Approval voting offers a simple solution to one of the most annoying problems in the Pick one #link voting system we use in most US elections: If you’re ever stuck deciding whether to vote for one candidate or another, you can just vote for both.
Do you like Al Gore and Ralph Nader? Vote for both!
Do you like Teddy Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs? Vote for all three!
This freedom gives you a new thing to think about as a voter — how many candidates should you vote for? If I’m given a ballot and told to vote for however many candidates I want, I’m going to get very caught up on exactly where I should draw the line between candidates I do and don’t vote for. Should I:
- Vote for only my very favorite candidates, leaving candidates I like but don’t love off my ballot?
- Vote for every candidate I could be content with, only leaving candidates I actively dislike off my ballot?
This guide gives some advice on how to vote intelligently in an Approval election and avoid voting in a way that accidentally makes you feel like you’ve messed up.
Things that would feel bad:
- Me and my political friends want Alice to win, but we don’t mind Bob winning either, so we all vote for both. Bob wins, but if we had only voted for Alice, she would have won instead. We shouldn’t have voted of Alice on our ballots!
We should have been pickier with our approvals!
- Me and my political friends want Alice to win, but we don’t mind Bob winning, either. We all only vote for Alice, but Carl, who we hate, wins. But if we had voted for Bob on our ballots, he would have won, and we would have kept that jerk Carl from winning!
We shouldn’t have been so picky with our approvals!
I can’t guarantee that you won’t experience either of these problems, but I can give you some advice on how to make these unhappy scenarios very unlikely.
A rough guide to voting effectively in Approval elections
While I’m unfortunately not able to tell you exactly how to vote in every Approval election, I can give some general advice:
Try to vote for somewhere between one third and three-fifths of candidates
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of why this is roughly the right number of candidates to vote for — I’ve done this already, if you’re interested in reading about the math-y details. But if not, here’s the practical takeaway for voting in an approval voting election:
- If you’re voting for around one-third (33%) of candidates or fewer, there’s a good chance that you’re being too picky.
- If you’re voting for around three-fifths (60%) of candidates or more, there’s a good chance that you’re not being picky enough.
This is what this looks like for elections with different numbers of candidates:
to vote for
to vote for
|4||1||2 or 3|
|5||1 or 2||3|
|6||2||3 or 4|
|8||2 or 3||4 or 5|
|9||3, maybe 2||5, maybe 6|
|11||3 or 4||6 or 7|
|12||4, maybe 3||7|
|13||4||7 or 8|
|14||4 or 5||8|
|15||5, maybe 4||9|
|16||5||9 or 10|
These aren’t hard rules; you can be fine straying outside of these upper and lower limits. But if you are anywhere close to the recommended upper or lower limits of how many candidates you should vote for, then consider adding or removing candidates from your ballot.
Here’s some advice for how to choose what candidates to add or remove from your ballot:
To decide whether to add a candidate to your ballot:
Look at the candidates you didn’t vote for. Look for any candidates
- You like about as much as or even more than the candidates that you did vote for
- You like about as much as the other candidates you did vote for and are more likely to win than any of the candidates you are planning to vote for
If any candidates fit either of these criteria, consider voting for them on your ballot.
To decide whether to keep a candidate off your ballot:
Look at the candidates you did vote for. Look for any candidates
- You clearly don’t like as much as the other candidates that you voted for
- Who aren’t more likely to win than any of the other candidates you voted for. (This might be hard to tell in races where you don’t have access to any polling)
If any candidates fit both of these criteria, consider not voting for them on your ballot.
To Summarize: Simple Rules for Approving
- If there is a candidate you like more than any of the candidates you plan to vote for, vote for that candidate, too.
- If there is a candidate you like as much as the candidates you plan to vote for and who you think is more likely to win than those candidates, vote for that candidate, too.
- If there is a candidate you don’t like as much as the other candidates you plan to vote for and who also isn’t more likely to win than the other candidates you’re voting for, don’t vote for that candidate
- Try to stay within the recommended ranges of how many candidates to vote for, but don’t sweat it too much if you’re voting for more or fewer candidates than the range suggests you should, as long as you’ve checked the candidates with Rule 1 (if you’re voting for fewer candidates than the table suggests) or Rule 2 (if you’re voting for more candidates than the table suggests), you’re probably just fine.
The Center for Election Science, an organization that advocates for approval voting, has a related (though less detailed) description of how to decide whether to vote for a candidate that’s worth checking out if you want to read more or if my guide didn’t work for you.