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There are a lot of problems with electoral systems around the world. This post will not argue for the dangers of political polarization or the potential of electoral reform. Instead, I will jump straight into an answer for how we can build a voting system that represents our political (and non-political) preferences more effectively.

Whenever I have to vote, I always leave the voting booth unhappy. Even though I live in a country where I can choose between more than two political parties, I always feel like I cannot adequately express my political position. I can agree with a party on certain issues but disagree with them on others. So what would happen if we split up the vote into different categories?


Category Voting

Say that we had a voting ballot with two categories: social policy and economic policy.

 Red PartyYellow PartyBlue Party
Social Policy                
Economic Policy          

Whenever you enter an election, you could bring out one vote in favor of your favorite party in terms of economic policy and one vote in favor of social policy. The number of votes one political party would have to win to get a seat in parliament would double because the number of votes people can give has also doubled. After an election, the statistics on how people voted for both categories would become public. There wouldn't be two different parliaments (one for economic policy and one for social policy); it would still be one parliament, but a party could better understand why people gave them a certain number of votes. People can add more nuance to their vote, and if the red party gained a lot of votes because of their social policy but not so much because of their economic policy, they can see that and subsequently adjust their position to align themselves better with the will of the people.

But what if you think economic policy is more important than social policy? How do you show which type of policy you find more important? One way to solve this is to make it a form of score voting.

 Red PartyYellow PartyBlue Party
Social Policy① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤
Economic Policy① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤

This might seem complex, but it's essentially the system we already use for movies, online products, and hotels. Perhaps we could make the circles little stars so people grasp the concept of scoring political parties more quickly.
Let's say you think the red party has the best plan for social policy, but you think the yellow party has the best economic policy. However, you think social policy is twice as important. Ideally, you should be able to give 2/3 of your vote to the red party and 1/3 to the yellow party. Here's how this could look in practice:

 Red PartyYellow PartyBlue Party
Social Policy① ② ③ ⬤ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤
Economic Policy① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ⬤ ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤

You have successfully signaled that you find social policy more important than economic policy. Giving higher numbers won't increase your voting power because all the numbers get normalized. Normalization means the number of votes you give will always be divided by itself.

So in this example, you have given six votes in total: four to the red party and two to the yellow party. When we normalize it to one vote, it will give 2/3 of your vote to the red party (marked as social policy) and 1/3 to the yellow party (marked as economic policy). This system has a couple of advantages. One advantage is that you don't even need to fill in both categories at all. If you don't think economic policy is important to politics, you aren't forced to fill it in just to have comparable voting power to other people. If you only give one vote in social policy to the red party, it will register that you gave 1/1 of your vote to the red party (for social policy). This is another way to track the interests of the population and will become more important later in this article. Within the normalized score voting system, you can even give votes to different parties in the same category while simultaneously signaling how comparatively well each party performed and how important you find each type of policy. So in this scenario:

 Red PartyYellow PartyBlue Party
Social Policy① ② ③ ⬤ ⑤① ② ⬤ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤
Economic Policy① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ⬤ ③ ④ ⑤⬤ ② ③ ④ ⑤

Someone wants to signal that social policy is more important and thinks both the reds and the yellows have good plans, though she thinks the reds' are slightly better and the blues have dropped the ball. And while the economic front might be less important, the reds don't have any good policies, but the blues and yellows do. This person gives 4/10 of her vote to the reds (marked social), 3/10 to the yellows (marked social), 2/10 to the yellows (marked economic), and 1/10 to the blues (marked economic).

The problem is that you don't really know if this person thinks economic policy is less important or if she thinks it is important but just thinks the parties are incompetent at it. If you want to punish parties for a bad performance in a category, it could also be interpreted as signaling that you don't find this category important. One way to fix this would be to have a separate column for marking 'importance'.

 How important is this 


Red Party


Yellow Party


Blue Party

Social Policy① ② ③ ⬤ ⑤① ⬤ ③ ④ ⑤⬤ ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤
Economic Policy⬤ ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⑤① ② ⬤ ④ ⑤① ② ③ ④ ⬤

Here, the "importance column" works as a multiplier. This person marked social policy as four times more important than economic policy, so the two votes for the red party become eight votes and the one vote for the yellow party becomes four votes. The five economic votes for the blue party stay five votes (5 x 1 = 5) and the three votes for the yellow party also stay three. This person gives 8/20 votes to the red party, 4/20 to the yellow party, another 3/20 to the yellow party, and 5/20 to the blue party. This system allows you to simultaneously signal how competent you think the parties are without sacrificing your ability to signal the importance of a policy category.

However, this system doesn't allow you to distinguish between importance and uncertainty. Say I don't know anything about economics and don't feel qualified to voice my opinion on it, but I do think it's very important. If I leave the economic policy blank, that could be interpreted as me not caring about economic policy. We could introduce an extra column for epistemic uncertainty about a category, but I feel that would make the ballot too complex. The ballot design I've given above is already pushing it in terms of the amount of complexity we can expect the general population to handle. Besides, for most people, "not knowing" and "not caring" do go hand in hand, so for the vast majority of the population, this extra column wouldn't be necessary. I'm just mentioning it here in case you want to create a voting system for a group of super nerdy people for whom "uncertainty" and "caring" are vastly different. This voting doesn't need to be about politics; voting systems can also be used for everyday decisions in groups or companies. Maybe in the future, when people are more voting literate, they will demand this more complex version, but for now, I wouldn't recommend using anything more complex than "Score Category Voting with Importance-column" (or SCVI for short). This is already pushing it in terms of complexity, and perhaps Approval Category Voting (ACV) would be a good intermediate voting system before we transition to more voting systems with more complexity.

There are a lot of voting systems, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, each of which can be applied to category voting. By necessity, this post will not be a comprehensive lists of all the possible ways you can have a category voting system, but feel free to post more versions in the comments. This post is primarily here to tickle your imagination about what could potentially be used as categories and columns. I will now move on to one way to select the categories.


Department Voting

In the examples above, I filled in the two categories with the labels "social policy" and "economic policy". While you might think that the categories "social policy" and "economic policy" are appropriate, they are actually kind of arbitrary. It is unclear how security policy fits into it, and we could just as easily make a distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy. But the way we select these categories is important since it can frame politics in certain ways. One way to solve this is to have a vote on what you're later going to be voting on, but that is not particularly practical. You could have an independent panel decide on the categories, but that has the usual problem of ensuring that the panel remains truly independent. One other way to choose the apartments that you might not immediately think of is to use the government departments (or ministries) as the categories. This has a couple of advantages:


  1. It makes people more aware of how their government functions. I seriously doubt most people could name all their government departments, but seeing them listed every time they go to vote could teach them. This has the additional benefit that, since people start to know the departments, they can start to critically reflect on them. Do we even need all of them? Shouldn't this department be split? Could these two be fused? It also carries with it a sense of epistemic humility. There is so much work the government is doing and so much stuff I am not informed about. This has the potential to broaden someone's political considerations and make them not only better informed but more politically engaged.
  2. It isn't easily exploitable. If the categories on the ballot paper were decided by the government, the political parties in charge could try to influence the electorate by changing the categories to only include things they're good at. Say, for example, that the dominant political party was very bad at defense spending. They couldn't just remove "defense" as a category from the ballot list without first dissolving the department of defense itself, which would be massively shooting yourself in the bureaucratic foot. One way I can see to get around this is by only renaming some departments. If the names you give to the departments are sufficiently non-descriptive or misleading, it might lead some folks to vote differently. That said, I think this could be solved by having a critical enough media landscape, having an independent panel, or requiring a supermajority for any name changes.
  3. People who are not that politically engaged don't become overwhelmed. You don't need to fill in all the boxes. If you just want to vote for your favorite party without all this nuance getting in the way, you can just tick the "department of state" box (or whichever department your government has as its first department) for your favorite party. Because of normalization, your vote will not be of less value than someone who fills in more boxes. Similarly, someone who isn't interested in the different departments but is interested in ranking different political parties can signal that too. This system allows you to fill in as much or as little nuance as you want. One addition I would make to this ballot is to have a final category for "Other", which people can fill in for reasons that aren't captured by the different departments, e.g., good media communication. If we have advanced enough reading A.I. (or voting machines), we could even let people create their own boxes by writing in some empty ones at the bottom of the list. Though this probably isn't something we could easily implement today.
  4. Every political issue will have a category. If you don't use departments, you run the risk of having an incomplete list. Certain issues that people find important aren't mentioned or mislabeled. But everything a government does must be done through one of its departments, so any government job is by necessity on the list. If you think there is something the government should be doing that isn't being done by any departments, then this reveals that flaw, and you can demand to have the job of a department expanded or a new department added. Which brings me to the next point.
  5. Departments are flexible. If a society is struggling with a certain issue at one point in time and makes a department for it, that doesn't mean the department sticks around permanently. Society and the challenges it faces change all the time, and departments change with them in an attempt to best tackle them. This is a feature, not a bug.
  6. But most importantly, it makes the composition of the government better reflect the preferences of the population. If you have a representative multiparty system, you will most likely have a government that is formed out of a coalition of parties, rather than one party dominating. When forming a government, the coalition needs to decide which parties will helm which departments. For example, if the red party and the yellow party form a coalition and they see that everyone has rated the red party highly on "education", it makes sense that in the formation of their coalition government, they let the red party helm the department of education. Instead of departments being helmed based on the will of politicians, it will be based on the will of the population.


A disadvantage of this system would be that it will take voters much longer to fill out their ballots and that it will take vote-counters much longer to count all the ballots (assuming it's done by hand and not by machines). As such, more money will need to be spent on voting booths, and election day should be made a national holiday so people don't miss more work if they take longer to fill out their ballots. Overall, I think these changes are worth it.





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Great idea! I have a few questions:

  • Do you know similar voting methods that worked on a small scale?
  • What are the next steps in terms of research / action?

Do you know similar voting methods that worked on a small scale?

I haven't seen the use of categories and columns before, but the voting systems I used have already seen a bunch of analysis and real world use (the electo-wiki I linked to is a good starting point if you want to look into it). If with "small scale" you mean "you and a bunch of friends need to find a place to eat" I wouldn't use columns and categories (takes too long), but would instead use a simple Approval Vote. If you have a specific scenario in mind, feel free to message me and maybe I can help you out.

What are the next steps in terms of research / action?

I'm not a professional voting theorist, so I'm going to wait and see if someone finds a flaw in the idea of using columns, categories or departments. If not, I might be able to publish it in a couple years if my university/a journal is interested. I think from an activism perspective we should first focus on introducing a better voting system. Something like Approval Voting would be easier to explain/get the public on board with than this more complex electoral reform. If I run into some people that are passionate about voting reform I will certainly share this idea with them, but for now I don't really have an audience for it beyond this forum. If you have a project in mind, feel free to message me.

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