Yet again the need for Approval Voting

I’ve received my postal ballot, in advance of the June 8 British election.  As with so many elections, it demonstrates, glaringly, the need for better systems: approval voting, and proportional representation.

The candidates on the ballot for where I live are of four parties: Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Green, and Labour.  We are firmly instructed to vote for one only.  You, in this situation, may have no problem, but thousands of others do.

Suppose that, as is very likely. there are voters who are against the philosophy of the Conservatives and have a general sympathy for the other three.  Such a voter might wish most of all to help the Green party, but as yet it is too small to have a chance of winning, so a vote for it is “wasted.”  So this voter may feel forced to choose between Labour (whose candidate has been a good friend to Amnesty International) and Lib Dem (the only major party that wholeheartedly supports the European Union).

Indeed, such a voter may well feel sad (more than sad: guilty, and furious with the system) at the thought of having to tell the Green candidate: “I wanted to vote for you, but I couldn’t.”

In short, such a voter would like to – and should have the right to – vote for all three, so that, though Labour may be the only one of them that has a chance of winning, the extent of support for Green and Lib Dem will be expressed.


This is approval voting, which works out unfairly for nobody, whereas the vote-for-one system works out unfairly for millions.

This photo could almost serve as a portrait of approval voting.

According to a recent article in the Guardian, this Scottish mother and her daughters, though they have similar sympathies, intend to vote for three different parties.  If they were one person, voting under the approval system, their votes would all serve to add support to those parties, as they should.  As it is, they cancel out.

And yet, it doesn’t matter which way I vote.  Like the majority of people, in the U.S. and the U.K. and most other democratic countries, I am effectively disfranchised, because I live in a constituency that is a “safe seat” for somebody; so there is no chance that my vote will change the result.  The most it will do is count toward a national total.  Where I am now, the seat happens to be safe for the Labour candidate; where I last lived and still vote in America is safe Republican.

What this demonstrates is the need for proportional representation, as used in the European Union.  An E.U. constituency is a larger area, whose half dozen or so seats are assigned to parties in proportion to the votes cast, so that even if you support a minority party, you are likely to have someone up there actually representing you.

By the way, the Wikipedia article on approval voting (which credits me with first describing it, though its use goes back further) says it is a “single-winner” system.  Not so: it can easily be used in such elections as those for boards, and for proportional representation.


9 thoughts on “Yet again the need for Approval Voting”

  1. Guy, have you considered editing the wikipedia article to include earlier references to approval voting?

    By the way, here in San Francisco we have ranked choice voting for our local elections. You can vote for up to three candidates for each office, ranking them as your first, second, and third choices.

    1. The Wikipedia article does, under “Usage”, mention earlier times and places where this voting system or something close to it was used, but it seems my article was the first to “describe” and advocate it in contrast with other systems (though the term, “approval voting”, is sue to Robert Weber, one of the others who, by some amazing osmosis, independently wrote about it around the same time).
      I think that ranked-choice voting is one of the other systems that do not work well, because over-complicated; see my comparison of approval voting with the system rejected by the British referendum of 2011:
      So I think the Wikipedia article also errs in classifying approval voting as a species of range voting. It is the simple NON-ranking of the approved choices that makes approval voting proof against voters’ errors, as well as against recounting and runoffs, complex computer formulae, split sides, dilemmas, tactical voting, unfairness to minorities, etc.

      1. Thanks for clarifying the difference between approval voting and ranked choice voting.

        I prefer ranked-choice to vote-for-one, but ranked-choice does have all the problems you enumerated. San Francisco is both a city and a county (an unusual circumstance that arose out of rampant 19th century corruption), governed by an 11 member board of supervisors. Each supervisor is elected by one district. They’re all Democrats, although some are Republican wolves in sheep’s clothing. In the November supervisorial election in my district there were two leading candidates, an experienced progressive lawyer who had served as chief of staff for the previous progressive supervisor, and another lawyer, a political newcomer whose campaign was funded by real estate developers. Since this is San Francisco, there were also about a dozen other candidates ranging from involved community members to complete nut cases. The real estate guy’s campaign mailers urged voters to rank him first, a nut case second, and another nut case third. Tactical voting at its most egregious. Fortunately the progressive former chief of staff, a Latina woman, won the election.

  2. Seeing the lib bombast pointed at Donald Trump and the party of resistance, aka Democrat Party I cannot think of any place on the planet earth that could qualify as safe for republicans

    1. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia literally rolled out the red carpet for your guy. If the investigations turn out poorly, I’m sure they would grant him political asylum. They have lovely golf courses, and women know their place. He’ll fit right in.

      1. I’m not certain, as you seem to be, that the Party of Resistance is also against the entire nation of Saudi Arabia.

        1. Charles, please share your mind reading secrets with me. How do you know my opinion of the Democratic Party’s stance toward the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

          For the record, some Democrats, like their Republican colleagues, are in bed with the Saudi despots. Other Democrats, to their credit, want our government to stop colluding with Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, war crimes in Yemen, and funding of extremism and terrorism.

  3. Thank you again, Guy, for rediscovering and popularizing Approval Voting! We got a committee in the Colorado legislature to pass a bill for Approval Voting (HB17-1281) by a vote of 6-3 a month ago! Then partisan forces sent out enough FUD to stall it again, but we’ll continue, with new support from the League of Women Voters in Colorado just last weekend.

    Re: Proportional Representation, there are modern ways to achieve PR without larger districts. Jameson Quinn of Harvard, a colleague of mine at the Center for Election Science, just published a very clear overview of how PR solves the problem of gerrymandering (with a lovely image to accompany it that I think you’ll like).  He also introduces an approach to PR, which he is calling “OL/D”, that fits very nicely into the way we do elections in the US, Canada and the UK.  His OL/D voting method could use our existing districts, or nearly any alternative way of drawing them, e.g. for ease of election administration. But regardless of how they are drawn, each party would be represented in the legislature or congress in close proportion to the number of voters supporting them.

    The ballot is very simple, in fact nearly identical to current ballots. Read Jameson’s piece here:

     A proportional representation PRimer: How to end Gerrymandering a-proportional-representation-primer-be76186861dc

    See also the presentation I gave to a LWV group a month ago:

Leave a Reply to Anthony Barreiro Cancel reply