get to understanding just how bad plurality voting is—this method we’re using to decide who plans the policy for the most influential government on Earth.
We’ll begin with vote splitting, mainly because it bleeds into so many issues. Vote splitting is a huge issue with plurality voting, largely because of this voting method’s inexpressiveness. You see, if there are a number of similar candidates that you like, our plurality voting method doesn’t give you the option to support more than one of them. Choose more than one and your ballot gets thrown away. Consequently, support divides amongst similar candidates, and those similar candidates’ reflected support is much less than their actual support.
I’ll break this down. Imagine a group of a hundred people voting on the best ice cream flavor and their choices are nine variations of chocolate and one strawberry flavor. We know (obviously) that any chocolate flavor would win against strawberry easily. But the limitation of choosing one option while having nine chocolate flavors causes the vote to split among the chocolate options. People can’t support all the chocolate flavors they like. That means the strawberry flavor wins because its support is undivided. That’s the whole idea here. Plurality voting causes similarities—even small ones—to distort outcomes by dividing support.
Blame Plurality Voting for Spoilers
Plurality voting is extremely sensitive to vote splitting. For a more concrete example, just flashback to 2000 when the vote for president spit in Florida. There, Nader’s Green Party presence on the ballot caused the vote to divide between Democratic candidate Al Gore and Nader. This vote splitting allowed Republican George Bush to creep in and win the state’s electoral votes, which was enough for Bush to take the presidency. (Albeit, other candidates also made up this margin.)
This spoiler effect from voting splitting occurred despite Nader getting only a fraction of votes in the state. That this occurs even when a candidate gets few votes demonstrates just how vulnerable plurality voting is to this spoiler effect. Bloomberg, who presumably hoped to get more votes than Nader, would have caused even more vote splitting in the 2016 election, enough to become a spoiler himself.
To all those Democrats who were upset at Nader for running, you’re eyeing the wrong enemy. Your enemy is not sympathetic competition on the left. Your enemy is a terrible voting method that punishes us all whenever competition is introduced.
And to Republicans, your time will come, too. Libertarian is the third largest party in the US. You need a fix more than anyone, particularly at the local level.
Plurality Voting Squeezes the Middle
Vote splitting doesn’t always occur from the edges of the political spectrum. It also comes from the middle. In fact, with plurality voting, the candidate in the middle—the moderate—generally stands the least chance to win when surrounded by candidates on either ideological end. The reason for this is the “center squeeze effect”. The moderate has their votes split off by candidates on either side, suffering alongside any other candidates in the middle.
It’s then the polarizing candidates who capture the electorate’s fringe edges. These polarizing candidates’ advantage is that their vote is divided only on one side rather than both sides. This “center-squeeze effect” is particularly common in primaries where there are many candidates clustered together.
Can you think of any extreme candidates in this year’s primary whom the “center-squeeze effect” may have benefited?
The “center-squeeze effect” can happen in local elections too. In fact, this happened in Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial general election when independent Eliot Cutler ran. Cutler was a moderate candidate surrounded by major party candidates on both the left and the right. This vote splitting from either side caused Cutler to lose badly due to plurality’s “center-squeeze effect”. Exit polling indicated that despite the harsh outcome under plurality, Cutler was indeed the most approved candidate. He would have also beaten either of his opponents in a head-to-head election.
The Major Parties Offer a “Fix”
Major parties aren’t ignorant of plurality voting’s failures either—they stand to lose out too. And they recognize that plurality voting’s issues arise whenever there are more than two candidates. So they fixed that. They just did it in the most anti-democratic way possible. Whenever they can, major parties make sure that no more than two candidates run.
The major parties have accomplished that anti-democratic goal by giving the US some of the most restrictive ballot-access barriers on the planet—hardly the symbol of democracy that the US lauds itself as.
In Bloomberg’s March announcement, he said that now was the time to decide whether to run because of ballot-access issues. Texas, for example, requires independents to get nearly 80,000 signatures by May 9th. That’s almost six months before the November election.
To make matters worse, major parties knock candidates off the ballot by challenging their signatures. This means that in practice, independents and third parties can wind up having to get at least double the actual signature requirement. To get an idea of how burdensome this requirement is, Oklahoma’s 40,000 signature requirement for independents is more than the entire population of its eleventh largest city. Doubling that to what candidates may need in practice amounts to approaching the population of Oklahoma’s sixth largest city. Mind you that only signatures from registered voters count.
Third Parties Get No Respect
Astonishingly, third parties and independents are so determined that they sometimes manage to get on the ballot anyway. As thanks, media and the public at large marginalize these alternatives. In the US, few people are even aware when there are other candidates running, let alone who they are.
The media’s argument goes something like this: “If your ideas were any good, then you would have polled better. But you polled terribly. So your ideas must not be any good.”
But that rationale assumes that the polls were any good to begin with. They’re not. Any guesses why?
Polling using the same flawed choose-one voting method as our elections: plurality voting. And that especially hurts independents.
Independent-minded Americans are stuck—even though they number much greater than those identifying as either Democrats or Republicans. They don’t want to waste their vote on anyone unlikely to prevail, particularly when there’s a candidate they don’t like threatening to win. Voters would rather choose among the frontrunners to have a say in the outcome rather than risk a disliked candidate winning.
This wasted vote dilemma caused by plurality voting gives non-major-party candidates an artificially low level of support, including in polls. This dilemma is so fierce that most voters show no motivation to learn about alternative candidates, let alone actually vote for them—even when they share their views.
Who else uses plurality-voting-based poll numbers? Debate commissions across the country. Debate organizers use plurality polling as a criterion for participation, often requiring that candidates get up to 15% for entry. But using this polling makes that 15% bar nearly impossible because plurality voting’s “lesser of two evils” dilemma gives alternative candidates artificially low support. Consequently, their ideas never reach an audience. For perspective, some 40-50 million people watch the presidential debates.
Current debates also ignore certain topics just because the two parties either don’t care about those issues or—even worse—they agree. These are issues like the war on drugs, veterans benefits, corporate subsidies, Medicare for all, … voting method reform, and a host of others. It may not be in the two parties’ interest to talk about these issues, but it is in our interests. But the way plurality voting forces out competition keeps these discussions from occurring.
Even Kenneth Arrow Dislikes Plurality Voting
Here’s another viewpoint on plurality voting. I had the pleasure of interviewing Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, famous for his work on voting theory. During that interview, I asked for his thoughts of plurality voting:
“The plurality system chokes off free entry. In other words, in the economic world we’re accustomed to the virtues of free entry. We don’t want a small number of corporations to be dominate. We favor the idea of new firms entering in order to compete to bring in new ideas, to bring in new products.
“Well, the same way in the political field. We should be encouraging free entry, I think, in order to have new political ideas come in. And they may flourish. They may fade. That’s what you want, them to be available.
“I’m inclined that the plurality system will [limit us] by encouraging the two-party system to choke off new entry. So I’m really inclined to feel that we don’t want plurality as a voting system. It’s likely to be very stifling.”
And plurality voting has done just that. It’s stifled new entry. Despite some two out of five voters identifying as independent—again, more than either Republicans or Democrats—hardly any independents ever get elected. You may recall the name of the last independent US president. Did you guess George Washington? It was George Washington.
I hope all this sufficiently tears down plurality and recognizes it as the terrible voting method that it is. The obscurity of voting methods can no longer be a cause to overlook it. It’s too important. There’s nothing more proximal to an election’s outcome than what you’re allowed to mark on your ballot and how that information is processed.
An Alternative: Approval Voting
So where does that leave us?
We’re using a hideous voting method, so we need an alternative. And alternatives are in no short supply. Admittedly, some voting methods can be complicated. On the upside, there’s a simple voting method that happens to perform rather well. It’s so simple in fact that it works on our current voting machines and existing ballots.
It’s called approval voting.
Approval voting lets you pick as many candidates as you want rather than limiting you to just one. It’s specifically designed for when only one person is getting elected. This voting method switch is as easy as changing the ballot directions from “vote for one” to “vote for one or more”. Most votes still wins. There’s no ranking. And each time you pick a candidate, they each get a full vote, no matter how many you pick. It’s just that easy.
Approval voting is a voting method that’s been in the political science literature for decades. In fact, during the meta-vote that occurred at the Voting Powers and Procedures meeting, the voting experts actually selected approval voting as the winner. They highlighted approval voting’s simplicity as an advantage compared to other methods.
Approval Voting Restores Competition
So how would it benefit you if your ballot let you pick as many candidates as you wanted?
It all goes back to vote splitting. Remember our ice cream example? Now imagine those chocolate ice cream lovers being able to choose multiple chocolate flavors. Because chocolate lovers can pick as many options as they want, their votes no longer divide between the similar chocolate choices. Now, with approval voting, the number of chocolate flavors doesn’t affect the outcome. A chocolate option will rightly win.
The Nader situation would have been easy with approval voting. Of those Nader supporters who strongly preferred Gore over Bush, they could have just voted for both Nader and Gore. Problem solved. Presumably, some major-party supporters might have also lent support to Nader if not for the fear of a wasted vote.
That last part turns out to be essential. You see, with approval voting, it doesn’t matter whether your candidate is viable. Approval voting is one of very few voting methods that allows the voter to always choose their favorite, no matter what. That ability to fearlessly support your favorite removes the incentive to push away new candidates. And that means more healthy competition.
Approval voting would also address partisan winners in competitive races. Moderate candidates around the middle could share support while extreme candidates would be appropriately relegated to the fringe. Moderate positions—the true crowd wisdom of the voting population—would therefore get the upper hand.
Currently, the major parties weaponize ballot-access to keep out competition and avoid the vote splitting problem. Approval voting addresses vote splitting, however. So under approval voting we’d expect major parties to ease up on their spiteful ballot access barriers.
Better Polling Matters
Polling is another consideration, given how it’s used. We use our choose-one plurality voting method for polling because that’s the method used in our actual elections. Polling’s purpose is to sample the political feeling to predict an election’s outcome. This means that if we were to use approval voting for elections it would follow that we would also use approval voting for polling.
We even have some data here. When approval voting has been used in polling, we’ve reliably seen third parties and independents get much stronger support. We’ve seen this repeated through studies in France, Germany, and the US.
Polling has also become the test for whether candidates can appear in debates and whether the media deems candidates worthy of airtime. There’s no doubt that approval voting would change who gets in. You can’t ignore candidates that get 20-to-30-plus percent approval in polls the way you can when they barely register under plurality.
So Many Benefits
Using approval voting also addresses the issue of free entry that Dr. Kenneth Arrow referred to. Without the “spoiler” argument to shame candidates out of running, you get greater inclusion—and healthy competition.
Competition in elections provides a number of benefits. First off, it incentivizes more qualified candidates to run. It also lets the public can hear discourse on topics major parties are reluctant to address.
Alternative candidates also have the opportunity to grow and build support across elections. This is something they could never dream of under plurality voting.
Lowering the barrier to entry for new candidates even means the unthinkable. Sometimes, third parties and independents would actually win. At the very least, approval voting would provide independents someone they could actually vote for. And that beats the alternative, which is where these Americans continue to produce to some of the worst voter turnout numbers in the world.
Interestingly, the way approval voting encourages competition may also diminish the impact of money in politics. Financing attack ads gets expensive when you have more candidates to go after. Further, putting money on a candidate is no longer such a safe bet when there are more than two competitive options. If you’re the kind of person who uses money to influence elections, this is not the environment you want.
Action Starts with You
It’s rare that we’re offered such a simple solution that addresses so many issues. As far as implementation, this kind of reform typically occurs in a bottom-up manner at the local level, particularly through ballot initiatives. Approval voting is so easy to implement that even small towns starting to elect their mayor with approval voting could start a tidal wave. It’s hard to imagine ever going back to a more restrictive ballot.
Interestingly, approval voting is also quite compatible with an adapted interstate compact much like what the national popular vote movement is aiming for. Approval voting has a nice property called precinct summability which makes it a good candidate for this effort. Most other alternative voting methods instead require central tabulation, which wouldn’t be feasible for a national election at the scale of the US.
Approval voting is also unique in its utility at a very practical level—it can start with you. You constantly make group decisions, and you don’t have to use the dumb plurality voting approach, particularly when approval voting is such an easy alternative.
We need to change our conversation about US elections. Every time we have an election we have to take pause when we think things like, “why are these our only options,” “how could that person have possibly gotten elected”, or “why did those alternative candidates get such little support”?
Whenever horrors occur in our elections, we have to the call out the problem—we’re using the worst voting method there is. And we’re using that terrible voting method to make critical decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people’s lives.
Finally, when a multi-billionaire and former mayor of America’s largest city says that even he can’t run as an independent, we can’t dismiss that. We must be alarmed. And we must be angry about our awful, awful voting method. But most importantly, we must be ready to replace our terrible voting method with something better, something like approval voting.
Photo Credit: OMER MESSINGER/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK