Egypt's problems wouldn't have happened with Score Voting

By Warren D. Smith & Jameson Quinn, July 2013

Many saw Mohamed Morsi's overthrow as a failure of democracy – a duly-elected leader quickly became so unpopular as to prompt massive protests and military ouster. But this actually was a predictable result of a voting system that isn't democratic enough. Voting experts like us warned that such a failure was likely with single-choice voting. A better first-round system such as score or approval voting could put Egyptian democracy on a sounder footing, while avoiding untold suffering and costs.

The problem: single-choice voting, aka “plurality” (USA) or “first past the post” (UK). Although widely used around the world, it's a horrible way to choose a leader. If there are more than two viable candidates, common interests suffer “vote splits.” The result is a “spoiled” election where the winner's supporters are not a majority, just the best-organized minority. This system can elect the worst candidate, who would lose one-on-one against each rival. Adding a runoff round improves this slightly, but still often merely yields two bad choices, and the second-worst candidate could still win.

Fixing this problem is easy. Simply give voters in the first round the right to choose whether to support or oppose each candidate individually. Several voting systems grant this freedom to voters. In Score Voting, each voter gives a numerical score in some fixed range (e.g. 0 to 9) to each candidate; greatest average wins. A score-voting ballot could look like this.

With only scores 0 and 1 permitted, this becomes approval voting, where voters simply mark all candidates they approve – most approved wins. The only difference between approval and Egypt's 2012 system would be that all ballots would be counted, rather than discarded if they have multiple marks.

There's clear evidence the official winner Morsi and the runner-up Shafik both won via vote-splitting. Egyptians rejected Mubarak's regime, with 77% supporting his resignation versus only 13% opposed in an April 2011 poll by Pew. But the many anti-Mubarak candidates split the vote, allowing Mubarak appointee Ahmed Shafik to enter the runoff with just the 23.7% minority of pro-Mubarak voters. Secular candidates suffered another vote-split: A May 2012 Pew poll showed 54% of Egyptians prefer secular Turkey as a role model (plus 7% Tunisia) versus only 32% for Islamist Saudi Arabia, even though the latter is richer. But the Islamists' greater unity put Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi into the runoff with just 24.8% support.

Both Score and Approval voting, however, would almost certainly have sent Amr Moussa and/or Hamdeen Sabahi to the second round, then, barring miracles, to ultimate victory. A March-April 2012 Pew score-style poll which asked voters to evaluate each candidate individually on a 4-level scale {very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, very unfavorable}, found Moussa's average score was 2.27 out of 3. This beat all other entities including “the Muslim Brotherhood” (1.94), A.M.M.Fotouh (1.25), Omar Suleiman (1.14), and Hosni Mubarak (0.44). If viewed as an approval poll, 81% of Egyptians approved Moussa at least somewhat; again surpassing every other entity polled – in second place was “the Muslim Brotherhood” (70%).

Approval or score voting would have allowed voters to support several candidates if they wanted, then finally decide in the runoff. A May 2012 poll by Al Ahram of hypothetical runoff races indicated that Moussa would have devastatingly beaten any opponent tested, overcoming Shafik 68-32 and Morsi 78-22. (This particular poll showed signs of regional bias, but even so the dramatic margin over Morsi exceeds Shafik's best regional results.)

And sure enough, Morsi, elected with under 25% of the votes in round one, proved unpopular. In one year, his job approval collapsed from a post-election honeymoon high of 79% to 32%, culminating in his ouster. (A Zogby poll found 28% approval in May 2013, almost all from Al-Nour and Muslim Brotherhood Islamists.)

While the precise details of the collapse were unpredictable, the story of a spoiled election yielding a president with imploding approval has happened many times. In France 2007, polls showed Bayrou had the best approval ratings, greatest average scores, and would have beaten any rival head-to-head; yet the runoff was Sarkozy versus Royal. Sarkozy won, but his job approval soon plunged from a high-60s honeymoon to a record 34% low. And of course, George W. Bush won the USA presidency with a minority, then eventually departed with terrible job approval.

The Egyptian people's courage in the Arab Spring impressed the world. But Egypt stumbled badly in using an outdated voting system whose wide use only highlights its flaws. Now that eyes again gaze on Egypt, it has a chance to lead the world with elections more democratic than anywhere else. Egypt's next president then should have the approval of a broad majority of Egyptians, not just a unified minority.

Warren D. Smith got a PhD in applied maths at Princeton 1988, co-founded the Center for Range Voting and was first president of Center for Election Science. Jameson Quinn has been interested in election theory for over 10 years. He's worked as a programmer, Guatemalan public school principal & teacher, and now is a graduate student at Harvard. Further information at where we will try to answer any reader questions. There also is a French score-voting organization

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