Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune | Special to The Tribune | May 14, 2021
Imagine you walk into a shoe store and the only two options available are snow boots and flip-flops, and there’s a big sign hanging overhead saying “choose only one.” You would be shocked at both the appalling lack of options as well as the restrictive one-per-customer limit.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the situation of American politics today. 62% of Americans want a third major political party according to recent polling, but there are massive structural barriers preventing other options from breaking through. First and foremost among these barriers is the way we vote.
While Western democracies around the world have largely upgraded their voting systems to use more effective methods and have thriving multi-party systems, the U.S. has stubbornly stuck with our choose-only-one plurality method. A well-known phenomenon in political science called Duverger’s Law shows that historically our current voting method strongly favors a two-party system. This is because no one wants to waste their single vote on a third party that isn’t perceived as viable, and no major party can afford to split or else risk catastrophic loss.
So what are the alternatives? Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) is one method that has recently grown in popularity. It is essentially multiple rounds of plurality voting in which the least preferred candidate is eliminated each round until one of the remaining candidates reaches a majority. This method works very well when there are only two strong candidates — the weaker candidates are quickly eliminated, and the strong candidate with most support wins.
Unfortunately, when there are three or more strong candidates in a race, single-winner RCV suffers from the same vote-splitting effects as regular plurality. For this reason, single-winner RCV has also led to two-party-dominated systems everywhere it has been used. Worse still is that RCV occasionally results in come-from-behind winners which has led to even lower voter satisfaction than our current voting method.
A better alternative is called Approval Voting. This method allows voters to approve or disapprove of each candidate on their ballot independently, and the candidate with most approvals (votes) wins. Because voters can support their long-shot favorite candidate and their preferred major-party candidate, voters never have to choose practicality over conscience again. While some may vote for only their favorite, others will vote for all but their least favorite.
Approval Voting works well with any number of strong candidates and captures true levels of support for all candidates. Also, since it would just change a few words in the ballot instructions, it wouldn’t balloon the size of ballots so it would work well with Utah’s mail-in voting system.
Above all else, Approval Voting will help end the current political duopoly. As voters can vote for multiple candidates, voting ceases to be a zero sum game, and support for alternative voices and ideas can grow uninhibited. Giving third parties a level playing field brings free market principles into our collective decision making where it should have been all along. With more than just two polarized options, we may be able to start healing the political divide that is tearing our country apart.
If you want to end two-party domination of Utah politics and have more real options on your ballot next election, tell your representative to support legislation bringing Approval Voting to Utah and ask your friends to do the same.
Having only two political parties makes no more sense than having only two choices at the shoe store. We deserve more options, and change is only possible through voting reform.