News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.

St. Louis may become just the second city – after Fargo – to move to "approval voting."

It's not just ranked-choice. Approval voting is also in the offing.

While ranked-choice voting may be the more fashionable choice among those favoring an upheaval in the system of American elections, that is not the only alternative to the traditional first-to-the-post system that still dominates contests for public office.

Say hello to the newest option, "approval voting."

This method has been approved for use in just one jurisdiction: Fargo, the biggest city in North Dakota (population 125,000). Now, proponents are going after a much bigger prize – hoping to get a referendum on the ballot to change the municipal elections to approval voting in at least one major league city, St. Louis (population 303,000).

Under approval voting, citizens may vote for – or approve – as many names on the ballot as they want. The winner is the person who has the broadest approval, by being endorsed on the most ballots.

Aaron Hamlin, executive director of the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Election Science, described approval voting as "this kind of shovel-ready voting method that actually performs very well at the same time."

Among its advantages, Hamlin said, are that it:

  • Provides a voting system similar to what we use now, which makes it easier for citizens to accept and cheaper to implement.
  • Gives third parties a more accurate measure of their support.
  • Favors candidates with the broadest appeal.
  • Allows candidates who feared that they may become spoilers to feel comfortable running.

Political leaders in Fargo contacted CES, which is the most prominent advocate of the method, about switching to approval voting after a 2015 election in which the winner of a six-way contest for a spot on the city commission captured just 22 percent of the vote.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

The switch was approved by 64 percent of the city's voters in a referendum last fall and will be used in the next municipal election in 2020.

Eight hundred miles to the southeast, a group called St. Louis Approves is working with the center to gather the 10,000 signatures necessary to put the idea of approval voting before the voters in a referendum.

The effort in Missouri's second-biggest city was launched by five grassroots activists for reasons similar to what prompted the change in Fargo. The activists were concerned that candidates were winning multi-candidate races with too small a share of the vote. They hope the new system will encourage more involvement and higher turnout.

Hamlin said approval voting is preferable to ranked-choice voting because it has the same advantages but promises much more straightforward simplicity. The ranked-choice system (also called instant runoffs) has been embraced by a score of municipalities and at least five states for their 2020 Democratic presidential contests, and may come to New York City after a referendum this fall. But its critics, mainly Republicans, say RCV is too complicated and vulnerable to malfeasance.

Hamlin said the Center for Election Science remains on track in its efforts to expand use of approval voting. If successful in St. Louis, advocates hope to move on to other large cities and then to state and federal elections.

© Issue One. All rights reserved.