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This is the 2019 case for supporting The Center for Election Science. (Here's our intro page.) We need your financial support to succeed in our mission. This outline details what you can look forward to in this post. Also, you can hear in (very) long form about our work from an episode of 80,000 Hours. And there’s our EA Global Presentation.

  1. Who we are
  2. Why we do what we do
    1. Importance
    2. Tractability
    3. Neglectedness
  3. What we will do with sufficient funding
  4. Why we’re asking for funding from you
  5. Why there is urgency
  6. My ask to you
  7. FAQ

Who we are

The Center for Election Science (CES) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that studies and advocates better voting methods. Voting methods are the way you put information on your ballot and how that information is calculated to produce a result. For example, choosing one candidate and selecting whomever has the most votes is a voting method—albeit a terrible one.

It’s hard to overstate how important our work is. We focus primarily in the US—arguably the most influential country in the world given its GDP and heavy reach over foreign policy. You don’t want a country with this stature to have a broken voting method. Bad policies and irresponsible spending are inevitable, and they affect the rest of the globe. You may have noticed.

Why we do what we do

Firstly, what we do is important.

We currently use the worst voting method there is—a choose-one method called plurality voting—to decide who makes enormous policy and spending decisions at the local and national levels throughout the US.

The current voting method does a number of things wrong. Here are three of the big ones:

  1. Our current voting method chooses bad winners. Vote splitting occurs everywhere because voters can only choose one candidate. This results in consensus-style candidates getting squeezed out when there are many candidates—particularly in primaries. In the general election, even minor vote splitting can cause a bad outcome.
  2. Our current voting method fails to capture the support of all the candidates. Because you’re limited to giving information about just one candidate, there’s a lack of information about other candidates. Also, voters fear throwing away their one and only vote on a losing candidate, which exasperates the issue. This mischaracterization of support means new candidates and ideas—particularly from third parties and independents—are easily marginalized and aren’t given the opportunity to grow. Candidates may not receive proper media coverage, or they may not be invited to debates.
  3. Our current voting method discourages good candidates from running. The current voting method discourages candidates who aren’t considered “viable”. Unfortunately, viable often means having a war chest of funding and name recognition. But those characteristics aren’t necessarily good predictors for whether a candidate does a good job in office.

Fortunately, there’s a better approach to voting, approval voting. Approval voting lets voters pick all the candidates they want (no ranking, just selecting). The candidate with the most votes wins. This method is simple and addresses these same three concerns:

  1. Approval voting chooses more consensus winners. Under approval voting, voters can pick all the candidates they want, which means they can hedge their bets with moderate candidates to guard against extreme candidates winning. This results in more consensus-style candidates that bring higher utility to voters. Below is an example of one simulation that looks at approval voting compared to other methods:

2. Approval voting captures the support of all the candidates. Approval voting lets you offer information about all the candidates. And, all that information is fully used and expressed in the results. This means you can see a clearer reflection of support from all the candidates. This is robust in every voting method study I’ve ever seen. With polls typically matching the voting method, this could also affect the growth of candidates throughout the election. This is even more optimistic than voting method studies which are only able to take a snapshot of candidate support at one point in time. With clearer support, candidates are less likely to be marginalized by media or kept out of debates. Here’s an example from the 2020 Democratic Primary:

3. Approval voting encourages good candidates to run. Here’s one reason better candidates don’t run. They don’t want to waste their money or get called a spoiler. Viability is everything for candidates. But with approval voting, viability changes. Yes, candidates will still need enough resources to get their message out. But because voters can always support their favorite, having good ideas is enough. Under approval voting, good candidates can run fearlessly.

This approach to voting method reform is uniquely important. Approval voting supports growing new ideas while favoring the electorate’s middle. This environment can foster the stability necessary to support continuity of government and influence policy over the long term. This not only benefits those alive now, but it also benefits future people. Our children and their children benefit from the improved policies of today.

Secondly, what we do is tractable.

We have a way to get things done—working with local groups and running ballot initiatives. It’s expensive yet highly cost effective. And it works.

In 2018, CES had its first year of real funding and we were able to hire full-time staff for the first time. We passed a ballot initiative in the 120,000-person city of Fargo, ND. It was the first city ever in the US to implement approval voting. We helped pass it by 63.5%.

We did this by running a strategic campaign alongside key stakeholders within the community and copying best practices. Other campaigns have advanced alternative voting methods as well. We used their tactics. They work.

This is worth repeating. Within less than a year of our initial funding, we hired our first full-time staff and got approval voting passed in its first US city ever. This is a brag at how efficient we are. We’re fine with that brag.

We didn’t even take a breather before taking up our second city of St. Louis, which our polls already show is above 70% support. That's before it's even made the ballot. We haven’t even formally launched the education campaign.

We also now have a Director of Campaigns and Advocacy to help us coordinate with partners. Our Director has also helped us start a chapter system to kickstart campaigns in new cities and states.

With funds, we have the means to run campaigns in multiple large cities. And we can do this with states. As we’ve shown, we are efficient, and we are fast. While we are not the first to the scene of advancing alternative voting methods, we take every opportunity to leverage our second-mover advantage.

Thirdly, what we do is neglected.

While there are other organizations that advance alternative voting methods, we are the only ones who are successfully advancing approval voting. And if the comparison between other organizations’ budgets is of any indicator, we are extremely underfunded.

Before 2017, we operated on a budget of $50K or less (we have a standout transparency page if you’d like to look). We basically used that to build a website, set up a structure, and provisionally get the word out. In 2017, our income included our Open Philanthropy Project grant at the very end of the year plus our regular fundraising. This put us at about $650K for 2017.

In 2018, we raised over $250K with $30K coming from Open Phil. We also had fundraising staff for the first time in 2018. We received a second grant at the beginning of this 2019 year from Open Phil, which is expected to last for three years. That gives us a floor of $600K for 2019 if we break that up through 2021.

It’s important to look at all this in context to others in this space.

In 2017 alone, all organizations that had ranked choice voting (RCV, a competing effort), as their primary mission had a collective annual income of nearly $10M. (This excludes other large organizations who still include RCV among their activities.) The largest organization (with their sister 501c4 nonprofit) had an annual income of over $5M (over 7.5x ours for the same year) and 36 employees currently on their staff page. The second largest (and their 501c4 sister) had an annual income of over $3M (over 4.5x our 2017 income) and listed 31 employees on their IRS filings for 2018.

In contrast, we hired our fourth staff member in 2019.

Even more, these organizations have had time to grow and get established. When looking back five years from 2017, the now largest organization brought in well over $10M cumulatively (their older 990 filings have been tough to track down for a clearer number); and the now second largest also brought in over $10M cumulatively. And they’re growing. For CES, our aggregate income has been $762K looking past five years since 2017.

For reference, it’s taken RCV nearly three decades and tens of millions of dollars to get where it is now. The first organization to push RCV took a decade for its first win despite RCV already having been implemented in the US and internationally. As it stands, RCV is used in 22 US cities and one state. It’s failed to pass in three cities and one state when it made the ballot (not counting cases when it took multiple attempts to pass). It’s also been repealed in six cities with local opponents primarily pointing to voter confusion.

Funding for approval voting has caused its progress to pale in comparison. But I assure you, with $5M in annual funding, we won’t take three decades to progress with approval voting where RCV is now.

What we will do with sufficient funding

We will run effective campaigns. Earlier, because of resources, we were passive about how we targeted cities. Cities came to us. Now we have the sophistication to identify geographic concentrations of support to develop chapters that can grow into campaigns. We will use this tactic to enter into major cities across the US. This requires existing support for infrastructure and staffing. It also requires funding for a separate 501(c)4 nonprofit to sidestep our existing organization’s spending limits for lobbying.

It’s also worth noting that perceived capacity to fund a campaign heavily influences which organizations will collaborate with you. Without the right budget, organizations will not invite you to join in collaborative statewide campaigns and will instead go with the leading alternative. They’re open about this.

We will lobby legislators. Because of approval voting’s simplicity, there are opportunities for lobbying elected officials. Normally, this isn’t an option because of the conflict of interest with those elected. But the opportunity presents itself when the party in power suffers because of vote splitting yet wants to avoid implementing a complex method. There are places where RCV is stalled out where we have opportunities. These are typically higher risk but very high reward since they don’t require the same resources as a campaign. Our estimate is that they can be one sixth the expected cost per citizen compared to ballot measures when factoring in their relative probability of success. This also requires funding for a 501(c)4 to do this effectively at scale.

We will do research. We’ve leaned heavily on volunteers and academic partners, but having only staff member (myself) with a technical and research background limits us. As executive director, I have other responsibilities to prioritize. We need a Director of Research, support staff, and funds to carry out the research. Imagine being able to have real analysis of all the elections that use an alternative voting method. Imagine getting the type of data you want to see after approval voting is implemented. It takes labor and funds to design that methodology, partner with the right collaborators and contractors, collect the data, analyze it, and them disseminate it in a way people can understand.

Doing research helps us to see the impact of approval voting and also helps us look at other methods. We have to compare methods to evaluate the case for approval voting or else the default will be for RCV. Research achieves multiple other goals as well. It makes lobbying easier, attracts media, evaluates whether we’re advancing the right reform, and has us more fully achieve our mission as an organization that furthers voting method research.

We will increase our outreach and broaden our funding and support base. It’s important that we have a far reach so that we can be identified by partners and so that approval voting is a less foreign concept in cities. Ideally, we’d like to push so hard and quickly that we’re able to reach a tipping point. Approval voting’s simplicity lends itself well to that. Increasing our funding and support base also signals diverse buy-in, which is important even in scenarios with continued concentrated funding.

Why we’re asking for funding from you

Firstly, we want to achieve everything from the previous section. We are capable of performing at an even higher level if we are given the funds to do so.

Traditional funders are not keen to try new ideas. That’s true even when there is strong early evidence. And it’s especially true when a funder has supported competing ideas.

Our current small size creates an additional problem. Funders around this area—even when they find our work compelling—show pause when they look at our income. Being a smaller organization can cause leading national funders to pass us up, particularly when they see other larger organizations with existing capacity.

Additionally, funders require many years of relationship building before any significant funding is provided. While we are making those connections now, they will take awhile before we can successfully leverage them. And it will be even longer before we can leverage them for larger amounts of funding.

If there’s a particular community that’s vetted us, it’s the EA community.

Why there is urgency

We’re struggling for airtime with multiple organizations who all outfund us. We have the advantage of a simple solution that also works better. But without significant funding, we will get left behind.

My ask to you

My ask to you is for your investment in a fairer, more representative US democracy. It’s rare we come across a cause area so neglected with so much room for improvement—particularly when it’s this important. This is a good investment whether you give $500 a year or $500K a year.

Some of you may be in a different seat where you can leverage even more funding. It’s worth noting here that leaders in the nonprofit field have made the case for a more aggressive funding model. A more aggressive funding model provides much longer support to enable richer planning, nimbler decision making, and more risk taking. Part of this case involves throwing the caveat of concentrated funding to the wind, but it also means things get done efficiently.

(Another interesting note is that even with the long time ramp, one of the two leading voting method organizations still gets half its funding from just two sources. We don’t have the data to to see what the case is for the other.)

Our demonstrated proof of concept, vision, and efficiency makes us a great target for continued large-scale funding. Thank you ahead of time for your support.


Q: If people had more voting power, how do we know they’d advance better policies?

A: Consider the counterfactual. Who decides when it’s not the voters? If it’s not the voters, do those people have our best interests in mind? And if some policy areas are failing in rhetoric, perhaps that deserves to be an EA cause. Better democracy will not lead to perfect policy. But bad democracy will lead to bad policy and bad people in government who aren’t looking out for the collective utility of all of us.

Q: I heard there was this thing about approval voting that wasn’t so good or that another voting method was better. Also, don’t forget about Arrow’s Theorem.

A: All voting methods have quirks, but we maintain that the quirks of approval voting are comparatively mild compared to the alternatives. You can see this article where we go into all the details about approval voting criticisms. Also, I talked with Kenneth Arrow personally for an hour and he said that our choose-one voting method was bad. Really.

Q: How does RCV match up to approval voting?

A: Not very well. From encountering avoidable anomalies to being needlessly complex, RCV falls well short of what approval voting can offer. Here’s an article on that topic. And here’s a critical look at RCV. In short, RCV can tend towards a more polarizing winner in challenging elections. It also does a much poorer job at measuring the support for all the candidates. Between the two, approval voting is also much more viable long term for US presidential elections. This is due to technical features like precinct summability, the type of data used, and overall complexity.

Q: Why do you bring up or criticize RCV?

A: Those who are aware of the voting methods space tend to only be aware of RCV. We’re in a period where there are false claims on RCV that you can rank your favorite first every time and that it gives a majority winner. These misperceptions create an unlevel playing field when voters and governments are evaluating their options.

Because of the complexity, reporters and other outlets don’t have the sophistication to question it. It’s also part of our mission to effectively evaluate different voting methods and educate the public on their merits. It’s worth noting that we went into this sector agnostic about which method we would advocate for. Only after that evaluation did we arrive on approval voting.

Q: How do you decide what makes a voting method good?

A: We look at the type of winner it tends to elect as well as practical issues from simplicity to implementation. Here’s an article on that topic.

Q: Will approval voting increase the number of parties?

A: Probably, but not by much. Those parties can, however, get their voice heard (and ignored if they have bad ideas). Here’s an article on Duverger’s Law. (Fun video here). Also, third parties and independents clearly benefit from approval voting. Note that the multi-winner proportional version of approval voting would encourage more parties. But it’s more complicated on the calculation end. It’s still a strong approach among proportional methods.

Q: Why don’t you go after organizations that do achievement awards?

A: We do, though we limit our resources to high-impact opportunities. Here’s an article about how we worked with The Webby Awards. We’ve also done an article on giving games. I’ve personally encountered some resistance when talking with some large awards organizations. They don’t collect the data to know whether their current voting method is bad. Plus they likely perceive that changing their voting method may reveal that their previously given awards have less value.

Q: The Electoral College is awful. Why aren’t you working to get rid of it?

A: The current actions to make the electoral college moot would still leave us with that awful choose-one voting method. Approval voting would work with this current approach though (RCV wouldn’t). We wrote a whole article about it.

Q: Why don’t you go after primaries? You should be going after primaries.

A: In areas where we run initiatives and there are primaries, we will be having them use approval voting. We’ve written lots about primaries. Here’s an article. Here’s one, too. Here’s one more. We’ll likely write another one before too long as well.

Q: Why don’t you target third parties to get their support?

A: We target third parties to get their support. Green and Libertarian chapters in multiple states support and use approval voting. The Libertarian Party even uses it for national internal positions. Other third parties use it, too. Many of those folks have already bought that IRV will help them, so we have to explain how approval voting would be better.

Q: I listened to the 80,000 Hours Episode, but I felt that you didn’t go into enough detail in certain areas.

A: It seems like you always think of things after the fact. Here are some quick follow-up details into areas like voter turnout where I could have given a more complete answer.

Q: Don't you have money already?

A: Our grant from Open Phil lets us operate. At $1.8M over three years, however, that means a $400K shortfall each year if we want to target a $1M annual budget. That’s the average budget we’ll need to take on cities larger than Fargo, ND. In 2018 when we received our first $600K grant, which worked great for that year, but we took on a smaller city of 120,000 people. We’ve made substantial gains since then, but it’s unrealistic for us to hit $400K immediately. This grant was game changing for us, but still leaves us substantially short of what we need to optimize our effectiveness and grow or impact. As laid out above, we have enormous room to operate effectively with more funds.

Even just aiming at a $1M budget (we can effectively use much more), we have a lot of ground to cover. It can also take a long time to get a donor base, staffing, infrastructure, and some big wins. For example, we effectively have $600K per year available starting from 2018. And we have a budget moving towards $1M in 2019. The first year of having funding in 2018, we raised an additional $200K outside any grants (4x our normal revenue from previous years). To cover the budget gap for the remaining years, we need to increase our donations by 50% each and every year after that. So that’s $300K in 2019, $450K in year 2020, and $675K in 2021.

This is an extremely ambitious growth rate, which is why we need your support.

Q: How can I help again?

A: Let other people know about our work and invest in a better democracy. If you’re particularly well connected, consider joining our board.

Q: Someone told me Aaron has a bunch of technical resources on efficient giving and minimizing tax burden in the US. Is this true?

A: You’re right! You can find those resources here. In particular, you should check out the articles on philanthropic giving, planned giving, and donor-advised funds.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:08 AM

Thanks for writing this; I find approval voting an interesting and intuitively attractive system (and have used it in the past).

I was surprised by the table you show about the impacts of approval voting on the democratic candidate selection. I generally think of approval voting as supporting moderate candidates, as you mention, but here it seems to be favouring the most extreme (Warren, Sanders) over the more moderate (Biden) - though perhaps I have misinterpreted the chart.

This makes me worry that increasing the 'democraticness' of elections might lead to worse outcomes. You sort of alude to this concern in the FAQ, but move over it pretty quickly. There are in fact many cases where it is I think relatively common to think that reducing 'democraticness' is a good move:

  • Independent central banks are much more competent, credible and technocratic than having elected politicians control the money supply. I'm not really aware of anyone who thinks this move was a bad idea.
  • Elected judges are often viewed as far more populist and generally lower quality than appointed ones.
  • Elected utility commissions are less competent than appointed ones (though perhaps I am biased on this issue).
  • Referendums and ballot initiatives are often blamed as part of the cause for the decline in Californian governance.

Elected vs Appointed isn't exactly the same as FPTP vs Approval Voting, but it seems like they have similar aspects.

Garrett Jones has a book on this. It's only on pre-order at the moment, but you can read Hanson's comments here.

Hi Larks,

On the moderate component, it's important to note a couple things: (1) moderate can change depending on what the population is and (2) sometimes we get a distorted view of what moderate is through the media.

Here, we're looking at a subgroup—people registered as democrats. So the population is a bit different. One of the platforms that Warren and Sanders are similar on that separate them from Biden is Medicare for All. It tends to poll rather well, particularly among democrats despite it being considered more extreme by the media.

On the democracy not always being good component, I touched on this a little elsewhere with a kind of "what else?" type reply. But perhaps, as you mentioned, there are some positions that are best not elected. I would take less issue with positions best not elected but more issue with positions elected badly (ex// FPTP).

Independent central banks are much more competent, credible and technocratic than having elected politicians control the money supply. I'm not really aware of anyone who thinks this move was a bad idea.

Ron Paul and a large fraction of American internet libertarians believe in the badness of technocratic central banks quite strongly[1], though I agree that this is not a mainstream (or even minority) position among academics or other people I trust on economic issues.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Paul#Economic

He opposes the Fed, but does he want interest rates set by politicians? My understanding is he wanted a return to the gold standard, where there is less need to directly control the money supply - the only question is whether you insist on 100% backing or accept a lower ratio, but once that is set growth in the money supply is determined by the volume of physical gold.

Similarly bitcoin people oppose the Fed, but not because they want politicians in charge - they have another external rule (e.g. fixed max quantity) that reduces democratic discretion.

Maybe this discussion is a bit tangential to The Center for Election Science's fund-raising.

Hi Aaron! Thanks for the interesting post. I am very sympathetic to the criticisms of plurality voting you outline, and I agree that alternative voting methods are worth pursuing. This certainly seems like a tractable problem (one which we’re already making headway on) and, like the study of institutional design more generally, I believe it is unduly neglected. With that said, I’d like to sketch some reasons to moderate our confidence in the purported benefits of a transition to something like approval voting.

I take it that part of the motivation for transitioning to approval voting is that our current voting system leads to bad policy and bad outcomes. You write:

“It’s hard to overstate how important our work is. We focus primarily in the US—arguably the most influential country in the world given its GDP and heavy reach over foreign policy. You don’t want a country with this stature to have a broken voting method. Bad policies and irresponsible spending are inevitable, and they affect the rest of the globe.”

Of approval voting, you write that it encourages good candidates to run, as well as favoring “the electorate’s middle”. In conjunction with fostering a political environment conducive to the formation and spread of new ideas, it also promises to benefit future people. Later, when responding to a question about the connection between the implementation of approval voting and the electorate advancing better policies, you rightly point out that if it isn’t the voters advancing policy then it may be some other group who may not have our best interests in mind.

That sounds right. But it doesn’t follow from the truth of the relevant counterfactual that approval voting would lead to better policy and better outcomes. The connection between favoring the electorate’s middle and the creation of better policy is tenuous. Political psychologists have studied levels of voter knowledge for decades, and virtually every study shows that voters are ignorant of even basic political facts. Given standard models of rational voter ignorance (and rational irrationality, etc.), this shouldn’t be surprising. Oversimplifying for a moment, the electorate’s middle are in all likelihood systematically mistaken about the sort of policies that would advance their interests; and when you pair these voters with political leaders who are incentivized to pander, we have a recipe for occasional disaster. I see no reason why this wouldn’t occur in a system with approval voting in the same way that it occurs in our current system.

I have similar reservations about the purported ability of approval voting to foster an environment in which good, new ideas can spread. In line with the above, I think approval voting guarantees the spread of new ideas at best, not necessarily new and good ideas. Without the flow of good and new ideas, the alleged benefits for future generations are probably overstated too. (On future generations, I favor thinking about possible institutional reforms which *directly* incentivize greater regard for future generations. Tyler John recently posted about this on the EA forum.)

In general, I think the case for approval voting outlined focuses too much on the supply-side of politics and not enough on the demand-side. Now, it is easy to overstate the significance of the demand-side (for reasons I am happy to get into, if you like). Still, I think this is a serious problem, and one that approval voting does not mitigate as far as I can tell.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this!

On future generations, I favor thinking about possible institutional reforms which directly incentivize greater regard for future generations.

I'm curious why you say this given that you earlier noted the problem that a large part of the electorate "are in all likelihood systematically mistaken about the sort of policies that would advance their interests." Making people give more regard to future generations seems to be of extremely unclear value if they are likely to be systematically mistaken about what would serve the interests of future generations. This seems like a consideration in favour of interventions which aim to improve the quality of decision-making (e.g. via deliberative democracy initiatives) vs those which try to directly make people's decisions more about the far future (although of course, these needn't be done in isolation). But perhaps I am simply misunderstanding what you mean by "directly incentivize greater regard for future generations"?

Thanks, David. I should have been clearer. I certainly don’t support interventions that incentivize greater regard for future generations without also attempting to improve the overall quality of decision-making.

In the article above, Aaron claims that a transition to approval voting would benefit future people. For reasons outlined above, I am skeptical of that claim. It is unclear whether greater responsiveness to the preferences of the electorate’s middle would bring about greater regard for future generations. Moreover, the evidence from public polling and political psychology suggests that even if the electorate’s middle had sufficiently high regard for future generations, they would have mistaken beliefs about what sorts of policies would benefit future generations. (Note: I don’t claim that political psychologists have gone out and investigated the degree to which regular voters possess knowledge of future-beneficial institutions and policies. Maybe they have, but I haven’t encountered such research myself. Instead, I claim that given the ignorance of the electorate with regard to even very basic politically relevant facts, we should expect them to be ignorant of future-beneficial institutions and policies.)

Now, we might try something like age-weighted voting. But this strikes me as an intervention that ignores the overall quality of decision-making. At best, it places comparatively more political power in the hands of people who might regard future generations more than their older counterparts. This is the sort of institutional reform that is in tension with my worries about the demand-side of politics.

I favor thinking about ways to both incentivize greater regard for future generations and improving the overall quality of decision-making. I have no settled opinions on what the eventual institutions would look like. Perhaps they would involve independent agencies acting in an advisory capacity, or perhaps they would involve novel governmental bodies tasked specifically with representing the interests of future generations, or perhaps something else entirely. Deliberative reform will probably play some role, but beyond that I don’t know. Institutional design is complicated business and we shouldn’t pretend we know in advance of serious empirical investigation what will work best. Still, I think we currently know enough to know that mere tweaks to the current voting system without improving the overall quality of decision-making will not be enough.

Thanks for the clarification, I strongly agree with the position described in this comment.

Given standard models of rational voter ignorance (and rational irrationality, etc.), this shouldn’t be surprising. Oversimplifying for a moment, the electorate’s middle are in all likelihood systematically mistaken about the sort of policies that would advance their interests; and when you pair these voters with political leaders who are incentivized to pander, we have a recipe for occasional disaster. I see no reason why this wouldn’t occur in a system with approval voting in the same way that it occurs in our current system.

I can think of one reason: rational ignorance is partially a consequence of the voting procedure used. People have less of an incentive to be ignorant when their votes matter more, as they would with approval voting. I don't have a strong stance on this, but I think it's important to recognize that studies about voter ignorance are not yielding evidence of an immutable characteristic of citizens; the situation is actually heavily contingent.

In the first few pages of The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan makes (implicitly) the case that voter ignorance isn't a huge deal as long as errors are symmetric: ignorant voters on both sides of an issue will cancel each other out, and the election will be decided by informed voters who should be on the "right" side, in expectation. Caplan claims that systematic bias across the population results in "wrong" answers.

My point in bringing this up is just that the existence of large numbers of ignorant voters doesn't have to be a major issue: large elections are decided by relatively small groups. Different voting procedures have very different ramifications for the composition of these small groups.

Hi Matt,

Of course I agree that studies of voter ignorance do not yield evidence of some fixed, immutable characteristic of citizens. It is also certainly true that different voting systems provide different incentives to acquire relevant political information. The pertinent question is whether implementing approval voting would incentivize the acquisition of political information to a sufficient degree that we could be confident in claiming that the mere transition to approval voting alone would have all the benefits that Aaron claims it would have. I am still very skeptical of those purported benefits being delivered. Even on minimally demanding normative accounts of what amount of knowledge voters ought to possess (models of retrospective voting, say), the opportunity cost of acquiring the relevant information is, for very many citizens, simply too high. I suspect this will be true even under a scheme of approval voting, and even if more voters were to think their votes matter more. For all we know, the transition to approval voting might simply increase voter turn-out by prompting citizens who previously abstained to go to the polls, now thinking that their votes matter; and since the sort of evidence about voter ignorance alluded to earlier suggests that non-voters are typically less informed than voters, we might end up in an even worse scenario as far as voter ignorance is concerned. Like you, I don't have a particularly strong stance on this. This is clearly an empirical matter. Still, we shouldn't rule this scenario out entirely.

In my initial comment, I mentioned that I think it is easy to overstate the significance of the demand-side of politics. This is partly because of the literature on epistemic democracy, which you allude to above in mentioning the so-called "Miracle of Aggregation" (i.e. symmetric errors cancelling each other out). Epistemic democrats would indeed dismiss my concerns about voter ignorance, for they claim that, under certain conditions, collective intelligence can emerge from large groups of individually ignorant agents. If that's right, then the evidence from political psychology needn't worry us. However - and with all due respect to the many theorists working on epistemic democracy (it's nice to say "with all due respect" and mean it) - the claims about the collective intelligence of individually ignorant voters often strike me as pollyannish. To take the case of the miracle of aggregation, I don't think the required symmetry holds. Without that symmetry, the collective intelligence does not emerge. To take another favored strategy of epistemic democrats (the Condorcet Jury Theorem), I don't think the necessary conditions for the emergence of collective competence are satisfied.

However, another reason to downplay the significance of the demand-side of politics is worth mentioning, since it is often ignored by various parties to disputes about levels of voter ignorance. The degree to which political leaders respond to voter preferences is often greatly overstated. Policymakers and political representatives enjoy a significant degree of autonomy, and much - if not most - policy-making is done out of the public eye entirely. When you couple this with recent work in political psychology suggesting that voters are often simply happy to toe the party line, this suggests that much of the focus on voters, their knowledge, and politicians responding to their preferences has been misplaced. This is as true of epistocratic worries about voter ignorance as it is about the epistemic democrats who oppose them. I don't think this means that voter ignorance isn't a problem (assuming for the moment that it is indeed a problem), but it's not the only thing we need to be looking at. Many factors other than voter competence contribute to the overall quality of governance, and voting reforms (whether approval voting or otherwise) will not change such factors much, if at all (factors such as the degree to which policymaking can be captured by special interests, levels of corruption, the decision-making methods deployed by legislators and bureaucrats, etc.).

Actually, upon re-reading my comment, I see that I somewhat inaccurately represented my own views. Instead of:

"In general, I think the case for approval voting outlined focuses too much on the supply-side of politics and not enough on the demand-side."

I should have said that there is a combination of focusing too much on the supply-side of politics and overlooking problems on the demand-side.

Replied at the bottom by accident. Starts with, "Hi, Adam."

Hey Aaron! Thanks for posting this. I am likely going to include CES in my giving this year as a result of some of the points you've made here.

I've been researching lobbying recently and I'm curious about this passage:

We will lobby legislators. Because of approval voting’s simplicity, there are opportunities for lobbying elected officials. Normally, this isn’t an option because of the conflict of interest with those elected. But the opportunity presents itself when the party in power suffers because of vote splitting yet wants to avoid implementing a complex method. There are places where RCV is stalled out where we have opportunities. These are typically higher risk but very high reward since they don’t require the same resources as a campaign. Our estimate is that they can be one sixth the expected cost per citizen compared to ballot measures when factoring in their relative probability of success. This also requires funding for a 501(c)4 to do this effectively at scale.

I'm not particularly skeptical about this one-sixth estimate, but I haven't been able to find anything like it my lit review! Do you have some background on this research?

Hi, Matt! Thanks for the question.

This estimate is based off of me asking our Director of Campaigns and Advocacy about likelihood of success with lobbying. He gave me an estimate and then I did a correction based off what I'd seen, which lowered the success probability to 5% per effort. The expected cost per person (factoring in this probability) is much lower because when it does work, you can get an entire state to change their voting method. The scale counteracts the cost and probability rather quickly.

That said, lobbying is a challenging effort. I'm cautious about spending too much time and money here without having a 501(c)4 as it can push away our resources from wins that are more likely. We have a need for momentum at the moment. Still, with the potential cost effectiveness, this is an area we're considering in the future. It's likely we'll be risk averse initially as we gain experience.

If you have particular resources you've found on lobbying, feel free to share. Like I said, this would be a new space for us. We had one opportunity here recently, but we decided against it based on the particular circumstances.

I'll post a summary lit review here on the forum when I'm done with my research. Spoiler alert: political scientists don't have a great idea of how/why/whether lobbying works and research on its effectiveness is almost strictly limited to trade policy and large publicly traded firms. So you get expressions of effects like "$140 in additional shareholder value for every $1 spent on lobbying." Interesting, but not particularly generalizable.

It seems like CES's strategy so far has been to start small, which makes obvious sense. I'm curious to know when/if you make the decision to withdraw from a local advocacy effort that seems like it's not paying off. It's not obvious to me that public support is monotonically increasing in dollars spent on advocacy— what's your stopping rule?

Right now, initiatives are our main path, but with more funds we'd be open to experimenting in lower-risk scenarios. I'd be excited to read what information you come up with.

We use polling as an initial indicator to see how receptive a demographic would be to the initiative. Fortunately, the simplicity helps us with receptivity.

Within a particular target city, we don't want to add more dollars than necessary to an effort. Winning soundly is important, but we didn't need to throw $1M directly into Fargo, for example. I suppose if we had, the support may have gone nonmonotinic in relation to the spend and backlashed against us. But I don't see that as a particularly big risk for us. We're more efficient than that.

Also, being as early as we are in the game, we're a little cautious about taking on a city we don't think we can win. We're aggressive, but not more aggressive than we think we can get away with.

Hi Adam,

Q: How would we know approval voting would give better policies? Why would the policies be good? And how do we know the policies would be good rather than merely popular?

A: I'm combining these ideas I pulled out because of their similarity. Approval voting tends to pull out the middle viewpoint (whatever that is for a particular electorate). And because viability is not an issue to gain initial support, it can provide a ramp for new ideas.

Is it possible that the popular opinion is bad? It sure is. But for this to be a real worry under approval voting would mean that the alternative of what we have now as being better. We might find that there is some popular issue that people win on that is not correct or overall good. This is also possible now, but with a poorer voting method. The question is whether approval voting provides a net gain so that popular issues that are good actually move forward at a pace faster than they would otherwise. Because of the quicker feedback and approval voting doing a better job of capturing candidate support, I believe this to likely be true. And to the degree that this is true in enacting better policies, many policies have carryover benefits that go well into the future.

I'm not sure I understood the question on supply and demand-side politics.

P.S. I accidentally added this as a main thread reply. Sorry about that.

Has CES done any analysis of Causus voting? I did not see any reference to it on the CES website.

With the primaries coming up, this might be interesting to explore. A recent On Point podcast interviewed Iowa voters and the process sounded somewhat similar, in that people need to compromise and come to a consensus. I am not suggesting caucus voting as a reform, but I wonder if some analysis could flesh out how it overlaps or differs with other systems like approval voting. If similar, that might provide some comfort to voters that approval voting is not so radical vs. existing systems.


Caucus voting still has vote splitting as voters aren't able to support multiple candidates simultaneously. With approval voting, you can support multiple candidates simultaneously. We haven't analyzed caucus voting. We did do this poll, however, on the democratic primaries: https://www.electionscience.org/press-releases/new-poll-74-of-democratic-primary-voters-would-support-warren-for-president/

I'd like to see us do much more research and evaluation, but we currently don't have it in our budget to hire a Director of Research and support staff.

Aaron, thanks much for the update. Did the poll include non-democratic primary voters - e.g. registered republicans, etc.? A broader view of citizen views might offer additional insights.

I agree that more research and evaluation is desirable. In fact, I think that robust evidence is critical for concepts like approval voting to gain traction and support. Could CES organize volunteers to do exit interviews at polling locations during primary and general elections? Capturing plurality, approval, and even other voting preferences during real elections could offer valuable insights. It would also raise the visibility and awareness of different voting systems. And it might also help citizens understand how different systems can affect elections.

The exit polling could also ask people if they would optionally like to receive results (SMS, email.., [not tied to their vote choices]), thus additionally increasing awareness and offering the potential for future polls.

The poll included only those who intended to vote in the Democratic Primary.

It's very difficult to manage volunteers in this way, particularly given our small staff size. We tend to contract polling out. That said, it takes some expertise to sort through the data. Having staff for research would help us dramatically in both evaluating voting methods and measuring progress within cities that we've won in.