America, There Is a Better Way to Vote

Maybe Trump's ascendance will finally force us to see it.

By Seth Stevenson. This was published on 31 Oct. 2016. Apparently Stevenson's original title was "Don't Blame Voters for the Rise of Trump. Blame the Stupid Way We Vote."

When the networks call it for Hillary Clinton on election evening I’ll bask in relief for six seconds or so. Then I’ll shift to raw anger: How could a major party grant a guy like Donald Trump a puncher’s chance at the presidency? This fiasco of an outcome—landing Trump one step from the White House—might have been avoided with a simple change to the GOP’s nomination process. Don’t blame Trump’s ascent on economic anxiety, or racism, or the media. Blame it on the way we hold elections.

Though he was beloved by a certain swath of voters, the fact is Trump left most Republicans cold. He won a smaller percentage of GOP primary votes than any of the party’s three previous champions. He holds the record as the GOP nominee with the most votes cast against him. Trump succeeded, especially early on, by commanding small pluralities within a very large field. There was a desperate thirst for a more traditional nominee, but the “establishment lane” candidates ate into each other’s support, divvying up the pool of votes from the sane folks who were disgusted by Trump.

Realizing this, some attempted to game the system and rally around a not-Trump candidate. Recall, for instance, Mitt Romney’s Super Tuesday directive urging Ohioans to vote for John Kasich and Floridians to vote for Marco Rubio, thereby keeping those states out of Trump’s hands. These trick-shot hijinks failed, in part because voters were loath to cast their precious votes for a candidate who wasn’t their actual top choice. In this context, Trump’s victory over a squabbling field of blander opponents can be viewed less as an indictment of GOP voters and more as an indictment of our stupid voting system.

Consider: Why were those primary voters forced to choose only one candidate from the overflowing platter of 16 or so GOP hopefuls? Why not make it a buffet? A ballot that insists you choose just one option doesn’t let you convey much information about your feelings and intentions. Your vote for Ted Cruz in the New Hampshire primary might have meant that you adored Ted Cruz; or it might have meant you could barely stand Cruz but you thought he was the guy with the best chance to derail the horrifying Trump Train. Similarly, your vote for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general election might have meant you thought Ralph Nader could legit win the White House; or it might have meant you were super jazzed to send a message about your progressive ideals, but, of course, when it got down to it you knew Al Gore would be a better president than George W. Bush and whoops, your bad, so sorry for the Iraq war. Given the wide range of things a vote can mean, shouldn’t we find a better way to let people signal what they actually intend on their ballots?

In his excellent 2008 book Gaming the Vote, author William Poundstone explored the problems with our current voting system. “The plurality vote we use in America is mathematically the absolute worst way to vote,” Poundstone told me by phone when I spoke to him recently. Why? For one thing, Poundstone estimates that roughly 1 in 10 of our presidential elections has been swung by a “spoiler” candidate who alters the outcome. The example that lingers in recent memory is that 2000 campaign, in which Nader siphoned votes from Gore and very likely threw the election to Bush. But it’s happened many times before—in 1848, 1884, and 1912, to name a few. Allowing the second-most-popular candidate to win a three-way race is a “catastrophic error,” in Poundstone’s view. And it could easily be prevented by switching to a different voting system.

Let’s say we switched from plurality voting to “approval voting”—in which you check the box next to every candidate you approve of (or, if your glass is half empty, every candidate you can tolerate). A left-leaning general election voter in 2000 might have checked both Nader and Gore, and left Bush’s box blank. This would express approval of Nader’s agenda, and help lift his party’s profile in the final tally, but would still help Gore (the far more electable candidate) win his battle with Bush.

Approval voting is particularly useful when a large field of candidates includes some “clones.” Clone candidates—competitors who aren’t sharply differentiated—often split votes and harm each other, even though they seek to advance similar viewpoints. Let’s imagine the GOP had used approval voting: Instead of agonizing over whether Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or John Kasich was the best mainstream candidate to foil Trump and push the establishment agenda, a GOP voter could have checked the boxes next to all three. No need to game the system, coordinate a strategy with other citizens, or refrain from voting for the candidate you actually favor. And it just so happens that consolidating those three candidates’ votes would have beat Trump in each of the first three GOP contests.

It’s impossible to know for sure how things might have unfolded under a different system. For instance, some Ben Carson voters might have also checked Trump. Then again, some Cruz voters might have also checked Rubio. What we can be certain of is that we’d have avoided the vote-splitting problem, and that we’d have gotten a clearer picture of primary voters’ intentions. (In case you’re wondering, approving every candidate on the ballot is the same as not voting at all. But checking every one of the other 15 candidates while not checking Trump would still make a difference to the relative count.)

This year’s general election might also have offered a chance for approval voting to shine. Do you wish the Libertarian Party had a bigger voice in our politics, but are you afraid your vote for Gary Johnson would help elect Trump? Vote for Johnson and Clinton, problem solved. Are you a millennial who sweats Jill Stein because you’re hella woke but don’t want your parents to blame you for a potential Trumpocalypse? Bro, just vote for Stein and Hillary. For those who feel stifled by our manichaean two-party system, approval voting is an ideal change—almost certainly catalyzing more third party activity and attention, as you’re no longer “throwing away your vote” by throwing a bone to a quixotic choice.

This wouldn’t be a burdensome switch. Approval voting wouldn’t require us to design new voting machines or new ballots—the current ones could handle it, according to approval voting advocates. It’s also very easy to explain the approval concept to the public. You get it already, right?

There are other alternatives that would also be better than plurality voting. There’s ranked voting (order the candidates in terms of your preference) and range voting (give each candidate some number of points out of a possible total, like you’re doing a Yelp review), and infinite variations therein. Elsewhere in Slate, Evelyn Lamb demonstrates that there are empirical flaws with each of these alternatives, but the key fact remains: All are superior to the system we use right now.

So why are we stuck with a bad system? A lot of smart people are thinking about better ways to vote. You can go down a deep rabbit hole where terms like “Condorcet cycle“ and “Borda count“ get tossed around with ease, warring factions debate which voting method is best, and Nobel Prizes are won for doing the math. But primaries are controlled by the parties, and elected politicians have little motivation to change the structure that got them elected.

When Reince Priebus goes to the autopsy board on Nov. 9, with his party in disarray and his job on the line, he might consider changing more than just the GOP platform. He can’t choose his voters, but he can choose the way they vote.

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