Single-Choice Plurality: A Voting System Built for Warfare

By Eric Sanders with some changes by Warren D. Smith. [Originally published by Sanders in a slightly different form by Big Think: Plurality Voting as inherently divisive.]

As I walked around New York City today, I spotted a poster advertising British soccer – "Keep Calm and Pick a Side" – and immediately had an epiphany about modern politics.

Like the narratives of modern sports, which are built on archaic war metaphors ("offense" vs. "defense," "victors," "vanquished opponents," etc.), contemporary politics is, philosophically and systematically, designed to emulate ancient warfare. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our voting system itself, which legally requires us to "pick a side."

In warfare, this makes sense; in ancient times, with multiple tribes or ethnic groups battling over a single territory, one could not stand idly by without choosing a side. Warfare, by definition, is based on a zero-sum worldview where one side must "win" and the others must "lose." Similarly, supporting multiple sides makes little sense in sports, where there is, again by definition, a single "winner" and one or more "losers."

But, in politics, this archaic worldview breaks down. Democracy, a system that supposedly encourages groups of people to make collective decisions, should not be zero-sum. Just because there may be one "winner" in an election does not mean that an entire group of people (his so-called "supporters") must equally consider themselves "winners" – with the rest being "losers." Unlike warfare and sports, democracy should encourage all people to work together to make a good collective decision. The only real "winner" or "loser" at the end of an election is the entire group of voters – all of whom are affected by the outcome, and whose wishes may or may not have been quantified by the voting system used to determine their collective decision.

Why is this important? The entire narrative of modern politics is about "picking a side," but I argue that this mythology is not only dangerous but also fundamentally incorrect. Unfortunately, we have legally enshrined this violent and corrupt ideology in the form of our "single choice" voting system, which, again, literally forces us to pick just one, single side, excluding all others.

Here's an example: In a primary election with at least five viable (and broadly supported) candidates, many voters would likely support multiple candidates if they could. For example, I might really like four of the five candidates, all of whom have similar views, but dislike the fifth. Wouldn't it be great if I could express my full support for the four? (And effectively vote against the one I dislike?) But in our current "single choice" voting system, I am forced to "pick a side." My resulting vote is both dishonest (not expressing what I really think) and also since it artificially "splits" the support for the 4 good candidates, can often cause the bad one (luckily supported by an unsplit minority) to win.

And which side should I pick? I am forced to make an arbitrary, perhaps completely strategic, decision. In fact, I likely will intentionally not choose my favorite candidate, since I might not think he is a "front runner," and I don't want to waste my single choice on someone unlikely to win. That would effectively neuter my ballot and give me literally zero influence towards the final outcome. I.e. it would cause a vote-split among the good candidates, thus electing the one I dislike. So I likely hunker down, begrudgingly "pick a side," cheer pathetically from the sidelines in support of my non-favorite candidate, and hope that my strategy didn't backfire.

This is the 21st century. Is this really the best democracy and collective decision making can be? In this day and age, the narrative for our elections doesn't have to be based on medieval warfare. We could instead modernize democracy. I like four candidates; why am I legally prevented from supporting all four on my ballot? This simple form of "multi-choice voting," called by political scientists Approval Voting, would give me direct input about all the candidates on the ballot. I'd no longer be artificially forced to "pick a side." And in democracy, unlike in war or sports, isn't having more choices (and being allowed to honestly express your opinions about them) better for everyone?

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