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Approval Voting: An Alternate Voting System

2 min read
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Good Party Politics Team · Oct 25, 2023

In democracies, the method of casting and counting votes has long been a subject of debate and scrutiny. The quandary has always revolved around how to accurately ensure that the voices of voters are registered and counted. As the population grows and becomes more diverse in terms of ideologies, the problem becomes more complex.

Traditional systems like First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) have faced criticism for being inherently flawed and sometimes failing to accurately represent the true will of the people. 

In response to these challenges, alternative voting systems have gained prominence. Among the proposed solutions, approval voting stands out as a compelling option. 

Join us as we delve into the intricacies of approval voting, explaining how it works, its pros and cons, and its current applications. Additionally, we'll compare approval voting to another alternative, ranked choice voting, to provide a comprehensive understanding of how these voting systems stack up.

What Is Approval Voting?

Approval voting is a relatively simple but innovative voting system that presents a departure from more traditional methods like First-Past-The-Post. Instead of choosing a single candidate, voters in an approval voting system are allowed to select as many candidates as they approve of from the list of contenders. 

This "approval" can extend to one, multiple, or even all candidates, offering a more nuanced reflection of voter preferences. In other words, approval voting is not limited to a binary choice. Rather, it allows voters to express their feelings more accurately.

How Approval Voting Works

As a system, approval voting is as easy as 1 - 2 - 3:

  1. Voters cast their ballots. Voters are presented with a list of candidates running for a specific office or position. Instead of picking just one candidate, they have the option to vote for as many candidates as they approve of by marking them on the ballot.

  2. Votes are tabulated. Once all the votes are collected, each candidate receives a count of how many voters approved of them. The candidate with the highest approval rating wins the election.

  3. The winner takes all. In most cases, approval voting operates on a 'winner takes all' basis, meaning the candidate with the most approvals becomes the winner, regardless of whether they secure an absolute majority.

This system's beauty lies in its simplicity and transparency. It offers voters the freedom to express their preferences without the complexity of ranking candidates in order of preference.


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The Pros of Approval Voting

This voting system is fairly simple and straightforward, and proponents express several advantages over other voting systems.

These advantages include:

  • Simplicity: Approval voting is incredibly easy for voters to understand and participate in. There are no complex ranking systems or strategic voting involved. Voters simply choose the candidates they like, making it accessible to a wide range of people.

  • Greater Expression of Voter Preferences: Approval voting allows voters to express their support for multiple candidates, providing a more nuanced reflection of their preferences. This can help eliminate the "lesser of two evils" dilemma often seen in First-Past-The-Post elections.

  • Reduces Strategic Voting: In systems like First-Past-The-Post, voters may strategically vote for a candidate they believe has a better chance of winning, rather than their preferred candidate. With approval voting, there's less incentive for strategic voting, as voters can support both their favorite and a more "viable" candidate.

  • Minimizes Negative Campaigning: Approval voting encourages candidates to appeal to a broader base of voters. Negative campaigning can backfire, as candidates want to maximize their approval, not just win a narrow majority.

The Cons of Approval Voting

Although the pros of approval voting hold promise, detractors from this system raise several points of contention.

The drawbacks of approval voting include:

  • Risk of Spoiler Candidates: Without the strategic element found in ranked choice voting (RCV), approval voting can potentially allow for "spoiler" candidates who draw support away from a front-runner, leading to unexpected outcomes.

  • Majority Rule vs. Plurality Rule: approval voting does not guarantee a candidate will have the support of a majority of voters. It operates on a plurality rule, meaning the candidate with the most approvals wins, but not necessarily with over 50% of the vote.

  • Simplicity May Oversimplify: While simplicity is a pro, it can also be a con. Some argue that approval voting might oversimplify elections, because it doesn't capture nuanced preferences between candidates.

  • Lack of Rank Order: Unlike ranked choice voting, approval voting doesn't capture the rank order of a voter's preferences. This may lead to some information loss in the voting process.

Where Is Approval Voting Currently Used?

Approval voting is not as widely adopted as traditional voting systems like First-Past-The-Post or even ranked choice voting. However, it has made inroads in specific regions and organizations. 

Some notable instances of approval voting in action include:

  • Fargo, North Dakota: In the United States, the city of Fargo, North Dakota has utilized approval voting for its municipal elections since 2018. This decision was made after a public referendum. However, in March of 2023 the North Dakota Senate passed HB 1273 by what they hoped was a veto-proof majority. This bill sought to ban approval voting and RCV throughout the state, but it was vetoed by Governor Burgham the following month on the grounds that it violates the principle of “Home Rule” by local governments. So far, efforts to override the veto have failed. 

  • St. Louis, MIssouri: In 2020, voters in St. Louis were presented with an option to use an approval voting system during local elections and primaries. The resolution passed with 68% of the vote. Former Missouri State Representative, Shamed Dogan, is at the head of a drive to take the system state-wide during the next election. 

  • Various Organizations: Some organizations use approval voting for internal decision-making, where they need to select leaders or make choices among several options. This is because approval voting can be a powerful tool for group decision-making when there are multiple desirable options.

  • Academic and Scientific Communities: In certain academic and scientific communities, approval voting is used to select conference speakers or award recipients, as it allows a more inclusive and less contentious decision-making process.

Voters in Seattle, Washington, were presented with approval voting as an option during the 2022 election cycle. It was soundly defeated by that city’s voters in favor of ranked choice voting. 

Comparing Approval Voting to Ranked Choice Voting

Of all the alternative voting systems, approval voting and ranked choice voting (RCV) are two of the most prominent options. Let's briefly compare these two systems based on five ranking criteria:

1. Complexity:

  • Approval voting: Simple to understand; voters either approve or disapprove of candidates.

  • Ranked choice voting: Moderately more complex as voters rank candidates in order of preference.

2. Expression of Voter Preferences:

  • Approval voting: Allows for multiple approvals, providing a more nuanced view of voter preferences.

  • Ranked choice voting: Captures the rank order of voter preferences, allowing for a more detailed expression of voter sentiment.

3. Eliminating Strategic Voting:

  • Approval voting: Reduces the incentive for strategic voting since voters can support multiple candidates.

  • Ranked choice voting: Significantly reduces strategic voting by allowing voters to express their true preferences without fearing their top choice will be eliminated.

4. Majority vs. Plurality Rule:

  • Approval voting: Operates on a plurality rule, where the candidate with the most approvals wins.

  • Ranked choice voting: Guarantees a majority winner by reallocating votes in multiple rounds until a candidate has more than 50% support.

5. Complexity vs. Information:

  • Approval voting: Simplicity may result in some information loss as it doesn't capture rank order. 

  • Ranked choice voting: Captures more information but requires a more complex counting process.

As you can see, approval voting is a straightforward and accessible alternative to traditional voting systems that offers advantages like increased voter expression and reduced strategic voting. 

However, it is not without its drawbacks, particularly the potential for spoiler candidates and the lack of a guaranteed majority winner. Its application is still relatively limited but has been gaining traction in local elections and various organizations. 

When compared to ranked choice voting, it seems to offer a simpler and more expedient approach. However, it may not capture the full range of voter preferences.

Opt for True Choice in the Next Election

Whatever the voting system or challenges, Good Party works to offer voters true choice in every election. With free tools and resources developed to help independents gain a competitive edge in elections, we strive to hand power back to the people who make this country great. 


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Electoral Reform
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By Good Party Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.