Approval Voting

Approval Voting is a single-winner voting system that has voters select as many candidates as they wish.
The candidate with the highest number of votes wins. Approval Voting is particularly useful when voters must select between more than two choices.

Approval Voting highlights:
  • More expressive
  • No vote splitting or spoilers, ever
  • Always vote your honest favorite
  • Significantly less spoiled ballots
  • Results are easy to understand, just like Plurality
  • Ballots are familiar to voters and look essentially the same as Plurality
  • Is good at choosing the beat-all (Condorcet) winner
  • Alternate candidates get a more accurate measure of support

NYU professor Steven Brams on Approval Voting

What is Approval Voting?

Approval Voting simply means that voters can vote for as many candidates as they choose. It is traditionally applied to single-winner elections.  Approval Voting is more expressive than the typical way we vote — Plurality Voting. That's because Plurality Voting limits voter expression to only one candidate. This concept of being able to pick multiple candidates is already familiar to voters. Voters do this when electing at-large school boards and councils. The difference is that with Approval Voting only one winner is elected.
Consider a race between candidates Jones, Smith, and Thomas. You might vote for Jones if you disliked Smith and Thomas. But a voter with the opposite preferences might vote for Smith and Thomas.

What would the change in ballot look like?

Really, all voters would see is a change in directions allowing them to vote for their choice "or choices." Below is an example from a proposed bill that would have implemented Approval Voting. Below that is a generic Approval Voting ballot using the 2000 US presidential election as an example, followed by a third example showing three of the six candidates being approved (circles darkened).

an Approval Voting ballot

How would Approval Voting results differ from Plurality Voting results?

Political scientists in France and Germany conducted two large-scale Approval Voting surveys based on their current elections. These studies reinforced the positive benefits of Approval Voting. For instance, voters using Approval Voting largely chose to vote for more than one candidate (i.e. they didn't widely bullet vote). Also, the candidates showing scant support under Plurality Voting were better represented under Approval Voting. These more accurate reflections using Approval Voting likely come from its good properties. Approval Voting is completely immune from vote splitting (no spoiler effect, ever), and it always allows voters to express their honest favorite.

How will Approval Voting affect spoiled ballots?

Without a doubt, using Approval Voting will drastically decrease the number of spoiled ballots. Technically, it's impossible to spoil an Approval ballot. If a voter approves anywhere between zero to all candidates (all combinations), then they've submitted a valid vote. To spoil an Approval ballot, a voter has to make the ballot unreadable — rather difficult. In fact, in the French and German studies referenced above, under 0.5% of voters managed to accomplish this folly (that's less than one in two hundred).

Plurality Voting ballots are treated as spoiled whenever voters mark more than one candidate. The fact that voters do this tells us that they have more to say than Plurality Voting permits. Consequently, in the 2000 U.S. elections, nearly two million ballots were spoiled — almost 2%.

Plurality Voting's spoilage rate of around one in fifty is almost four times more than Approval Voting. Had Approval Voting been used in 2000, not only would there have been no spoiler effect, but poll workers could have counted around one and a half million more voters' ballots.

Does Approval Voting help major parties or minor parties?

While this may sound impossible, we contend that Approval Voting is fairer to both major parties and minor parties. More importantly, Approval Voting is fairer to voters.

Is Approval Voting vulnerable to tactical voting?

Approval Voting is highly resistant to tactical voting, including bullet voting. Tactical voting is when voters don't cast purely honest ballots. For a closer look on how Approval Voting is resistant to tactics, go here.

Doesn't Approval Voting violate "one person one vote"?

No. The term "one person one vote" refers to the weight of votes, not to how votes are expressed. And in Approval Voting, all ballots have the same weight.

The U.S. Supreme Court made the "one person one vote" rule explicit in Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533). The rule stated that no vote should count more than any other so that it has unequal weight. This unequal weight would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. And it was Baker v. Carr (369 U.S. 186) that extended the Equal Protection Clause to districting issues. In Reynolds, the state of Alabama set up its districts so that they varied wildly in population. The districting was so bad that it gave some voters' ballots as much as 41 times more weight than others. Because the weights of the ballots were different between districts, that violated the "one person one vote" rule.

Consider again the Jones-Smith-Thomas Approval Voting example where all three candidates are tied. You vote for Jones, while a voter with your exact opposite preferences votes for Smith and Thomas. After that, all three candidates are still tied. Those two ballots have an equal but opposite effect. The key here is that no voter can vote more than once for the same candidate. Another way to think about it is that every voter casts an "up" or "down" vote for every candidate.

Where can I learn more about Approval Voting?

Steven Brams, an NYU political science professor from Concord, describes Approval Voting in layperson-friendly terms here.

Matt Gonzalez, Ralph Nader's former running mate in 2008, generously placed one of our essays on his blog. It discusses Approval Voting, Score Voting, Instant Runoff Voting, and Top-Two Runoff. It can be found here.

Warren Smith, a Princeton math Ph.D. who has researched voting issues for over a decade, gives this detailed account of Approval Voting history.

But what about Instant Runoff Voting?

Our extensive analysis over the years overwhelmingly supports the view that Approval Voting is a much simpler and more democratic system than IRV. The results of Approval Voting elections are also much easier to understand than the numerous rounds of vote transfers that IRV utilizes. In an Approval Voting election, you would only see approval percentages and total votes for each candidate — much simpler than IRV. Don't take our word on it. Click below for the Oakland 2010 IRV election results. Do you think voters easily understood this?

Where has Approval Voting been used?

The Pirate Party (Piratenpartei) of Germany has been using Approval Voting for years to elect leaders, as well as to nominate their party lists (albeit this latter case is an atypical use for multi-winner elections). While it may have a funny name, the party has already achieved significant political success. For instance, they won 10% (15 of 152) of the seats in the Berlin parliament elections in September of 2011. Thus these are "real" and, in many cases, highly contentious elections. You can see some sample results here, indicating that Approval Voting seems to have worked quite well.

In 1990, Oregon used Approval Voting in a statewide advisory referendum on school financing, which presented voters with five different options and allowed them to vote for as many as they wished. (Incidentally, in 1987, a bill to enact Approval Voting in certain statewide elections passed the Senate but not the House in North Dakota.)

Approval Voting has been used in internal elections by the political parties in some US states, such as Pennsylvania, where a presidential straw poll using Approval Voting was conducted by the Democratic State Committee in 1983.

Approval Voting is used to elect the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Approval and Score Voting were the foundation of government in renaissance Venice, and Ancient Sparta, respectively. These were two of the longest lasting (perhaps the two longest lasting) democracies ever. Also, Cardinals used Approval Voting for centuries to elect the Catholic Pope (at the time the most powerful elected person on the planet).

In the early 2000s the Boston Tea Party became apparently the first US political party in modern times to employ Approval Voting. Approval Voting is also used by the state Libertarian Party in Colorado and Texas.

Several large organizations, with membership well in excess of the number of citizens in many US cities, use Approval Voting:
  • Mathematical Association of America (MAA), with about 32,000 members;
  • American Mathematical Society (AMS), with about 30,000 members;
  • Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS), with about 12,000 members;
  • American Statistical Association (ASA), with about 15,000 members;
Smaller societies that use Approval Voting include the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, the Social Choice and Welfare Society, the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, the Public Choice Society, and the European Association for Logic, Language and Information. Additionally, the Econometric Society has used Approval Voting (with certain emendations) to elect fellows since 1980; likewise, since 1981 the selection of members of the National Academy of Sciences at the final stage of balloting has been based on Approval Voting.

Coupled with many colleges and universities (e.g. San Francisco State University's Academic Senate) that now use Approval Voting – from the departmental level to the school-wide level – at least several hundred thousand individuals have had direct experience with approval Voting.