Approval Voting and Elections

Approval Voting Process Overview

Approval voting is where each voter approves any or all of the candidates during an election. When voting, each voter can vote for any combination of candidates and allocate one or zero votes to each candidate during the voting process. This gives each of the candidates fair representation and a higher chance of winning the approval of the voters.

For further details visit Approval Voting on Wikipedia

How the Ballot Results are Calculated

A simple vote counting algorithm is used to count the votes cast on the ballots during approval voting and determine the results of the election. The winner is the candidate (or candidates, in the event of a tie) who receives the most votes (i.e., is most approved by the voters). When using an approval voting platform, calculating the election result is very straightforward and doesn't require any complex analysis.

What Is Approval Voting?

Approval voting is an electoral method that lets voters choose (or “approve”) any number of candidates on the ballot. In elections, the most popular candidate with the largest number of votes wins.

Approval voting uses an approval ballot, on which multiple candidates may be marked. There is no cutoff for the number of candidates you can vote for. Approval voting is similar to other single-winner ballots and elections, except voters can vote for multiple candidates, with each vote equaling a value of one. For example, if there are three candidates on the ballot, the voter could vote for all three candidates. This voting method distinguishes it from plurality voting, where voters can only vote for one candidate, and from score voting, where voters can assign numerical values to each candidate so that they are ranked in order of preference. In an approval voting election, the winner is the candidate with the highest number of votes.

Though approval voting is often used in the context of a single-winner voting election system, approval voting elections may also be applied to multi-winner elections. The positions are still filled based on the number of votes each candidate receives; the candidate with the highest number of votes wins the first seat, the candidate with the second-highest number of votes wins the second seat, and so on until all the positions are filled. That said, the tallying process for approval voting may differ from other voting systems used in a general election.

A ballot for an officer election using approval voting with ElectionBuddy.

Pros and Cons of Approval Voting

Approval voting methods break free from the rigid criterion of single-choice voting while still benefiting from a similar simple voting system. The candidate election approval process gives voters more freedom to express their votes and their preferred choice of legislators, laws, or candidates. Preferences approval voting translates to a better gauge of candidate support. However, some critics (particularly those advocating for a ranked-choice voting system) argue that approval voting may be reduced to a numbers game and strategy. And it may skew results towards minor candidates, electing officials that don’t necessarily represent the majority of voters

Let’s take a deeper look into the pros and cons of approval voting.

More Expressive Voting Process

Approval voting lets voters have more choice and be more expressive since they’re allowed to vote for all the candidates they support by marking them on the ballot. Approval voting satisfies voter preferences and removes vote splitting almost entirely, virtually eliminating any spoilers in the election.

Fewer Spoiled Ballots in the Election

In a plurality system, ballots become spoiled (i.e., not counted) when voters mark more than one candidate on their ballot. When ballots aren't counted in elections, voters don't have a fair say on which candidate they support. If enough ballots are spoiled, it will impact the results of the election. With approval voting, voters can vote for more than one candidate on the ballot, leading to fewer spoiled ballots and voters having a fair say in the results of the election.

Easy to Understand Ballots

Approval ballots look the same as regular voting ballots, except the rules indicate that voters can vote for any number of their candidate preferences. These rules make it easy for voters to understand the election process and vote properly for their preferred candidates. The results of the elections are also very straightforward with approval voting. You get a list of the candidates with the number of votes they receive, and the winner is the candidate with the highest number of votes.

Elects More Consensus Winners

Since voters are free to vote for whichever candidates they want, approval voting tends to elect more consensus winners. These candidates would typically also beat all rival candidates head-to-head in a general election held by a traditional vote.

Alternate Candidates See Voter Support

Approval voting gives a more accurate measure of support for alternate candidates who likely wouldn’t have seen the same number of votes if plurality voting was applied. Since voters can vote for as many candidates as they want, candidates typically get more votes than they would in a plurality voting election or single vote election. Depending on the type of election, this can either be a positive or a negative in your election.

No Strong First Choice in the Election

With approval voting, there is no strong first choice or favorite candidate. That’s because the option to choose multiple candidates will potentially cause the defeat of your favorite candidate. This voting dilemma may encourage voters to simply vote for one candidate, essentially having no difference with a plurality voting system. For approval voting to be effective, you will need to encourage your voters to vote for all the candidates they support.

May Elect a Non-majority Candidate

Approval voting doesn’t always elect candidates with broad support. There is no rule stating that the favorite candidate will win when using approval voting. For example, a candidate with zero supporters could still win if the majority of people voted for them as a backup, giving the candidate an edge over candidates that even more than half of the electorate voted for as their first choice.

Because voters are unable to distinguish between strong support and weak support for candidates on their ballot, voters may potentially elect a minority candidate that doesn’t embody majority representation. If you want to allow voters to be able to indicate strong or weak support for a candidate, you can use a ranked-choice voting system for your general election.

Voting Becomes a Numbers Game

Savvy voters who understand approval voting can form a strategy to ensure that their vote influences the outcome of the approval voting election. A voter's inability to distinguish between support for each candidate in approval voting leads to an incentive to vote strategically (rather than being sincere in their choice), putting voters on uneven footing.

When choosing which type of voting system to use for your election, you will want to weigh these pros and cons to determine if approval voting is the right choice for your election. If the answer is yes, you can move forward with confidence using the approval voting method.

Examples of Approval Voting

Approval voting is used in several privately administered nomination contests or internal elections, such as in political parties, learned societies, committee meetings, educational institutions, or corporations. You can use the election approval voting process to determine a new budget, pass a new bill, or elect a new party representative.

In the USA, each state has different methods for voting, and there are some locations that use approval voting. For example, Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri have implemented approval voting in local house and primary elections starting in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

On March 2, 2021, approval voting was used in St. Louis’ top-two mayoral primary elections. 44,571 people voted and cast a total of 69,661 votes; that’s an average of 1.56 votes per ballot. Tishaura Jones won with 25,388 approvals—57% of voters selected her on their ballots, and she received 36% of the total number of votes cast. Cara Spencer came in second, with 20,659 approvals. She was picked on 46% of the ballots and received 30% of the total votes.

History of Approval Elections

Robert J. Weber coined the term "approval voting" in 1971. He proposed approval voting as an alternative to plurality voting, with the simple modification of allowing voters to have a choice of as many candidates as they wish. The concept of candidates approval voting was more fully published in 1978 by political scientist Steven Brams and mathematician Peter Fishburn, who built support for the idea.

Approval Voting Ballots

An approval voting ballot is pretty much the same as a regular ballot. The ballot is segregated by positions to be voted on, with the names of the candidates listed alongside spaces that can be marked to indicate a vote. The only difference compared to traditional voting is that an approval ballot allows voters to choose more than one candidate. The ballot includes directions that indicate that the voter may select any number of candidates. An approval voting system can be used in place of plurality voting, ranked-choice voting, or any other voting system to determine the winner of your election.

You can easily set up approval voting ballots on ElectionBuddy. Just adjust the settings so voters can vote for multiple candidates! The results for approval voting are tallied using a simple vote-counting algorithm that delivers accurate results for elections in real time.

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