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Dartmouth alumni oust approval voting 82% to 18%

by Rob Richie // Published May 9, 2009
As FairVote advocates for reforms, it often runs into particularly vitriolic opposition from advocates of other reform proposals. Sectarianism is a chronic problem with reform movements, and something we try to avoid.

That said, the zealous behavior of some advocates of approval voting and its companions system range voting (or "score voting") justifies explaining why we focus on instant runoff voting for reforming elections for a single-winner offices. Today the Dartmouth Alumni Association announced that Dartmouth alumni had voted by a four-to-one margin -- 82% to 18% -- in favor of an amendment to its constitution to replace approval voting with traditional runoffs in elections to the powerful Dartmouth College Board of Trustees. This overwhelming rejection of approval voting after a series of controversial hotly contested elections with the system provides an opportunity to remind people why we focus our research, communications and advocacy on instant runoff voting for reforming single-winner offices.

For newcomers to this topic, approval voting is a method of voting where you cast one vote for as many people as you want. The candidate with the most votes wins. It's a simple system to describe and can be implemented on some of the voting equipment currently used in the United States.

When you probe deeper, however, you find that it can generate odd results. For example:

* Approval voting basically throws out our current understanding of majority rule. Suppose in a three-person race, our current plurality system would have a result that provides for a relatively comfortable, majority win for one candidate:: 52% for Janet Garcia, 40% for Bill Jones and 8% for Robin Hayes. But in approval voting, the results might be: 54% for Garcia, 56% for Jones and 18% for Hayes. That is, the same set of voters might now elect a candidate who would have lost 52% to 40% in a "vote for one" election.

* Approval voting rewards easy-to-anticipate tactical voting. In our example above, Jones defeated Garcia with approval voting. One reason that he might have succeeded with approval voting is that a number of his backers realized that if they approved of Garcia as well as Jones, that would hurt Jones. So they instead cast a "bullet vote." However, too many Garcia voters "didn't get the memo" -- they sincerely said, "well, I kind of like Jones too" and gave him an approval vote. By doing so, they lost out. Bottom-line: the insiders will be trying "to get the memo" to their backers to bullet vote while outwardly pretending to be inclusive in order to draw approval votes from backers of other candidates.  (In comparison, with instant runoff voting the Garcia voters could rank Jones second without fear of that second choice coming back to hurt Garcia --it pays off to be sincerely inclusive with instant runoff voting.)

As it turns out, tactical voting is exactly what was happening in the Dartmouth alumni elections: some voters were gaming the system better than others. The Dartmouth newspaper editorialized last month that:

"As they are currently run, trustee elections can give an unfair advantage to candidates elected by petition, who have traditionally been supported by a vocal alumni minority. When the alumni electorate fails to take advantage of the approval voting process, the three required Alumni Council candidates tend to split the majority vote, giving petition candidates an advantage. By reducing the number of Alumni Council candidates, and instituting a more traditional one-person, one-vote system, trustee elections will become more democratic - and will more accurately reflect the desires of our alumni base."

Approval voting's record is not promising in the limited number of contested elections where it has been used. With the Dartmouth repeal, I'm not sure where it's used in elections of import that have hotly contested races with more than two candidates. The largest elections using approval voting were those held by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, but the IEEE dropped it as well after a few elections.

Meanwhile, instant runoff voting is recommended by Robert's Rules of Order for elections by mail and has been used for literally thousands of hotly contested governmental elections and thousands more hotly contested private organization elections -- including at least 51 American colleges and universities and dozens of significant organizations for contested elections. The record demonstrates that it does not lead to tactical voting and regularly generates majority winners -- and certainly would never fail to elect a candidate who 52% of voters saw as their first choice.

I would be fine with approval voting being tried out in more places, but would hope its advocates would accept that there are legitimate reasons to prefer instant runoff voting - and legitimate arguments for IRV being a better system.