Finding the Will of the People: Approval Voting and Score Voting

G Sanders
8 min readFeb 6, 2023

Disgusted with polarized politics and dysfunctional governance?

What if someone told you that all the world’s democracies are using dysfunctional voting methods that do nothing more than promote polarization and conflict at the expense of common-ground consensus?

Would you say, “How could this be? We’ve had democracies here in the Free World for over 200 years, and they’re all working just fine, aren’t they?”

But what if we could prove to you in under a minute that no one believes in our ‘single-choice’ plurality voting method — where the candidate who gets the ‘most votes’ wins — because it doesn’t represent the common-ground consensus, “the will of the people”?

Just answer this one little question:

Imagine you’re driving a school bus with 10 hungry young football players, and they’re all desperate to stop for a quick lunch together.

You have to choose the one best place to take them.

There are three options up ahead: a BBQ pork stand, a sushi restaurant, and a pizza shop.

You ask the 10 kids for their opinions on their three options, and they quickly tell you the following:

  • Four kids love BBQ pork, hate sushi, but like pizza
  • Three kids love sushi, hate BBQ pork, but like pizza
  • Three kids hate BBQ pork, hate sushi, but like pizza

Note that all 10 kids like pizza.

Where are you going to take them?

So, did you choose the please-all pizza, as all people do? We’ve posed this question to hundreds of people, and every one of them correctly selects the please-all pizza as the obvious common-ground consensus here, “the will of the people.”

However, if this simple three-option decision had been put to a vote in any of the Free World’s democracies (using ‘plurality voting’), then the polarizing pork, preferred by 4 out of the 10 kids, would have been selected at 40%.

But you know darn well that if you pull into the BBQ pork parking lot, there’s going to be a ‘civil war’ on your bus, with 60% of the kids (the 6 who hate BBQ pork) going hungry!

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” — Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776)

How to find “the will of the people”

If ‘single-choice’ plurality voting doesn’t even work in a simple little election between just three options (as you have just seen yourself), then how can it work to find the “will of the people” when there are even more options on the ballot?

Perhaps it’s time to take a good look at just what “democracy” is supposed to be:

What is democracy?

“Democracy” (derived from the Greek “demos” — the people, + “kratia” — power, or rule) literally means that “the people” have the ruling power.

The phrase “the people” means all the people, not just the plurality (or even the ‘majority’).

But how can we calculate the will of all the people, not just the preference of the plurality (the single largest voting ‘faction’)?

To calculate the will of all the people, we need a voting method that allows all the voters to indicate their opinions on all the options on the ballot.

This would allow the six kids who hated BBQ pork to effect the outcome of the election, and not just be ‘hijacked’ by the four kids (the ‘plurality’) who loved it.

Fortunately, there are two voting methods that will successfully select the please-all pizza — the true “will of the people” — for the football team above:

Approval Voting and Score Voting

Approval Voting is where voters give a 👍 to all the candidates they approve of, and the candidate with the highest approval rating wins.

Note that approval voting is already used by pollsters to find the approval ratings of candidates and politicians, both before and after they are elected. (So why aren’t we using approval voting to elect all our representatives?)

Score Voting is where voters give a numerical score (e.g. 0–10) to each candidate, and the candidate with the highest score wins.

This is just like how people rate products, services, and information on the internet.

Both of these rated-voting methods capture the opinions of all the voters on all the options on the ballot in order to find “the will of the people,” and not just the preference of the plurality.

The three ballots side-by-side

The ‘single-choice’ plurality voting election looks like this:

The Approval Voting election would look like this:

The Score Voting election would look like this:

Why our government is so dysfunctional

As you can see in the example above, our single-choice, ‘preference-based’ plurality voting method effectively guarantees that polarizing options and candidates (like the BBQ pork) can garner a plurality preference to hijack elections, even when all the other voters hate them.

This dysfunctionality was most horribly exemplified in the 2016 Republican Primary, when plurality voting selected the most divisive candidate in history as the plurality winner from a pool that started with 17 candidates.

Then, thanks to the Electoral College, he was elected president while having the lowest approval rating in presidential polling history!

The basis of the two-party system

Just like it did in the 2016 Republican Primary, by arbitrarily restricting voters to making just a single choice ‘preference’, our current plurality voting method causes similar candidates and parties to ‘spoil’ each other’s chances.

Our plurality voting method is why politicians feel compelled to join together in the first place, to form a faction — a “Party” — with its own primaries. They want to make sure that only one of their ‘members’ appears on the final ballot, to make sure they aren’t ‘splitting’ their support among voters.

Why third parties don’t win

But, in plurality voting, similar parties also ‘spoil’ each other’s chances (Libertarians historically ‘spoil’ Republican candidates; The Green Party historically ‘spoils’ Democratic candidates, etc.).

So voters are reluctant to cast their ‘single choice’ vote on some ‘third party’ candidate who (presumably) doesn’t stand a good chance of winning.

This forces our politics into a de facto, oppositional two-party duopolyeach party trying to undermine the other — that George Washington warned us about this in his Farewell Address (paragraph 22):

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge… is itself a frightful despotism.” — George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

Fortunately, as you’ve seen above, in Approval Voting and Score Voting, no candidates ‘spoil’ each other’s chances. Thus, many more highly-qualified candidates from across the political spectrum (including moderates, centrists, and independents) will be able run for office.

Such candidates will better-represent their constituents’ overall beliefs. And they won’t need to align with any particular ‘party’.

The institution of Approval Voting or Score Voting effectively puts an end to our dysfunctional, oppositional two-party system.

What We can do

Isn’t it now obvious that We the People should, at the very minimum, be using approval ratings (via multi-choice Approval Voting) to elect representatives who have the highest approval ratings from the entire electorate?

And if We want to expand Approval Voting to find the precise “will of the people,” we should use Score Voting to elect representatives who have the highest score from the entire electorate.

Beyond just ensuring more-democratic elections, Approval Voting and Score Voting transform the way people actually think about democratic decision-making, changing the anti-democratic notion of “it’s us against them” into the democratic spirit that “we’re all in this together”!

How We can do it

Approval Voting is easy to institute, since it uses the same voting software and ballots already in use — we just need to:

  1. Change the rules to allow voters to select all the candidates they approve of.
  2. Adjust the voting software to accept multiple selections for each set of options on the ballot.
Courtesy The Center for Election Science

Note: Approval Voting is immediately instituted by simply removing the “overvote” rule — the general rule in each state’s election laws that arbitrarily restricts voters to selecting just a single option.

As of March, 2024, Approval Voting is already being used in Fargo, ND and St. Louis, MO, and is currently under consideration in many other municipalities and beyond.

Score Voting would require more-advanced voting software and ballots in order to capture voters’ ratings for each candidate.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Join the movement

Here’s what you can do to help make Approval Voting and Score Voting a reality:

  • Use Score Voting at work to make the best team decisions. Here are some tools to help you.
  • Promote Score Voting for use in your local government.
  • Donate, promote, and get involved with campaigns @ The Center for Election Science — the top organization that promotes Approval Voting and Score Voting across the U.S. and the world.
  • Learn more about Approval Voting and Score Voting: ElectionScience.org, ScoreVoting.org, Gaming the Vote
  • Share this article with others.
  • Create content around #ApprovalVoting and #ScoreVoting and how they will fix our democracy.

Who else supports Approval Voting and Score Voting?

Notable figures on board with the above conclusions and recommendations for ‘Voting in Sanity’ (chronologically):

  • Timothy Snyder — Professor of History, Yale University
  • William Poundstone — bestselling author, Gaming the Vote
  • Noam Chomsky — Professor Emeritus, MIT Linguistics and Philosophy
  • Aaron Hamlin — Executive Director, The Center for Election Science
  • Richard Painter — Professor of Corporate Law, University of Minnesota
  • Jose Aleman — Professor of Political Science, Fordham University
  • Robert Y. Shapiro — Professor of Government and International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
  • Michael Smerconish — CNN host, Smerconish
  • Steven Pinker — Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
  • Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson — Professor of Government and Public Policy, William & Mary; Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002–2005)
  • Dr. Tim Mahoney — Mayor of Fargo, ND (which has now upgraded to Approval Voting for all its municipal elections)
  • Anthony DiMaggio — Associate Professor of Political Science, Lehigh University
  • Jack A. Goldstone (Chair Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University) and Larry Diamond (professor of Political Science and Sociology, Stanford University)
  • Dr. Anthony J. Mazzarelli, MD, JD, MBE, Co-President/CEO, Cooper University Health Care (in a taped-for-radio conversation with George Sanders, for airing on Smerconish’s nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show)
  • Daniel F. Stone — Associate Professor of Economics, Bowdoin College

Additional positive responses from:

  • James Fallows — The Atlantic
  • Marc Fisher — Washington Post
  • Chuck Rosenberg — Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University; MSNBC on-air legal analyst
  • Daniel Lippman — Politico
  • Peter Baker — New York Times
  • John Della Volpe — Director of Polling, Harvard Institute of Politics
  • Alayna Treene — Axios
  • Geoffrey R. Stone — Professor of Law, Chicago University
  • Maureen Dowd — New York Times
  • Karen J. Greenberg — Director, Center on National Security, Fordham University School of Law
  • Katherine Schweit — Adjunct Professor, DePaul College of Law
  • Kasahun Woldemariam — Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, Spelman College
  • George Thomas — Professor of American Political Institutions, Claremont McKenna College
  • Marcel Danesi — Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology, University of Toronto
  • Akhil Reed Amar — Professor of Law and Political Science, Yale University

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