5 Alternative Voting Systems for U.S. Elections

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It’s a topic that comes up every four years: is the current method of selecting a U.S. president via electoral votes really fair? It is possible, for example, to win the popular vote under the present system, but fail to receive enough electoral votes to win the election. The system also creates “battleground states” such as Florida and Ohio that can swing an election, leaving many states largely irrelevant during the campaign season. Is there another way? Looking at various democratic voting systems around the world, we see methods that run the gambit from direct popular vote to multi-round runoff elections. Here are five other voting concepts that are used in other countries, and even in local U.S. elections. Would any of these be a worthy alternative for national elections?

The Electoral College system the United States uses to choose the president has some flaws, but is there an alternative? © Erik Hersman

5. Approval Voting

Under this system, you get as many votes as there are candidates; you simply mark which ones you would approve for the job. Under approval voting, you could vote for all, some or none of the candidates running for an office. Proponents of this system argue that it would break the two-party deadlock in United States politics, and give smaller grass-roots parties a larger proportional showing. It could also eliminate the usual phenomenon of forcing voters to choose between the lesser of two evils, a case that seems to turn up during most presidential elections. This would also nix the idea that you are “throwing away your vote” if you choose a smaller third-party candidate.

Would U.S. voters choose more than one candidate? Large-scale studies of voters by political scientists in France and Germany suggest that, given a choice, most voters would indeed choose more than one candidate. Another benefit: the system tends to elect more moderate candidates. Several states have looked into using approval voting for statewide elections and even presidential primaries.


4. Instant-Runoff Voting

Under this system, a voter would rank a number of candidates from 1(best) to 5 (worst). If any candidate passes the 50 percent mark, the election is over and a single winner is declared. If not, the lowest-ranking candidate is eliminated (including the few top-ranking votes for that candidate), and the votes are tallied again in an instant runoff and the procedure is repeated if needed until the field is narrowed down to two candidates in the running and a single victor with a majority vote is declared. One benefit of IRV voting: it might preclude a split vote by a third-party candidate allowing a winner with a minority vote. Another possible benefit might be a reduction in negative campaigning; if you’re a politician counting on the supporters of other candidates to mark you as a second or third choice, you’re less likely to directly attack their candidate.

If this system sounds complex and somewhat confusing, it is — this is a very difficult concept for most voters to understand when they look at the results. Yet instant-runoff voting, also known as the alternative vote, is used in national elections in several prominent countries, including India, Australia and Ireland. But would Americans accept such a system? It certainly could change an election; looking back, this system might have made the 1992 Clinton/Bush election — which was split by Ross Perot — turn out very differently.


3. Additional Member System Voting

This is a complex hybrid system, combining the concepts of “first past the post” and “proportional representation.” Technically, the United States presidential electoral system is “first past the post,” in that a candidate has to make it to 270 electoral votes to win, and most states (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska) are winner take all. Additional member system voting is a form of mixed-system voting, and would give a voter two votes: one for a candidate and one for the party. This would express which candidate they want to represent them, while the party vote would outline the percentage or proportion of representation. A chief advantage is that it would allow voters to stick to their party of affiliation while expressing approval/disapproval for a given candidate. Again, this could eliminate a “lesser of two evils” scenario, although it is a complicated system. This system is used in national elections in Germany and Mexico, and in the United Kingdom in the Welsh, Scottish and Greater London Assemblies. The British prime minister is appointed by a very similar system as people vote for their representation in British parliament, but the head of the majority party elected is then appointed by the monarchy. It would be as if the Speaker of the U.S. House became president by default after his or her party achieved a majority of seats.


2. Score Voting

You might already be familiar with score voting if you’ve ranked products and hotels online on sites such as Yelp, Amazon or rated films on the Internet Movie Database. Another form of candidate ranking, score voting requires a voter to cast a ballot ordering the candidates from the most to the least desirable, where fifth place gets 1 point, fourth place gets 2 points etc. One chief advantage with score voting (also known as range voting) is that it tends to produce candidates that appeal to a large proportion of the electorate. It’s also easy to understand. One chief criticism, however, is that it encourages strategic campaigning, and a minority interest can dilute the electorate and inflate their own influence by running multiple candidates.


1. Popular Vote

Many pundits wonder why the U.S. doesn’t simply adopt a majority popular-vote system … would it really work? The founding fathers, fearful of the perils of popular mob rule, established the electoral college. This hybrid count mirrors state representation in Congress, and follows the idea of state focus in the Senate (that is, two senators per state) and popular representation in the House. The District of Columbia also gets 3 electoral votes. This gives less populous states a bit more of a say. The downside is, you can win the popular vote (as happened in 1876, 1888 and during the recent controversial election in 2000) and still lose the electoral vote. And on rare occasions, a “faithless elector” can go against the wishes of his or her constituency, although this is illegal in more than two-dozen U.S. states.

Winner takes all or first past the post voting is appealing in its simplicity, and is used in Canada, the United Kingdom and local elections in the United States. “One person, one vote” is something anyone can understand. Many pundits feel the idea of the Electoral College is too antiquated, and the very name lends itself to a conspiratorial misunderstanding by many of an ivory tower secret society that decides the presidential election. Popular vote does, however, lend itself to many disadvantages that we grapple with at the state level, including gerrymandering (carving up districts for a desired outcome), inconsistencies in voting methods from state to state, and the continued support of two large mainstream parties, with no alternative. In the end, no voting system is flawless. Whether the current U.S. system remains the best alternative for choosing a president will remain a matter for debate.

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.