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Approval Voting (a guest post that could help us make some fixes to ALA)

There’s been a ton of discussion, all over the place, about ALA Council and ALA voting turnout and the membership feeling invested in their representatives. I’d kind of like to approach this from a different angle, though. Rather than talking about the size of Council, maybe we should talk about how we elect them—and, in turn, everyone else whose job it is to represent us in ALA. It’s possible that, when we cast our votes, we aren’t (collectively) getting what we want. And since I just happen to know (actually, to have married) someone really knowledgeable about voting methods, I thought I would ask him to explain how we might do this better. So I bring you this guest post by Dale Sheldon-Hess, who blogs extensively about these issues at The Least of All Evils.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. And the essential component for democracy is voting. So it seems reasonable that a better way of voting would lead to better democracy. That’s the motivation behind the Center for Election Science, the book Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It), and this post.

Let’s break voting down. You have 1) a group of mutually-exclusive options to choose from. We don’t have to be talking about candidates for office; we could be deciding between different pizza toppings, or names for your new band. You have 2) a group of people with opinions about those options. Finally, you have 3) a system which takes those opinions and uses them select one of the options. Actually, you have a whole lot of different systems, and you get to choose one. Your system could be “pick one of the options at random.” That’s not a good system, since you could end up with an option that everyone hates. Or, you could pick one of the people at random, and let them choose. That’s a little better—you know you’ve picked an option that at least one person thinks is the best—but what if everyone else thinks they’re wrong? Shouldn’t we consider everyone’s opinions?

Okay, so what if we let each person name their favorite option? And then, whichever option the most people choose, that’s the one we go with. This is the system you’re probably most familiar with. It’s called “plurality” or sometimes “first past the post.” And since you’re familiar with it, you’re probably also familiar with some of its shortcomings. For example, sometimes you might really like one of the options, but you also know that there are two other options where almost everyone else thinks one of them is the best. If you also have a strong opinion between those two, you need to decide if you’re actually going to support your real, no-hope favorite, at the risk of getting something popular that you don’t like. Or perhaps, there are two options which both seem equally good to you, and another popular one that you think is terrible. It can be difficult to determine which of the two good ones to get behind, and if people split evenly between them, it’s quite likely both will lose. You shouldn’t have to distort your opinions in order to vote effectively. Instead, you could use a voting system which collects more information about the voters’ opinions on the options, and incorporates as much of that as possible into the process.

It turns out, there are many other systems to choose from that are better than plurality. Some of them ask you to rank the options in order from your favorite on down. However, every single one of those methods suffers from at least one of the same shortcomings we identified for plurality: either there will be situations where you have a compelling reason not to vote for your real favorite first, or multiple too-similar options will stomp on each others’ support. Or both! This problem is a consequence of a very famous (and Nobel-prize-winning) theory from economics called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Arrow’s theorem is usually pithily summed up as “There is no perfect voting system.” The whole truth is, of course, much more complicated than that. And while actual perfection probably is impossible, there has recently been a push in favor of voting systems which achieve what Arrow proved to be unachievable. Arrow wasn’t wrong; rather, his proof simply—and intentionally—ignored another class of voting systems, a class that doesn’t ask voters to rank the options, but rather, asks them to rate them.

A (sort of weird) example approval voting ballot
A (sort of weird) example approval voting ballot
Think of it like giving “stars” to products on Amazon, or “liking” comments on social media. You don’t consider each product by directly comparing it against all other products you’ve ever purchased, or each comment by directly comparing it against every other comment you’ve read today. Instead, the process is more indirect. This book was about a 4. That banana slicer was definitely a 1. You like your aunt’s comment enough to say so, or you don’t. What are the best products? Probably the ones with the highest scores. What are the best comments? Probably the ones where more of the people who saw it, liked it.

Approval voting is the simplest of this class of voting methods. It’s exactly like “liking.” For each option, each voter can either approve of it, or not. The option with the most approvals wins. You can expand on the idea by using an idea like “stars.” Each voter gives each option as many points as they like, up to some limit, often 5 or 9 or 99. This method is called score voting. (And you can think of approval voting as score voting with a limit of 1.) Because you rate each option completely independently, similar options don’t ruin each others’ chances, and you can always give top mark to the choice that’s your true favorite. By fixing the problems that encouraged people to distort their opinions, by collecting more information from people about their opinions, and by incorporating it into the process in an intelligent way, a group is better-able to select the option that is the best choice for it. Approval voting is better democracy.

To apply this (I’m thinking approval, rather than score, voting) to ALA, we would do our Council elections exactly the same way we do now, except we’d remove the limit of 33 votes (or 34 some years). This would have two benefits: people would not feel like they were “wasting” their votes by voting for fewer than 33 candidates—they could vote just for the people they really want, without guilt. That alone would remove noise from the system. Second, it would allow people who approve of more than 33 of the candidates the opportunity to show their support.

We could also apply it to all of our other elections. We could allow more than two people to run for ALA President at once and be assured of a fair outcome of the election (which is not a guarantee with our current, plurality-based voting). The divisions and roundtables with three- and four-way elections could also be guaranteed a fair outcome. And for the many one- and two-candidate elections, there would be no change.

It’s a really easy way to make ALA better.

As a bonus, there’s an Indiegogo campaign to get more attention for Approval Voting, via a snazzy video. Check out the page (which has a bunch of information about approval voting, in addition to a not-snazzy video). If you’ve got a couple of dollars, I know they’d appreciate the help.

Published in#TT4ALACouncilalalibrarianship


  1. I appreciate the effort that went into this article. And I have a lot of respect for Coral and what she is trying to do. But the issue with the ALA Council elections isn’t about process, it’s simply that there are too many candidates.

    When I looked at the ballot for ALA Council, I was stunned to see that it has a whopping 76 candidates for 33 seats. The accompanying candidate’s statement booklet is over 150 pages long. And that is only for 1/3 of the total at-large Council contingent! Each ALA voter is expected to evaluate, select and track one hundred representatives.

    Not even the U.S. Congress in all its dysfunction expects voters to evaluate, track, and hold accountable 100 representatives at the ballot box. There’s a reason why each U.S. voter only votes for one House seat and two Senate seats — to “guard against the confusion of a multitude,” as James Madison wrote in the Federalist papers.

    What’s more, no other professional association of ALA’s size even comes close to having 100 at-large reps in its governing body. All other associations have less than 20 general governance reps elected at-large. Many have none. Check out this chart of similarly sized professional associations with structures and missions similar to ALA’s:

    Why does ALA have so many at-large council seats? Why are ALA’s ballots so flooded with excess candidates? Why does ALA do it this way, when no other professional association does it this way?

    The ALA Council voted to raise member dues in the future WITHOUT a vote of the membership. That is on the ballot of the upcoming election (if you are an ALA member, you might want to go have a look at that). Should ALA Council also vote to make itself more transparent and accountable to the members? Tell us what you think!

    Thanks for your time!

    —Sean Reinhart
    ALA Councilor

    P.S. NEW — “Hey, I just checked out my American Library Association election ballot online. It’s over 200 pages of materials! When faced with such excesses, what is an internet user to do? Why, make a humorous meme about it, of course!”

  2. Thanks for the post and the new idea about voting/choosing from a long list. (Actually, for Amazon and such the list can be almost infinite!)

    I am concerned about this statement of yours (not the guest blogger): “people would not feel like they were ‘wasting’ their votes by voting for fewer than 33 candidates…”

    Perhaps you can do a follow-up post about bullet voting. I am not sure I understand it well enough, but I have been led to believe that by “bullet voting” I am giving more weight to each vote that I cast by not casting the maximum number of votes.

    I do not that there are some groups in ALA which seem to use this concept to ensure that some of “their candidates” are elected to Council.

    I need to think some more about the approval voting concept. So, perhaps another post is in order.

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