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Alternative voting methods give different look to Democratic field

Approval voting
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Given the chance, two-thirds of voters in the Democratic presidential primaries would support more than one candidate, according to a new poll.

The nationwide survey was conducted last week for the Center for Election Science, which supports approval voting, a system that allows people to choose as many candidates in each contest that they find acceptable.

Proponents say the system provides the most accurate picture of the support for each candidate and is superior to ranked-choice voting, the alternative system that has received the most attention recently.


The polling was done before the contest was remade and substantially narrowed this week as three major candidates dropped out, Amy Klobuchar on Monday following Pete Buttegeig on Sunday and Tom Steyer on Saturday.

Nonetheless, approval voting advocates say their method's best virtue is its simplicity in identifying the candidate with the broadest base of support — and the poll they commissioned sets out to underscore that.

The biggest takeaway is a contradiction of the narrative that the Democratic electorate is fractured.

Using the one-voter, one-candidate method, the poll of 821 likely primary voters found Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 40 percent of the vote, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts 20 percent and former Vice President Joe Biden 14 percent.

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Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., appeared next at 9 percent, followed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg at 8 percent, Minnesota's Sen. Klobuchar at 3 percent, businessman Steyer at 2 percent and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii at 1 percent.

But a different picture of the race emerges when those polled were invited to list all the candidates of whom they approved. In that case the results were:

  • Sanders: 60 percent
  • Warren: 55 percent
  • Buttigieg: 39 percent
  • Biden: 36 percent
  • Klobucher: 28 percent
  • Steyer: 13 percent
  • Gabbard: 7 percent.

The biggest growth in support was seen by Buttigieg, followed by Warren and Klobuchar.

Under RCV, also known as the instant runoff method, voters list candidates in order of preference. If one wins a majority of the vote outright, that person is the winner. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choice of their supporters are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues until a candidate earns a majority.

In this case, those polled could choose and rank as many candidates as they wanted to.

The results using this version of RCV (but including the highest support for some of the earlier rounds) were:

  • Sanders: 54 percent
  • Warren: 46 percent
  • Biden: 25 percent
  • Buttigieg: 13 percent
  • Bloomberg: 9 percent
  • Klobuchar: 5 percent
  • Steyer: 2 percent
  • Gabbard: 2 percent

The poll also took the same approach in asking people about what issues they consider to be most important. When asked to choose just one, health care was on top with 41 percent.

It still finished the highest when people were given the chance to choose (i.e., "approve" of) multiple issues, but the largest area of growth occurred around the issues of education (which surged from 4 percent as the top issue to 79 percent as one of many important issues) and income equality (boosted from 10 percent to 74 percent).

Two years ago Fargo, N.D., became the first city to adopt approval voting and proponents are hoping to add St. Louis to their fold this year. Maine was the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting in 2016 and it has spread to about two dozen cities.

The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.

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