Why picking more than one candidate could help Texas elections

by | Mar 16, 2022 | Policy, Voting

Texans stand to gain a lot from switching over to approval voting, a method of voting that allows citizens to cast their ballot for more than one candidate.

The winner would still be the candidate with the most support, but the method would prevent vote splitting and allow voters to pick as many candidates they felt represented their values and ideas.

The Center for Election Science, a nonprofit nonpartisan electoral reform advocacy group recently hosted a congressional candidate panel on ticket-splitting and approval voting.

Speaking at the panel was Jana Lynne Sanchez, a Democratic candidate who lost in Texas’ 6th Congressional District by 8 percentage points in 2018. When Sanchez ran for the same seat in 2021 during a special election, she did not make the runoff.

Sanchez was among 23 candidates vying for the Dallas area seat — a crowded race that she said made it more difficult to convince Democratic groups and donors to get involved. 

“Fundraising was extremely challenging because of all the candidates, I did not expect that problem to be as severe as it was,” Sanchez said. 

In the special election, both parties competed at the same time and the top two candidates went to a runoff. Sanchez ultimately came in third in the contest, receiving 13 percent of the vote. Two Republican candidates went to the runoff instead, resulting in a win for freshman Rep. Jake Ellzey and a surprisingly easy race for the GOP. 

“Nobody believed me when I kept saying, it’s going to be me or it’s going to be Jake Ellzey,” Sanchez said. “And I said that a million times, and donors kept saying ‘I’m going to wait until the primary is over.’ That was very frustrating.” 

It’s just one instance where approval voting would have allowed voters to cast their ballot comfortably without fear of vote-splitting. Likewise, any number of candidates could have entered the race without fear of being a spoiler and electing someone from the opposing party.

A similar electoral system called ranked voting is used by other democracies around the world, in Ireland, Australia and the United Kingdom. It is also used by two U.S. states, Alaska and Maine. In ranked voting, voters rank their preferred candidates from best to last and the candidate with the most first-preference votes wins the race. 

The biggest difference between ranked voting and approval voting is that the latter is much easier to understand. Instead of ranking candidates, voters would only need to pick one or more candidates they backed, and the winner would be whoever has the most votes.

Aaron Hamlin, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Election Science, said one  benefit of approval voting is that it would deliver a more accurate count of support. 

“You run into issues where you might like to vote for someone but you don’t know whether they are a viable candidate despite their good ideas, and so you wind up not voting for them and good ideas aren’t able to get into play,” Hamlin said.

For example, a 2012 presidential exit-poll experiment in New York showed that Green Party candidate Jill Stein would have received more than half the vote with approval voting instead of the 3 percent she received with single-choice voting. Barack Obama would still have handedly won the district under approval voting, but other candidates, especially independents and minor party candidates, would have a better idea of how popular they are.  

In 2021, St. Louis, Missouri switched to approval voting and the results were encouraging. The new voting method dampened vote-splitting along ideological and racial lines that had previously resulted in a winner with less than a third of the vote. On average, voters picked more than one candidate and the lack of vote-splitting led to two progressive candidates in the runoff.

Hamlin said switching voting methods is important because the people who represent us have a lot of power over the day-to-day issues in our lives. 

“It’s really important that they parallel our interests and that they have us in mind,” Hamlin said. “We have, really, one big tool to be able to assure that, and that’s our vote. It’s kind of a disappointment that the one way we have to do that is this choose-one voting method that causes all these problems.” 

“We want to be able to empower voters in a way that’s simple, that doesn’t discriminate against people’s education, and approval voting does that,” Hamlin said. “You just pick all the candidates you want.”

There is nothing in Texas state law that would prevent municipal elections from switching to approval voting, Hamlin said.

“It tends to elect more consensus-style winners,” Hamlin said. “If there are candidates that you like and don’t know if they’re gonna win and there’s another candidate you’re satisfied with, you can hedge your bets and vote for that other one while making sure that this new candidate’s ideas are heard and that they’re not marginalized the way they are now.” 

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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