Have you ever tried playing chess without taking any of your opponent’s pieces? This question is ridiculous to anyone who has the slightest notion of how chess is played. Chess isn’t a collaborative effort or even a race to a goal, but rather a zero-sum systematic dismantling and entrapment of your opponent. The rules of the game dictate this behavior, and playing any other way leads to swift and utter defeat. Successful players are ruthless because the incentives are overwhelming. No amount of encouraging opponents to “play nice” will ever change the game.
In many ways, American elections are like the game of chess. Election after election people blame politicians for being excessively negative, corrupt, or dishonest while supporting candidates who promise to be better. We’ve done this for hundreds of years without taking a step back to recognize that the problem might not be with who we are electing, but rather with the rules of the game itself.
One particularly poor system that leads to undesirable outcomes is how we vote. Typically in the US we use a plurality voting system, meaning each voter selects their favorite candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This system works just fine when there are only two candidates, but with three candidates it can lead to a polarizing winner with only 34% support. It’s a zero-sum game that encourages good candidates to stay out of the race for fear of “spoiling” the election for someone else. At its core, plurality voting means I only get votes that I take from you, and we wonder why it’s negative?
In response to the glaring issues with plurality voting, many people support updating how we vote to encourage more positivity, improve healthy competition, and lead to true majority winners. One alternative voting method called Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) has become popular, but while it’s a step in the right direction, it doesn’t fully solve the core problems with the status quo. RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then systematically eliminates those with fewest first choice votes. However, like in our current system, RCV still requires me to take votes from you to survive elimination rounds.
While RCV is the most well-known alternative voting method, it is not the only one. Approval Voting is a less-well-known but powerful alternative voting method that simply allows voters to vote for one or more candidates on their ballot, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This small change allows voters to support me and you if we both have ideas that they like. Based on academic research measuring voter satisfaction of election outcomes, Approval Voting performs significantly better than plurality and RCV since it completely removes the spoiler effect and elects true consensus winners. Beyond producing better outcomes, Approval Voting is also much cheaper to implement than RCV since it requires no expensive upgrades of existing voting machines or software.
While no voting system is perfect, there are much better voting alternatives than our current plurality method, and Utahns should have a choice of which alternative to use. Currently, Utah Representative Adam Robertson (R-Provo) is sponsoring a bill (HB174) that simply allows Utah cities to try out approval voting. If you want to help fix the incentives that have led to our broken political system, please call your representatives to support this bill. It’s time to put the chess of voting methods back in the closet and play a game that we all can win.
Ammon Gruwell is an electrical engineer, a former state legislative candidate, and the Executive Director of the Utah Center for Electoral Reform