Thoughts on electoral reform

by Tobias_Baumann 4 min read18th Feb 202027 comments

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Excessive political polarisation, especially party polarisation in the US, makes it harder to reach consensus or a fair compromise, and undermines trust in public institutions. Efforts to avoid harmful long-term dynamics, and to strengthen democratic governance, are therefore of interest to effective altruists.

One concrete lever is electoral reform. By changing to a better voting system, we could (so the argument goes) elect officials that better represent the electorate, resulting in a more functional political process.

Within effective altruism, approval voting is the most prominent proposal for reform (see e.g. this post). The Center for Election Science, which advocates approval voting, appears to be the only electoral reform organisation with significant ties to the EA community - e.g. in the form of a grant from OpenPhil.

In this post, I will question the focus on approval voting, and argue that it might be better to support other proposed voting systems that have a track record in competitive elections. I’ll also offer some thoughts on how promising electoral reform is.

Which voting system should we advocate for?

There are many possible methods and many different criteria to evaluate a voting method, some of which are provably incompatible. So, like other methods, approval voting satisfies some criteria and fails others. (See here for an overview of single-winner voting methods and satisfied/failed criteria.) Given that no perfect method exists, we should arguably look for a method which works well in practice and has good chances of being adopted.

Would approval voting work well in competitive elections? I think there are good reasons to be sceptical:

  • Approval voting is vulnerable to tactical voting. It fails the later-no-harm criterion: approving a second candidate can hurt your favourite. The average voter probably isn’t that strategic, but in high-stakes elections, savvy campaign leaders would surely attempt to get their supporters to vote tactically. The winner, then, may not be the candidate with the most support, but the one that’s best at manipulating the system. (See here for more details on this.)
  • Approval voting radically re-interprets the common-sense notion of "having a majority", leading to results that may be considered counterintuitive. This is reflected in the voting method criteria that approval voting fails. For instance, approval voting sometimes selects a candidate even though a majority of voters would, in a head-to-head contest, prefer any other candidate. (This is the Condorcet loser criterion.)
  • Indicating support or opposition for each candidate is more expressive than just having a single vote, but it is still binary and does not allow voters to express more nuanced preferences between different candidates.
  • There is almost no track record of approval voting being successfully used in competitive elections. Where it was used, approval voting was often repealed later on - e.g. in Dartmouth alumni elections and in internal IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) elections (search for IEEE here).

Advocates of approval voting have responded to those criticisms. And of course, approval voting does also offer advantages: it avoids the spoiler effect and tends to favour moderate "compromise candidates". The latter is of particular interest if reducing polarisation is one of the main goals of electoral reform. However, the tendency to favour moderate candidates could also be considered a bias and is not universally viewed as a positive feature of a voting system.

All things considered, I’m not convinced that we should advocate for approval voting rather than other methods (e.g. instant runoff voting or Condorcet methods). It seems to me that effective altruism has not examined approval voting (or alternatives) in sufficient detail.

In general, my impression is that discussions of voting reform suffer from the problem that people tend to pick their favourite method and then cherry-pick one-sided arguments in favour of it. In particular, people overemphasise criteria that favour their method does well while ignoring or and downplaying problems. The Center for Election Science often talks about no favourite betrayal (which approval voting satisfies) and not much about later-no-harm (which it fails). FairVote doesn't talk much about no favourite betrayal and talks a lot about later-no-harm - because their favoured method (instant runoff voting) satisfies later-no-harm but fails no favourite betrayal.

Given all this, what kind of voting system should we advocate for (if any)?

Since there is (some degree of) consensus that plurality voting is bad, but no consensus on which alternative is best, we should focus on the reform proposals that are most viable. That’s arguably instant runoff voting (IRV, called ranked choice voting / RCV in the US), which is championed by FairVote. Unlike approval voting, IRV has a track record in competitive elections and is much more in line with conventional notions of “majority”. (My personal favourite voting system would be a Condorcet method such as Ranked Pairs, but there are no large organisations advocating this, and it’s unlikely that Condorcet methods will be adopted.)

IRV isn’t perfect either. It also fails important criteria, and it isn’t clear whether IRV results in less polarisation. Still, IRV seems clearly superior to plurality voting and has stood the test of time, so I think efforts to implement IRV are worth supporting. (Even the very simple step of adding a runoff between the top two candidates would be a significant improvement over plurality voting.)

Note that this discussion is mostly about single-winner elections such as US presidential elections, rather than multi-winner elections, such as electing a parliament (e.g. the House of Representatives). It seems not obvious, overall, whether we should focus on changing single-winner elections or parliamentary elections.

For parliamentary, I think it’s best to use a form of proportional representation rather than (or in addition to) first-past-the-post in single-seat constituencies. Proportional representation tends to lead to multi-party systems that require cross-party collaboration and reduce the team sport mentality that drives US polarisation.

How promising is electoral reform?

Clearly, work on electoral reform is premised on the belief that the status quo of plurality voting (in the US/UK) is a poor voting method. I think this isn’t entirely obvious. A steelman of plurality voting is that it grants power to the largest coherent political coalition (coherent in the sense of being able to coordinate on a single candidate). That may be less than 50% of the voters, but it’s not prima facie unreasonable to put the largest coherent political coalition in charge of things. The fact that plurality voting provides tactical incentives that limit the number of (realistic) options (often leading to a two-party system) can be seen as a feature, not a bug: it channels democratic decision-making and produces clear results.

Still, I think the downsides of plurality voting outweigh its advantages, and there is some degree of consensus among experts that plurality voting is not a good system.

Suppose, then, that we have settled on a voting system that would be a significant improvement over the status quo. That raises the question of how tractable it is to change the voting system for high-stakes elections such as the US president or the House of Representatives. Such efforts face significant vested interests of individuals and parties that benefit from the current system. Also, countries rarely make dramatic changes to their voting procedures once established, though there are exceptions (e.g. New Zealand’s switch to proportional representation).

Electoral reform also doesn’t seem particularly neglected. There are several organisations advocating electoral reform in the US and UK. In terms of funding, the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative is a major player that’s interested in electoral reform (supporting FairVote’s advocacy for ranked choice voting) and other ways to strengthen US democracy.

All things considered, I think electoral reform, while probably not a “top tier” intervention, should be part of the longtermist EA portfolio.

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