Approval Voting Promises Simplicity, But Can It Deliver?

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Consent voting has a simple premise – vote for as many people as you like. But after that it gets a little more complicated.

Seattle voters can choose to introduce consent voting in some city elections this November. If approved by the electorate, the approval vote for the City Attorney, Mayor and City Council elections will go into effect.

In consent voting, people can vote for as many candidates as they want on their ballots. These votes are counted and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Proponents of consent voting say allowing voters to select multiple candidates reduces the likelihood of a vote split, in which two similar candidates compete for votes and another, perhaps less popular, candidate wins. Proponents also say candidates are less likely to campaign negatively because those candidates are vying for as many votes as possible.

Consent voting is only used in two US cities: Fargo, North Dakota, and St. Louis, Missouri. It has only been used effectively in these cities in the last two years.

Fargo is a medium-sized city of about 120,000 people, and their foray into the consent vote came out of necessity. The city elects a mayor and four city commissioners. These commissioners are elected across the city, often in crowded races of 15 or more candidates. Commissioners won elections with less than 20% of the vote. Approval voting was suggested as a quick and easy solution to this.

“It wasn’t like we sat down and said how best to do it,” said Nick Bauroth, professor of political science at North Dakota State University and a Fargo resident. “We sat down and basically – or collectively the city – said what the easiest way to deal with this is, and maybe that’s going to make a difference.”

Bauroth believes Fargo will eventually move to dividing the city into wards to elect commissioners. Meanwhile, Bauroth has observed Fargo’s launch of consent voting and says there are still many questions city officials don’t have answers for, particularly about how people are using consent voting. For example, are certain demographics more likely to vote for just one candidate? What percentage of people vote for more than one candidate? Are there any trends in which candidate backers are using consent voting?

“When you think about representation, it’s important who votes and who doesn’t, who uses consent voting and who doesn’t,” Bauroth said.

Approve Seattle, the organization behind the approval voting proposal, was able to collect the required number of signatures to put the approval voting on the ballot. The organization has received more than $200,000 from the Center for Election Science, a nonprofit voting organization, and $135,000 from cryptocurrency exchange FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.

In addition to the consent vote, voters in Seattle will also be able to vote for a ranking vote (RCV) this November. Seattle City Council voted to add the election to the rankings in July. Councilor Andrew Lewis sponsored the move.

“I am making this proposal today to give voters a choice to choose the electoral reform that is being more widely embraced in the United States,” Lewis said.

Approve Seattle members say the city council is intervening in the initiative process by adding ranked voting.

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