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Approval voting: The political reform engineers — and voters — love

Unlike ranked-choice voting, it’s easy to understand and implement

Voters fill out their ballots at a polling location in Hillsboro, Va., in 2018. Unlike ranked-choice voting, approval voting would not require new machines, ballots or hardware, Sargent writes.
Voters fill out their ballots at a polling location in Hillsboro, Va., in 2018. Unlike ranked-choice voting, approval voting would not require new machines, ballots or hardware, Sargent writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If there’s one thing engineers take pride in, it’s discovering the next big thing. As pretentious as it may sound, we are as cautious as we are thrilled to throw support behind emerging products, practices and ideas. So, when I tell you that engineers, entrepreneurs and other bright minds are throwing support behind approval voting, know that it’s far from the last time you’ll hear about it.

What is approval voting? It’s a problem-solving voting method that empowers voters to choose one or more candidates on a ballot, simplifying the voting process. Essentially, you can vote for or “approve” of as many candidates as you like. The candidate with the most approval wins. 

A little background: I am a manager of software engineers with an economics/game theory background, and I’ve been working in tech since 2008. We engineers approach problems from a systems theory standpoint and seek to understand how the whole system operates — what are its inputs, and outputs, and what are our goals for the system? Very little is left up to emotion, with numbers and logic at the forefront. 

Imagine my concern, then, watching the state of the American electorate becoming more partisan and emotionally charged than ever before. As an engineer, when we find a bug in a system, we have two options: We can patch over the symptoms with small fixes or dig deep and see what caused the problem in the first place.

One of the most overlooked “bugs” in our current democratic system is vote splitting. When voting for a single position, like the presidency (and most elections in the U.S.), you often have to choose between your honest favorite or the “lesser of two evils.” This bug encourages parties to prevent people from running by hosting primaries and can allow a third-party candidate to swing an election, much like Ralph Nader in 2000. And it can lead to things people most want to avoid — extremism, hyperpartisanship and a lack of representation.

Approval voting elects consensus winners and removes the vote splitting bug entirely, eliminating any fear of spoilers. In St. Louis last year, Tishaura Jones was elected mayor, garnering 58 percent approval from city voters. A year earlier, voters in Fargo, N.D., elected two city commissioners to open seats, with each approved by over 50 percent of the electorate. In both cities, the winners had the broadest base of support of all candidates.

Approval voting is not a drastic overhaul or political revolution, but an incremental improvement to the system, which naturally draws engineer support. While Steve Jobs didn’t invent the computer, he did think about what his customers wanted and tried to give them an experience that was more user friendly. That’s exactly what approval voting does for our system of democracy. Ballots keep their familiar format and are easy to understand.

Engineers require consistent measures of success to accurately track how our changes affect a system. Analytical minds love approval voting for this reason. We already measure the success of our representatives with an approval system: favorability or job approval polls. Why don’t we elect them the same way? 

In the tech community, having a great idea is not good enough — it has to be able to compete in the marketplace. Like the rest of the business world, we appreciate brevity, ease of use and cost effectiveness. Unlike its competitor, ranked-choice voting, approval voting doesn’t require new machines, ballots or hardware. It’s a simple, affordable adjustment. Approval voting also has the added benefit of producing helpful information for voters and candidates to use well beyond Election Day. When voters feel empowered to mark both popular and alternate candidates, polls reflect support accurately.

Approval voting has the potential to allow voters to support candidates across the spectrum of ideologies, eliminating the appeal of polarizing extremism. It would eliminate the complication, confusion and waste of the old way. It’s a sensible, intuitive and tested approach that every voting machine in America could execute tomorrow. It can be set up quickly and seamlessly, and, based on my engineer instincts, could very well become as ubiquitous and life-changing as the best apps.

Felix Sargent is a senior engineering manager with a decade of working in the software industry. He chairs the board of directors at the Center for Election Science, a nonpartisan group focused on voting reform, with an emphasis on approval voting.

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