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Local View: 'Approval voting' is not election reform

The consideration of "approval voting" is a waste of effort in a time of smart electoral reform ("Duluth explores new voting system: Study group won't propose 'approval voting' yet," Jan. 9).

Liz JohnsonI have worked much of my life to advance women leaders across our great state, promoting their participation as voters, candidates, and leaders in our democracy. I also have been a long-time member of the board of directors of FairVote Minnesota and currently serve as its deputy director, a job that connects me with amazing electoral-reform advocates from around the state. My work is cross-sector and is characterized by its nonpartisan nature and the number and diversity of people who are engaged.

I work every day with people who care deeply about our democracy, people who want to see greater, more inclusive participation in our elections in communities like Duluth, people who are motivated to practice good government. I also work with business leaders who recognize that our plurality voting system is actually harming our economic competitiveness. And everyone I meet, in every city and town, is sickened by the influence of money and the polarization caused by our plurality voting system.

This is why I truly understand the motivation behind the Duluth Charter Commission's efforts to consider doing something to change our broken plurality system, a system where someone can win with less than 50 percent of the vote. It is very odd to me that the same leaders who just a few years ago professed that Duluth would not benefit from voting reform and who said that the movement for ranked-choice voting was "a solution without a problem" are now excited to pursue putting approval voting on the agenda.

What's the problem with approval voting?

Unlike ranked-choice voting, approval voting is untested in public elections. In fact, it is not used in any modern public elections anywhere in the world. The only evidence for how it works in practice comes from private and university elections, and those uses have not been very encouraging. These experiments have shown there is a huge incentive to "bullet vote" under the system, defeating the goal of achieving a consensus candidate.

Approval voting is a plurality system. The candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate has far less than a majority of the votes cast. In practice, most voters only cast one vote, so results often look very much like a plurality election when more than two candidates run.

Voters who attempt to vote honestly by voting for all candidates they "approve of" risk helping a second-choice candidate beat their first choice. In this way, approval voting is similar to the Bucklin Method, which was used in Duluth primary elections in the early 1900s and was found unconstitutional by the Minnesota Supreme Court for the reason that voters' second choices could harm their first choices.

These voting methods suffer from the flaw that voting for an alternate choice may help defeat their first-choice candidate. For this reason, when voters have strong favorites, they opt to "bullet vote" and protect the interests of their favorite choice by withholding any alternate choices. If a lot of voters do this, then approval voting is no remedy to ordinary vote-for-one plurality voting.

Candidates have nothing to gain — and everything to lose — if their supporters vote for competitors. That means candidates must campaign not only to win votes but also to discourage voting for others.

In short, approval voting is little better than our current system. Approval voting and ranked-choice voting are not comparable or in the same league — or ballfield or planet, for that matter. I hope my community will soon be ready to reconsider ranked-choice voting. In the meantime, I urge the Duluth Charter Commission to reject approval voting.

Liz Johnson of Duluth is a founder and board member of VoteRunLead.org and is deputy director of FairVote Minnesota (fairvotemn.org), which advocates for ranked-choice voting.

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