In an effort to create more reflective democracy, advocates around the country are pushing for cities to adopt a new election system: approval voting. An approval voting system allows people to vote for several candidates for an elected position, assuming they like more than one. The candidate with the highest number of votes is declared the winner. Historically, the current system that limits voters to choosing one candidate has disproportionately hurt Black voters and candidates. In the St. Louis mayoral primary election in 2017, for example, the ballot included six Black candidates. Approximately 67% of Democrats voted for a Black candidate, but ultimately ended up splitting the vote between all of them. Lyda Krewson, a white woman, ended up winning the primary and is now the current mayor.
Approval voting should not be confused with the better-known ranked choice voting (RCV) process, which lets voters list their top candidates in order of preference. Currently, nine states contain jurisdictions that have implemented RCV.
The concept of approval voting is becoming increasingly popular in progressive areas, but the method is currently approved in only one city in the nation: Fargo, North Dakota. Last year, the city voted to implement an approval voting system with 64% of voters coming out in favor.
Now, in Missouri, nonprofit St. Louis Approves is pushing an initiative for the implementation of approval voting in the city. A recent poll by the Center for Election Science, one of the biggest advocacy organizations for approval voting, evaluated the attitudes of voters in St. Louis as they push to get the referendum on the ballot next year. Approximately 53% of the people surveyed said they would be more likely to vote if approval voting was implemented. The poll also found that an approval voting system would significantly improve voter turnout among minorities, and that African Americans were more likely to be in favor of it.
“This campaign is not about any particular candidate or elected official,” wrote civil rights leader Darryl Gray and St. Louis 5th Ward Committeeman Rasheen Aldridge, Jr., in their public endorsement of an approval voting system. “No leader has a mandate to govern when over 60 percent of voters choose someone else. This is not how democracy was intended to work.”
One of the biggest advantages of approval voting, proponents say, is the elimination of the “spoiler effect”—the concern about potentially hurting one candidate by voting for someone from a third party. People would be allowed to vote for multiple candidates who share the same ideology, which can give long-shot candidates a leg up in races. Supporters also believe it will increase voter turnout by allowing people to be more honest in their ballot choices.
“Even if only 25% need the option to vote for more than one candidate, that’s plenty to improve the outcome, if necessary,” said Aaron Hamlin, executive director of the Center for Election Science. “Also, those folks choosing multiple candidates play a large role in getting third parties their due. Those voters are the ones who show the accurate reflection of support for third-party candidates so that they’re not unfairly marginalized.”
Critics have argued that approval voting wouldn’t actually elect a majority winner, and that the system violates the Constitutional “one person, one vote” rule, which holds that no single vote should carry more weight than another.
“Typically we have found that if someone isn’t supportive, it’s because they don’t know the details,” said Tyler Schlichenmeyer, a petitioner with St. Louis Approves. “Once they learn how the new voting system works, including both the approval voting primary and the top-two runoff, they see how it puts voters in charge, instead of allowing special interests and politicians to manipulate the election.”
Advocates in St. Louis are still gathering signatures to put the issue on the ballot next August. If residents in the majority-minority city approve the initiative, it could indicate a desire by people of color to elect candidates that better reflect the community’s preferences. But regardless of whether it gets approved by voters this time around, proponents are hoping more cities consider adopting the system nationwide.