Session Submission Summary

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How Approval Voting Is Being Adopted across the United States

Sat, September 17, 2:00 to 3:30pm, TBA

Session Submission Type: Roundtable

Session Description

From March 2015 to April 2016, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News conducted ten polls of nationally representative samples of Republican voters. One question they asked measured the percent of first place votes each Republican candidate would receive from the national population of Republican voters. A second question asked measured the percent of Republican voters that supported each Republican presidential candidate. Thus, the first question can be used to infer which Republican candidate would win a national Republican primary with plurality voting, while the second question, which essentially measures the approval rating of each candidate, can be used to estimate which Republican candidate would win a national Republican primary using approval voting.
Donald Trump unsurprisingly was typically the winner of this national plurality voting contest. But interestingly, in none of the ten polls did Trump have the highest approval rating; and in fact, in the last two months before Trump de facto won the Republican presidential nomination in May 2016, Republican voters gave Trump the lowest approval rating of the Republican presidential candidates.
Given Trump was first by plurality voting and last place by approval voting, the question arises, “is plurality voting a reasonable way to measure popular will, or should we use approval voting?”
With its choose-one mechanism, plurality voting is particularly susceptible to vote splitting when there are a large number of candidates, as seen in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest with over 15 candidates. However, with approval voting, the voter votes “yes” or “no” on each candidate, and whichever candidate has the highest approval rating (i.e., the candidate marked “yes” by the most voters) wins the election. Because the voter can vote for as many candidates as she deems appropriate, approval voting can sidestep vote splitting.
In the decades since approval voting was first studied by the likes of Steven Brams (NYU Professor of Politics who chairs this roundtable), Peter Fishburn, and Robert Weber in the 1970s, the scholarly research community has come around to and adopted approval voting. The leading research society for election science, the Society for Social Choice and Welfare, uses approval voting in its elections. The American Statistical Association (15,000 members), The Mathematical Association of America (32,000 members), and The American Mathematical Society (30, 000 members) all have adopted approval voting. The foremost society of decision science psychologists, The Society for Judgment and Decision Making, also uses approval voting. And since the 1990s under the Wisnumurti Guidelines, approval voting has been used by the UN to select the Secretary-General.
In the 2010s, many outside of academia began advocating for the use of approval voting in governmental elections. This includes the Center for Election Science (CES), a non-partisan and non-profit organization dedicated to election science education, that has led the efforts to educate the public about approval voting and other election mechanisms. Some of the Center’s staff is here to participate in the roundtable to discuss approval voting, including Aaron Hamlin (CES’s Executive Director), Chris Raleigh (Director of Campaigns and Advocacy), and Whitney Hua (Director of Applied Data & Research, who is also a USC political science PhD candidate).
But in addition to CES, reformers on the ground have had success with approval voting. In 2018, Fargo, ND adopted approval voting (with 68% of the popular vote) after experiencing elections where candidates with little support were winning seats with less than 20% of the vote. Andrea Denault, who organized Fargo’s approval voting campaign with Jed Lemke, will speak about why approval voting was so popular in Fargo.
In 2017, Krewson won a seven candidate St. Louis mayoral Democratic primary with only 32% of the votes under plurality voting. Jones came in second place with 30% of the votes, splitting her support with other candidates. In 2020, St. Louis adopted approval voting (with 64% of the popular vote) and Jones won the four candidate primary in 2021 with a 57% approval rating. Benjamin Singer, who led the St. Louis effort, will explain why St. Louis was so enthusiastic about approval voting.
Currently, the biggest pushes for approval voting are occurring in Seattle and Utah, and some of their leaders, Troy Davis in Seattle and Nate Allen in Utah, will describe their efforts.
Polling done in Fargo and St. Louis demonstrated there was widespread support for approval voting across demographic lines, having the support of Democrats (75%), Republicans (60%), independents (72%), African-Americans (79%), and Whites (71%). We hope this roundtable gives researchers and policymakers the opportunity to learn more about approval voting and have their questions and concerns addressed by approval voting reformers.

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