What if You Could Vote for President Like You Rate Uber Drivers?

Essay by Guru Madhavan and Charles Phelps: “…Some experimental studies have begun to offer insights into the benefits of making voting methods—and the very goals of voting—more expressive. In the 2007 French presidential election, for instance, people were offered the chance to participate in an experimental ballot that allowed them to use letter grades to evaluate the candidates just as professors evaluate students. This approach, called the “majority judgment,” provides a clear method to combine those grades into rankings or a final winner. But instead of merely selecting a winner, majority judgment conveys—with a greater degree of expressivity—the voters’ evaluations of their choices. In this experiment, people completed their ballots in about a minute, thus allaying potential concerns that a letter grading system was too complicated to use. What’s more, they seemed more enthusiastic about this method. Scholars Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki, who led this study, point out: “Indeed, one of the most effective arguments for persuading reluctant voters to participate was that the majority judgment allows fuller expression of opinion.”

Additional experiments with more expressive ballots have now been repeated across different countries and elections. According to a 2018 summary of these experiments by social choice theorist Annick Laruelle,  “While ranking all candidates appears to be difficult … participants enjoy the possibility of choosing a grade for each candidate … [and] ballots with three grades are preferred to those … with two grades.” Some participant comments are revealing, stating, “With this ballot we can at last vote with the heart,” or, “Voting with this ballot is a relief.” Voters, according to Laruelle, “Enjoyed the option of voting in favor of several candidates and were especially satisfied of being offered the opportunity to vote against candidates.”…

These opportunities for expression might increase public interest in (and engagement with) democratic decision making, encouraging more thoughtful candidate debates, more substantive election campaigns and advertisements, and richer use of opinion polling to help candidates shape their position statements (once they are aware that the public’s selection process has changed). One could even envision that the basis for funding election campaigns might evolve if funders focused on policy ideas rather than political allegiances and specific candidates. Changes such as these would ideally put the power back in the hands of the people, where it actually belongs in a democracy. These conjectures need to be tested and retested across contexts, ideally through field experiments that leverage research and expertise in engineering, social choice, and political and behavioral sciences.

Standard left-to-right political scales and the way we currently vote do not capture the true complexity of our evolving political identities and preferences. If voting is indeed the true instrument of democracy and much more than a repeated political ritual, it must allow for richer expression. Current methods seem to discourage public participation, the very nucleus of civic life. The essence of civility and democracy is not merely about providing issues and options to vote on but in enabling people to fully express their preferences. For a country founded on choice as its tenet, is it too much to ask for a little bit more choice in how we select our leaders? …(More)”.