Should the public trust approval voting?

The American voting system has traditionally been first-past-the-post (i.e., the first candidate that meets a certain threshold wins). This system has disincentivized political alternatives. Votes for less-popular candidates tend to be viewed as wasted (see the “spoiler effect”), and so many voters choose the more popular party that is closest to their preferences, ultimately narrowing the political window to two options — in our case, red and blue — which ultimately hurts the more socialist candidates our movement tends to support.

Many academics and activists have been debating voting alternatives. Ranked choice voting (RCV), for example, has increased in popularity with advocates such as 

For context, RCV is a system where voters have the option to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference (see a further breakdown here). There are complexities to what happens once your first candidate meets the threshold for victory or is eliminated, but generally, if your first-ranked candidate is eliminated from the running, your vote will go to your second-ranked candidate instead or your third-ranked candidate, and so on. This outcome is suggested to avoid the spoiler effect: something all socialists should be concerned about if we want our candidates to be competitive.

But RCV isn’t the only alternative being considered to replace America's traditional first-past-the-post voting system. Other options have emerged as well, such as score voting or the two-round runoff. One alternative system, though, has been ringing alarm bells: approval voting.

Approval voting receives significant backing from tech billionaires

Under approval voting, all nominees are placed on a ballot, and voters can vote for as many or as few candidates as they approve of. The candidate or candidates with the most votes will win. There is a certain appeal to its simplicity, but it’s hard to anticipate the pitfalls of a practical application of this system because, historically speaking, it's very new. There are only a handful of localities in the US that use this system.

If we look at the people who have been advocating for approval voting in government elections, we see a technocratic bunch. “When I tell you that engineers, entrepreneurs, and other bright minds are throwing support behind approval voting, know that it’s far from the last time you’ll hear about it,” self-proclaimed engineer Felix Sargent asserts in Roll Call

For context, Sargent is on the board of directors at the Center for Election Science, a group that has explicitly pushed for approval voting. In 2022, there was a push for approval voting in Seattle for its council and mayoral elections. The group Seattle Approves received $300,000 from Sargent’s group, which has deep pockets with Silicon Valley funders (more on them later). The initiative also received $135,000 from Sam Bankman-Fried, who you may be familiar with from the FTX collapse (the funding provided to Seattle Approves may have been diverted illegally).

The financial source of these initiatives is not the only cause for concern, but also why they are pushing for the initiative. The main argument that is used by supporters when advocating for this system is that it will allow voters to express their preferences more honestly. “With approval voting, you can vote for all the candidates you want. The candidate with the most votes wins. It’s as simple as that!” touts the Center for Election Science on its website

Yet there is another argument, used less frequently, that might be more alarming to those on the left. The system's supporters tend to perceive it as benefiting the political “middle.” Nick Beckstead, who was at the time president of Bankman-Fried’s FTX Foundation, told The Daily Beast they supported approval voting in part because it reduced “polarization.” The Center for Election Science’s co-founder Clay Shentrup is a wealthy engineer, and he is on the record in a Reddit post saying: “These systems also seem inherently somewhat neoliberal in the sense that they tend toward centrism.”

Until very recently, there have been only two polities that have passed Approval Voting: St. Louis, MO, and Fargo, ND, and the Center for Election Science devoted resources to push for the approval voting campaigns in both. 

When we follow where the money came from, we learn that the Center for Election Science received a large chunk of funding for these initiatives from the organization Open Philanthropy in 2017. In its grant investigation, Open Philanthropy noted that the funds would be going to build public education and grassroots support for approval voting. Open Philanthropy’s biggest funders are spouses Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, the latter of whom is one of the co-founders of Facebook (now Meta) and Asana.

Moskovitz is a billionaire who has spent years focused on funneling his wealth to charity causes using the philosophy of “effective altruism”—he’s one of the biggest funders of the Effective Altruism Forum and the Centre for Effective Altruism. Effective Altruism is the idea that “evidence and reason” should be used to determine how to help others…though the definition of the term has been hotly debated, as well as the merits of the philosophy as a whole.  

One of the major criticisms of Effective Altruism is its tendency to devolve into “longtermism” or “the view that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.” Longtermism has often been criticized for prioritizing vague “future people” over the material needs of people alive today and the systems that harm them (see Christine Emba’s essay on the topic). This philosophy is one that the Effective Altruism community has been linked to since its beginning. As Mollie Gleiberman writes in Effective Altruism and the strategic ambiguity of ‘doing good’:

    “…from the formal inception of EA in 2012, the key figures and intellectual architects of the EA movement were intensely focused on promoting the suite of causes that now fly under the banner of ‘longtermism’, particularly AI-safety, x-risk/global catastrophic risk reduction, and other components of the transhumanist agenda such as human enhancement, mind uploading, space colonization, prediction and forecasting markets, and life extension biotechnologies.”

Moskovitz has routinely supported the longtermist ideology, specifically the Center for Effective Altruism’s Longtermist Incubator. Through his work with the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures, he may be considered by some as one of the “good” billionaires, but he’s still advancing positions from his class perspective, which prioritizes abstract future existential risks over structural issues that may be more immediately risky to the wealth billionaires like Moskovitz currently hold onto.

A not-so-simple system

Support from billionaires and technocrats doesn’t make approval voting a terrible proposition on its own. But in observing the effects and dynamics introduced by the system, we will see that it’s hardly a change from the status quo faults of our current systems. 

The strategic voting mentality we see with first-past-the-post doesn’t disappear with approval. Under approval, there is a tactical advantage in voting for fewer people, so electoral campaigns emphasize “bullet voting,” or encouraging a voter to only focus on a single candidate.

In the mayoral race of Fargo, for example, multiple candidates included “vote for one” in their messaging based on their understanding of bullet voting. Mayoral candidate Tim Mahoney said of the system: “I would probably bet that every candidate says just vote once because that has more power as a vote.”

Approval voting can also lead to surprisingly undemocratic results because what constitutes “approval” varies widely by the voter. As stated in The Urbanist of a proposed change to Approval Voting in Seattle: “Critically, though, voters wouldn’t be able to distinguish between candidates. Your votes for your favorite candidate and the one you would begrudgingly tolerate would be counted at the same time and have equal weight.”

It’s very possible that a candidate preferred by a higher majority of voters still loses because of a combination of strategic voting and, in a large bloc, a base supporting a candidate in a bloc that in a first-past-the-post or ranked-choice system would be ranked far lower. This infamously happened with Dartmouth College’s alumni association, which rolled back approval voting because they found it empowered a vocal minority.

This system encourages duplicity where only naive voters will vote “honestly” for as many preferred candidates as possible, while seasoned voters recognize that such an action dilutes their vote’s power. The spoiler effect doesn’t go away. As highlighted by the org FairVote: “Bottom-line: the insiders will be trying “to get the memo” to their backers to bullet vote while outwardly pretending to be inclusive in order to draw approval votes from backers of other candidates.”

This reality defeats one of the primary arguments of being able to vote honestly for as many people as you approve of: doing so only hurts your preferred candidate. Why not just have first-past-the-post, then? At least that is open about favoring political insiders.

Can voters trust a system this susceptible to strategic asymmetry?

Approval voting is a system that sounds simple: vote for whomever you want as much as you want. Yet, as we know from first-past-the-post, and capitalism itself, just because something sounds simple doesn't mean it won't have unintended consequences.

There is asymmetrical knowledge among voters. Skilled ones know that selecting multiple preferences dilutes their vote's power, while bullet voting (i.e., constraining voting to a single candidate or slate) places their preference in a stronger position. This reality undercuts a primary argument that approval voting allows voters to express their preferences honestly.

Worse, the support for approval voting has clearly been seeded by the longtermist billionaire Dustin Moskovitz and to a lesser extent Sam Bankman-Fried. This doesn’t automatically make the voting system bad, but it is a yellow flag and, coupled with the other issues we have mentioned, should give leftists pause.

Approval voting is favored by billionaires. Should socialists be among them? 

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