Voting Methods: An Open Target for Effective Altruism
Effective altruism means giving logically through high-impact solutions to maximize utility. Given the connection between our mission to advance smarter voting methods and the resulting policy that shapes our world, we maintain that The Center for Election Science (CES) falls squarely within the scope of effective altruism.
What’s effective altruism? Much of effective altruism looks at helping those in developing countries. The idea here is that a dollar goes a longer way in these countries and that the overall translation of initial dollar to end result is efficient. For example, one of the charities supported by The Life You Can Save indicates a $50 donation can restore someone’s sight. That’s pretty amazing. Other listed charities offer cost-effective solutions to deworm children and fight malaria.
Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, is one of the minds behind the effective altruism movement. In his books The Most Good You Can Do and The Life You Can Save, he spent most of his time highlighting this idea of direct impact in developing countries. But he also made an exception and addressed the importance of charities that have a more complicated route to their end impact, such as fighting global warming.
Global warming is a more complex cause. As humans, we’re not nearly as wired to prioritize global warming as we are the benefits of helping a blind person to see again or deworming a child so that they can get back in the classroom. Any impact on reducing CO2 or increasing CO2 absorption is delayed. Further, while we’re experiencing the early effects of global warming, the real disasters are yet to come. Still, the potential benefits of mitigating global warming are huge. That is, we get a livable Earth to exist on for generations to come for the most intelligent sentient beings in the universe that we know of—us!
CES advances a similar kind of complex cause with (warning: big claim ahead) an arguably even greater impact than mitigating global warming.
Our mission is to empower the public through advancing smarter electoral systems, with particular focus on the voting method. A voting method refers to what you put on your ballot (ex// choosing one, choosing unlimited, ranking, scoring) and what’s done with that information to get a result (ex// adding tallies, simulating pairwise comparisons, simulating sequential runoffs).
On its surface, that doesn’t sound terribly exciting. Like global warming, when you unpack it, there’s a lot of complex science and math. Similarly, when you look at the potential impact, we see a dire situation and extreme need.
So why should you care about an organization that places so much importance on the voting method?
Focusing on voting methods means providing meaningful participation in democracy. That meaningful participation translates to representative government and better decision making in every area of public policy—all at once. This strikes at the root of social issues in a way that few other philanthropies can.
The voting method ultimately determines who decides to run, what ideas get heard, and who writes and carries out policy. You can look at our article on Bloomberg’s decision not to run for a full analysis on how the voting method relates to these points. A change in voting method promises to completely change political discourse and resulting policy.
Whatever you do, don’t let that word “policy” slip by too quietly. Policy is what determines the quality of the schools and hospitals that you and your children go to, whether the air you breathe is clean, and whether we keep our planet’s CO2 levels under control. Policy is what determines whether we spend more money on bombs or building and repairing our transit system. Policy determines your rights and individual freedoms as a person.
Simply, policy determines what you and your family see when you walk out your door.
Clearly, voting methods are important because they give us the power to affect policy. And policy includes even leviathan-sized causes like global warming. But is there an opportunity gap for voting methods that needs filled?
Yes, and that gap is startlingly large.
A Princeton study looked at the predictive value of the average voter’s stance on policy (that important p-word again) and the policy that gets enacted. The average voter’s predictive value? Zero. The study showed that the current way we vote is an ineffective tool for policy change. Add to that a government whose approval rating sinks into single digits. Now you start seeing more than red flags. These are outright critical system failures.
What’s the voting method that causes this failure? It’s plurality voting complemented with a nearly universal winner-take-all system that extends from the local to federal level. What’s this terrible plurality voting, you ask? Plurality voting is the vote-for-one, most-votes-wins voting method that’s ubiquitous with voting itself. It’s ubiquitous even within the public consciousness. For example, if you were to ask a random person what voting was, they’d likely just describe plurality voting to you. Voting methods are not something society normally thinks about.
But we think about voting methods—a lot.
Here’s how bad other experts think plurality voting is. The London School of Economics and Political Science has an organization, Voting Powers and Procedures, that looks at voting methods. At a 2011 conference, to try to get an idea of how academics felt about different methods, they decided to vote on the best single-winner voting method. The method that came in last with zero support was plurality voting. The method with the most support was approval voting. (Side note: CES is the leading advocate for approval voting within single-winner government elections.)