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The Promise of Quadratic Voting
How an obscure voting system can make our world more democratic
Most agree that the people should have a voice in government. However, there remains considerable debate as to how we can accurately aggregate the will of the people through the vote. Every voting system, it seems, comes with significant, sometimes fatal drawbacks. But one method may rise above them all: Quadratic voting. Quadratic voting may provide a path toward better democracies and more reasoned policymaking for the future.
One Person, One Vote?
Some believe that democracy emerged as an alternative to warfare. In ancient times, armies of soldiers would engage each other in hand-to-hand combat, with swords, shields, and other rudimentary weapons. Devoid of significant technological differences, in the end, whoever had the greatest number of able-bodied men was likely to win.
At some point, instead of bloodshed, disputing parties agreed to simply compare the number of men in support of their respective leaders or ideas; the party with the most support would win. And so, the concept of “one person, one vote” (1P1V) and Plurality Voting (PV) was born.
This is perhaps the crudest method of aggregating the will of the people. In elections with single-member districts and where the winner takes all, this is called a First Past The Post election system, or FPTP. For simplicity’s sake, from here on, we will refer to 1P1V/PV as FPTP. In many countries, including the United States, FPTP reigns as the primary election methodology
FPTP’s crudeness leaves it open to numerous vulnerabilities, many of which Americans are growing acutely aware of today. With FPTP, for example, candidates can still win elections despite strong opposition from most voters. They are also subject to gerrymandering, where districts are drawn specifically to select voters, instead of voters selecting candidates.
Additionally, FPTP is vulnerable to vote splitting, where two ideologically-similar candidates split the vote, leaving a less popular candidate as the ultimate winner. This can be intentionally engineered as well, where the opposition sets up a ghost candidate to siphon votes away from a competitor, ensuring a win.
FPTP also risks the “tyranny of the majority,” a problem that vexed the Framers of America during the drafting of the Constitution. They (correctly) feared that the masses would gain too much power and impose their will upon the minority. Minority voices would get drowned out and eventually silenced.
At the national level, the Framers devised a workaround to prevent large states from gaining too much power. They set up a Bicameral Legislature with two houses. The House of Representatives ostensibly represents the will of the masses, but its power would be balanced by the Senate, where each state gets an equal vote, protecting the voice of less populous states.
In sum, FPTP voting systems are simple, but crude by design. FPTP exacerbates ideological polarization, is vulnerable to rigging, and leaves many, if not most voters disappointed and angry after each and every election.
Other voting systems have tried to remedy the failures of FPTP. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), invented around 1870, for example, is an increasingly popular alternative, and for good reason.
With RCV, voters rank their respective preferences relative to one another. During vote tabulation, the first-ranked choices are counted. Should no ballot option achieve a majority, second-ranked choices are then added…and so on until an option breaches a 50 percent majority.
The beauty of RCV is that the winner is often acceptable, if not the first choice, for the majority of voters. This is in contrast to FPTP, which often leaves the majority frustrated and angry. As such, RCV reduces polarization, incentives for negative campaigning, and also mitigates the vote-splitting problem that plagues FPTP. But RCV is limited, it only ranks the relative appeal of ballot options, and does not capture the true intensity of voters’ preferences.
In surveys, Likert scales are used to capture the intensity of respondents’ opinions, beyond mere ranking. With a Likert Scale, the survey presents participants with a 1-5 or 1-10 point scale, usually ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” The respective scores are averaged, and the result, in theory, reflects the ranking and intensity of preferences.
SCORE voting adapts the Likert Scale for elections, attempting fully capture the will of the people, more effectively than RCV. The problem is that experimental data suggests SCORE voting/Likert Scales do not truly reflect voter preferences and favor extremist responses. More on that in a moment.
There may be a voting system that does reflect the will of the people: Quadratic Voting (QV). QV disposes of the crude notion of 1P1V and allows voters to “buy” additional votes for causes, ideas, or candidates, that they feel strongly about. The catch is the “cost” of each additional vote grows exponentially.
As an example, perhaps there are five proposals on a ballot. Voters can cast as many votes as they like. But each additional vote costs the square of the number of votes purchased. For example, 1 vote might be $1.00, but 2 votes would be $4.00, 3 votes $9.00, 4 are $16.00, 5 are $25.00…etc.
Voters are forced to prioritize. They can cast a small number of votes for various proposals, or can allocate all of their credits to buy extra votes for proposals that they feel strongly about. Quadratic voting provides voters the opportunity not only to submit their approval/disapproval and to rank their respective choices but also to register the actual intensity of their preferences.
Now, a common objection to this method is that QV will allow wealthy individuals to use their wealth to drown everyone else out. Most QV systems avoid this problem by using some currency other than cash. Tokens or cryptocurrencies, for example, equally distributed as “credits” to each voter, work almost as well.
QV forces voters to prioritize within the constraints of their ability to “buy” votes. To that end, QV has been shown to outperform Likert Scales/SCORE voting. When we utilize a Likert Scale, we find that respondents tend to either “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” with a proposal on the ballot or survey question, with few votes in the middle. In the real world, we expect that voter preferences should follow a bell curve. That is, most people are moderates, and few express extremist views.
As we can see below in the Likert survey example, the result doesn’t fit with what we know about human nature. Most votes are either at the extremes or directly in the middle; the quickest and easiest options for a respondent to choose.
This suggests that Likert scales aren’t accurately capturing the intensity of voter preferences. This may be because there is no “cost” to registering an extreme or neutral view; it’s simply easier to just choose an outlier than it is to think carefully and balance one’s options.
Studies show, however, that when asked the same questions using QV, voter preferences closely cluster around the mid-point, forming a bell curve with mostly moderate responses and few extreme outliers. This suggests that QV accurately captures voter preferences, not only in ranking but also in intensity. This is because, with limited credits available to purchase votes, respondents have to carefully consider how they allocate them.
In addition, QV strikes the perfect balance between reflecting the will of the majority, without drowning out the minority. QV favors votes from a broad swath of voters but because additional votes can be bought, it provides a passionate minority the ability to ensure that their voices are heard.
For that reason, QV reduces polarization. Candidates or proposals on the ballot cannot generally rely solely on a small number of individuals expending all of their credits. They need the broadest base of support possible. In fact, QV elections would eliminate the need for complex primary systems, Bicameral legislatures, and other workarounds intended to protect minority voices.
Besides selecting candidates for office or in direct democracy, QV can be used to allocate budgets in accordance with the wishes of the people. For example, QV could be used to democratically select how government R&D grants are allocated, as I proposed here. QV, or a similar method called SRV, can also be utilized to improve corporate governance, or manage decentralized organizations on a blockchain.
From Crude to Elegant
In a world of growing polarization and rising radicalism, new designs of democracy are clearly needed. FPTP is simply too crude and too vulnerable for the 21st Century. Quadradic voting offers an elegant path forward, a voting system for the next century, one that truly aggregates the will of the people and can help bring about a better future.