Approval Voting

Approval voting is a single-winner voting method that allows voters to vote for any number of candidates. The candidate with the most votes wins.


Benefits of Approval Voting

Motivates Honest Voting

Under our current First Past The Post plurality voting system, voters who like a lesser-well-known or third party candidate are highly motivated to vote for their preferred front runner instead of their long-shot favorite to avoid "wasting" their vote. With Approval Voting, voters can approve of their preferred front-runner and their long-shot favorite. If their favorite really doesn't have a good chance of winning, then a vote for them will not hurt the preferred front-runner at all. If a voter's favorite does have a good chance of winning, then the voter would probably only vote for their favorite. In either scenario the voter can always safely vote honestly for their favorite candidate. This is a very important distinction that many people miss between plurality voting and bullet Approval Voting (voting for only one with Approval): with plurality you are highly motivated to vote for a lesser-of-two-evils candidate, but with Approval, the only time you would ever bullet vote is for your favorite.


Winners Have Stronger Mandates to Lead

In crowded plurality races, the candidates' vote percentages must sum to 100%, resulting in low winning percentages. Although Approval doesn't guarantee a majority, recent elections using Approval show winners often garnering strong majorities of support. Such a higher winning percentage with Approval gives a stronger mandate for the winner to lead and speak for the larger electorate. For example, compare the results of the 2020 Utah Republican Gubernatorial Primary (using plurality voting) in which Spencer Cox won with only 36% of the vote, with the 2021 St. Louis Mayoral Primary (using Approval) in which Tishaura Jones won with 57% of the vote.


Easy and Cheap to Implement

Since Approval Voting is the same as our current voting system but without a restriction on the number of votes allowed, Approval Voting requires no significant ballot changes or costly upgrades to existing voting machines or tabulation software. In fact, voting for more than one candidate is already used around the country for races such as for multi-winner at-large city council seats. Approval voting would simply apply the same voting rules and tabulation methods to single-winner races.


More Expressive

Instead of being limited to voting for only one candidate, voters can vote for as many candidates as they wish. While some voters will set their approval threshold high and vote for just one or two candidates, others will set their threshold low and vote for all but their most hated candidates. Given the strong environment of negative partisanship, the latter case is fairly common under approval voting.


Removes vote splitting almost entirely, virtually eliminating spoilers

Under normal plurality voting, the more similar two candidates are, the more they split the vote that normally would go to one or the other candidate. This is called vote splitting. Since approval voting allows voters to approve of all candidates that they like, there is no longer any problem with having similar candidates in a race.


You can never get a worse result by voting for your favorite

Regular plurality voting strongly motivates voters to vote strategically for the lesser-of-two-evil major party candidates which boxes out any promising third-party or independent candidates. If you do vote for the lesser-of-two-evils candidate under Approval, there's no reason to not also vote for your favorite. The only way this could hurt your preferred major-party candidate is if your favorite actually wins, which is what you'd want anyway. Most importantly, voting for your favorite will never cause your least favorite to win (favorite betrayal), a classic problem with Ranked-Choice Voting.


Significantly Fewer Spoiled Ballots

Since Approval Voting is literally our current voting system but with fewer rules (vote for only one), it results in fewer spoiled ballots.


Ballots look the same, except the rules indicate that you may vote for any number of candidates

Unlike other alternative voting methods, switching to approval voting requires almost no change to existing ballots. Ballot instructions simply must be updated to read "Choose one or more".


Results are still easy to understand

Since Approval Voting is tabulated using addition in a single round, the results are simply a list of candidates with the number of votes each received. These results are easy to report and easy to understand. This is not the case for some other voting methods like RCV which requires a big table showing intermediate results from any number of rounds. This is more important than ever given recent political unrest in the US, since more transparent election results are more likely to result in higher trust in election outcomes.


Example Ranked-Choice Voting Results



Example Approval Voting Results


Tends to elect candidates who would beat all rivals head-to-head

One common way to determine if a voting method selects the best candidate is whether the winner would have won in a head-to-head race against all other candidates. Since Approval Voting adequately captures secondary support (support for candidates other than a voter's favorite), it tends to elect the most liked candidate over all.


Tends to elect more consensus winners

While plurality voting often elects polarizing candidates with a small plurality of support, approval voting requires candidates to have broad support from the larger electorate to win. This results in elected officials with a greater popular mandate to govern.


Alternate candidates get a more accurate measure of support

Third parties are often written off by donors and the media because their true support is not reflected in choose-only-one polls and election results. Approval Voting allows minor candidates to see true levels of support and thus gain funding and publicity proportional to that true support. In the example below, the green candidate came in a distant 3rd place with only 3.2% of the vote in the plurality election results despite having an astounding 51% approval from voters.


Election Results Using Plurality


Election Results Using Approval



What Do Approval Opponents Say?

Less Expressive Than Other Alternative Methods

Approval only allows voters to express approval or disapproval for each candidate. While it is certainly more expressive than plurality, and less expressive than other scored methods (like STAR), comparing expressivity with Ranked-Choice Voting is more complicated. While RCV does allow the voter to express preferences between candidates, it does not allow voters to support candidates equally, and by forcing a ranking, RCV doesn't allow voters to say whether they actually like the candidates or not, but rather asks them to provide a relative ordering. Another problem with saying RCV is more expressive is that rankings are often limited to a voter's top 3 preferences to keep the ballot small.


Voters May Struggle To Set An Approval Threshold

Voters have to decide for themselves where to set their approval threshold. Should they vote for only one, all but one, or something in between? This decision may be a challenge for some voters.


The Burr Dilemma

Under Approval Voting, there is a certain situation called the "Burr Dilemma" (also known as the Chicken Dilemma) that could potentially cause a spoiled election. An example will best illustrate this situation. Imagine a 3-candidate field where candidates A and B are both liked by 60% of the voters with about half preferring A and half preferring B, while candidate C is supported by the other 40%. If the majority voting block universally approves of both A and B, then one of them will certainly win, but which one? Some of the voters who like A best may strategically disapprove of B even though they like B just so that A is the winner. Some of the voters who like B best may strategically disapprove of A even though they like A just so that B is the winner. This turns into a game of chicken between supporters of candidates A and B in which the side that defects more will come out on top unless both sides defect enough to allow candidate C to win.


Winning with Little First-Place Support

Theoretically under Approval Voting a candidate could win even though almost nobody prefers them over all other candidates. An example of this is if 99% of voters prefer A over B, but approve of both of them, while the last 1% only approves of candidate B. This would result in B winning despite only 1% preferring them over A. While this is theoretically possible, it is highly unlikely simply because, if an approval poll were run at any point in the campaign, voters who truly preferred candidate A would realize what was happening and stop approving of candidate B.


Multi-Winner Approval Voting

Bloc Approval Voting

The simplest form of multi-winner Approval Voting is called Bloc Approval Voting. It is currently being used in Fargo, North Dakota for its city commission elections. It looks just like single-winner Approval except that instead of just the top candidate winning, the top N candidates are declared the winners of the N open seats up for election. For example, imagine a race with candidates A-Z where 60% of voters would rank the candidates A...Z while the other 40% of voters would rank them Z...A. Let's say that the first voting bloc ends up approving most of the candidates in the first half of the alphabet while the second bloc approves most of the second half. The winners of a 5 seat race would likely be A, B, C, D, and E since they would all have higher approval percentages than any candidates in the second half of the alphabet.

While simple, this voting method virtually guarantees that a majority voting bloc will sweep all the open seats. In the example above, despite 40% of voters favoring candidates Z, Y, X, etc., none of these candidates were elected. The results of this method are very similar to those of Bloc RCV.


Sequential Proportional Approval Voting

Another form of multi-winner Approval Voting is called Sequential Proportional Approval Voting (SPAV). This is a form of Proportional Representation (PR) using an approval ballot. Essentially it declares the candidate with the most votes a winner, and then reweights the votes of those who supported that winning candidate so they count less in the determination of additional winners. This voting method ensures that the number of seats won by a voting bloc is roughly proportional to their vote percentage. For example, imagine a race with candidates A-Z where 60% of voters would rank the candidates A...Z while the other 40% of voters would rank them Z...A. Let's say that the first voting bloc ends up approving most of the candidates in the first half of the alphabet while the second bloc approves most of the second half. The winners of a 5 seat race would likely be A, B, C, Y, and Z with the minority voting bloc seeing their candidates win about 40% of the seats. For more details on how this voting method is tabulated, see this page on the topic.


Want to learn more?

The Center for Election Science has a more in-depth analysis of Approval Voting's benefits and how it stacks up against other voting methods.  To learn more, visit their site here: