• 3 minute Read

5 Alternatives To American Ballot Design (And Why They Suck, Too)

Could redesigning the ballot system strengthen our democracy? It’s complicated.

5 Alternatives To American Ballot Design (And Why They Suck, Too)
[Image: via Nicky Case]

The 2016 presidential election has raised all sorts of questions about the implementation of our election system. How can someone who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, and lost nearly two- thirds of the economy, still become president? It has a lot to do with our electoral system–a system most democracies don’t embrace. But could the design of the ballot also be a problem? And if so, is there a better way?

Nicky Case, the digital artist behind this incredible exploration on how neurons work, is back with a new web project that explores that very question. To Build a Better Ballot not only explains some alternatives to our current ballot system, it visualizes how adopting such systems would change the results.

Right now, Americans who vote simply tick off a box that says who they want for office. It’s called a “First Past the Post” ballot, a system we’ve used from the beginning, mostly because it would have seemed perfectly sound in eras before data modeling. In a First Past the Post system, the person with the most votes wins, at least in theory. But here’s the problem. Let’s say there are two candidates in a race–charmingly called Steven Square and Tracy Triangle in Case’s interactive–both on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Tracy Triangle is winning the election. Now, here comes a third candidate, Henry Hexagon. Recognizing that Tracy is doing well in the race, he positions himself politically close to her.

What happens? The spoiler effect. For an example, look no further than the 2000 election, when Ralph Nader “stole” votes from Al Gore, letting George Bush win. The spoiler effect can result in the least popular candidate in a two-party system winning the election when a third-party candidate enters the race. “We’ve known for way too long that our current voting system–First Past the Post–forces voters to be dishonest, creates a polarizing ‘lesser of two evils’ scenario, and screws over both major and minor candidates,” sums up Case.

So what are the alternatives? As it turns out, there are plenty of decent alternatives, and Case’s interactive looks closely at five. In one alternative called Instant Runoff, voters rank each candidate from first to least favorite (this system is actually already used in local elections in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine). There’s also a variation in which voters are asked not which politician they think is best for a given office, but how many they would find acceptable for a given office. There’s also a system in which you score candidates on a scale between one to five, and then just add up the ratings. Whomever has the highest score wins. Most of these systems are put forward by statisticians, and have not been used in politics, although you may recognize the concepts as informing the design of, say, Amazon and Yelp ratings.

See the interactive graphics here. [Image: via Nicky Case]

The good news? As you can see in Case’s interactive visualization, every voting system except First Past the Post is immune to the spoiler effect. Yet the alternatives also have their own glitches. In some Instant Runoff scenarios, for example, it’s possible for a winning candidate to lose, just by becoming more popular. Other systems are just as bad. There’s one Case writes about, for example, that has scenarios in which a bad candidate wins an election, simply because a slightly less bad candidate entered the race.

All of these scenarios seem equally nuts to a Trump win. And it raises the question: How would the adoption of another system have effected the 2016 election? Case cites a recent polling study, which simulated with 1,000 mock voters who would have won the most recent elections with five alternative voting systems. Trump only won one of those simulations; Hillary won three; and Gary Johnson won the last one.

The takeaway? There’s no perfect ballot.

Much of what makes To Build a Better Ballot such a great explainer on the subject is that at any given point, you can play with a little visualization of how different voting systems work, dragging candidates around a grid representing political positions to show how the vote changes. But if you believe America should switch to a different voting system, get in touch with your state representative. Our neighbors to the north in Canada will be abandoning America-style First Past the Post ballots in 2017, in favor of a still-to-be-decided alternative system. Maybe that’s what American democracy needs, too.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.