The "Nursery Effect" – a big reason why Range Voting is far better for third parties than Approval and far more likely to allow countries to escape permanent 2-party domination

(Executive summary)

It stands out like a fluorescent blinking neon sign from the summary data table in the world's only (then) study of range and Approval voting vis-a-vis USA third-party presidential candidates (#82 here): range voting gives lots more votes to every third-party candidate (but in the 2004 election, still not enough to prevent them from losing) than does either approval voting or plurality voting. [Similar results also arose in other studies, e.g. France 2007, Beaumont Texas 2006, Occupy Wall Street 2013, and more.]

Why is that? I believe I know the underlying reason for it, and it has profound consequences. For reasons that will be explained later, we call this the "nursery effect."

The reason is that a lot of 0-99 range voters think thusly: "I don't believe most of these third-party candidates have any chance to win. So while maybe I'm going to exaggerate somewhat by giving 0s to the candidates I think have the most chance of winning but whom I dislike – just to try to make maximally sure they don't win – on these no-hope candidates I can afford to express my undistorted honest opinion. So I'm not going dishonestly to give them 0 or 99. I'm going to honestly give them the score they deserve (e.g. 23)."

If the rules were changed and those voters were forced to vote approval-style (equivalent to range voting but where only 99s and 0s are permitted – intermediate values are illegal with AV) then those same voters would, in the vast majority of cases, just give those third party candidates zero.

That is what experimentally happens. In our 2004 USA study, using 0-100 range voting by far the most popular score, was flat zero. (In fact there averaged about three zeros per ballot.) With approval voting zeros are even more common. The experimental fact is range leads to huge vote-count gains over approval voting, for all third-party candidates. (And with plurality, third-parties can really forget it – nobody wants to waste their precious single vote on a no-hoper.)

Now let us talk about the profound consequences of this observed voter behavior.

  1. Because it generates far more votes for third-parties, that gives those third parties huge reason to unify behind range voting. With that unification accomplished, enough power is generated to actually give voting reform a chance of happening! Note that this unification cannot happen behind approval voting, so by mistakenly pushing it, voting reform advocates would be going down a no-chance dead-end road. [See also poll studies showing range voting is more enactible than approval voting, and also, surprisingly, more comprehended.]
  2. Once third parties start to become large, powerful, organized, experienced, moneyed, etc and hence are perceived as actually having good chances to win, e.g. once they reach over-20%-of-the-vote popularity, then range voting is going to stop giving them a big vote-count advantage versus approval voting. Why? Two reasons. First, voters at that point will consider them important enough to be worth strategic exaggeration (99 or 0 score) in their vote. This will cause RV and AV to act similarly with respect to that candidate. Second, it is simply mathematically impossible for, say, a highly popular candidate like Nader (who, our polls said, would have got 21% in the 2004 election had it been held with approval-style voting) to get amplified by a factor of 5 by switching to range. (In fact, range only pushed him up only to 25%.) In contrast, it is easily mathematically possible for Badnarik (the Libertarian candidate, with only a fraction of 1% support under Approval Voting), to get amplified by a factor of 5 by switching to range. And in fact, our study (#82 here) indicated range amplified him by a factor of fifteen.
  3. That is why we call it the "nursery effect." Small third parties are like infants. They are small, weak, and inexperienced. They cannot survive in the jungle. They need shelter and care. Range voting gives them that nurturing so they can grow up instead of being stomped on by an elephant. They get the benefit of all the voters who like them honestly expressing their opinion. That can easily bring them up to 10-20% support level with range voting. Once they have that support level, then they can attract donors, and supporters, and candidates to throw into the election gauntlet. So they can grow. But under approval voting, they would be getting 2% or less voter support. They would have a much harder time attracting donors, supporters, and candidates. So they would just die in infancy. The effect of range voting on third parties is like being sheltered in a nursery. But the effect of approval voting on third parties is: too-small parties get stomped on by elephants.
  4. Note that once they grow up and get big and tough, RV throws them out of the nursery.
  5. It is even possible that this nursery effect is so powerful that it would make approval voting lead to permanent 2-party domination, just like plurality and IRV. We do not know that. What we do know, is range voting has a heck of a lot better chance of avoiding that.
  6. Also, removing the blank-score (X) option from range voting hurts third parties because fewer voters are knowledgeable about third parties, hence more voters X those scores ("no opinion") and if those Xs were no longer treated as Xs, but instead as the lowest possible score 0, then that would hurt the third party candidates. Meanwhile, unsymmetrically, almost all voters have opinions about the major-party candidates – so that for those parties this X policy choice has almost no effect.
  7. Note that with range voting (especially with blanks), voters have the opportunity to express their honest opinion. In many cases the strategic incentives are very small for them to dishonestly distort that opinion. This is good. The more honesty and the less dishonest strategic distortion there is in voting, the better results happen for society. Simulations show this quality-improvement massively clearly (see paper #56 here or our Bayesian Regret discussion or our brief data summary). In a nutshell: range voting⇒gives voters opportunity to express honest opinion with often-small incentive to be dishonest⇒more honesty among voters⇒better election results for society⇒improved world. Approval voting, in contrast, is telling voters, "throw your honest opinion that Joe Candidate should score 29 in the garbage. We aren't interested and refuse to listen." As a result, you get significantly worse election results for society and a worse world. The amount by which the world becomes worse can be and has been measured.
  8. This quality advantage of range versus approval is maximized in elections in which there are many candidates (say 10) and a comparatively large amount of voter honesty. The Iowa 2008 caucuses meet these two criteria, as did the French 2002 election. That is one reason we need to push for range voting in Iowa 2008. And there also are even more important reasons for that.

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