Donald Trump openly flaunts his frontrunner status and dominates political headlines, much to the chagrin of most pundits. However, most analysis so far dissects voter psychology. A more basic question to consider is whether our election results faithfully represent the will of the people. This carries immediate and overwhelming importance. Donald Trump may rupture the Republican Party, despite tallying under 38% of the popular vote. A voting systems perspective shows that Trump lacks broad support among Republican voters and has only succeeded due to plurality voting.
In plurality voting, a voter casts a ballot for the one candidate who she most prefers. However, this could lead to a situation in which the leading candidate has a small but ardent base, while the other candidates splinter the remaining vote. This same leading candidate could be a deeply polarizing figure who the majority of the party rejects. Think Donald Trump. Unfortunately, voting for a single person does not shed enough light on a voter's approval or distaste for the other candidates on the ballot.
True consensus within a party, instead, is revealed through approval voting. Approval voting involves marking each candidate on the ballot who the voter approves of, whether that is one candidate or many. For example, an anti-establishment voter might vote for Trump and Cruz. A moderate voter may vote for Kasich and Trump. A conservative might vote only for Cruz. Regardless of the specifics, a voter's desires would be more fully expressed across the candidates.
When a voter approves of a particular candidate, she consents to that candidate potentially becoming the party's nominee. Therefore, the winner under approval voting is consented to by a wider swath of the electorate than any other alternative, and so embodies greater consensus within the party.
Within the American tradition, this makes approval voting a superior way to vote; it more accurately represents the consent of the governed, giving truer expression to the Lockean vision that inspired our Founding Fathers.
Additionally, most political scientists who focus on voting systems prefer approval voting in nominating contests. When the London School of Economics gathered 22 experts to determine the best overall voting system, 15 of them endorsed approval voting, while none of them chose plurality voting. With regards to active use, the United Nations currently allows approval voting to inform the selection of its Secretary-General.
We can glimpse the effects of an approval voting process on today's Republican primary race by examining a series of twelve NBC/WSJ polls of Republican voters. Conducted from March 2015 to April 2016, the polls asked people to state which presidential candidates they could see themselves supporting. Trump failed to tally the most support in any of the eleven polls in which he was included. Rather, the highest he ever ascended to was 2nd place in just two polls, one in late October 2015 and then again in April 2016, when he tied John Kasich for second place after Ted Cruz. Trump often won a plurality of votes, but it is clear that his support does not extend outside a limited though fervent base.
In contrast, several of the other candidates, at one time or another, in fact receive the greatest support from Republican voters. Jeb Bush had the most support in one of the twelve polls, Carson led in three of them, and Rubio and Cruz were each first in four of the polls. Since these were national polls, they broadly represent voter sentiment at the state level as well.
To maximize party unity, the state parties should use approval voting and assign delegates in proportion to the number of approval votes each candidate receives. This would lead delegates to mirror the consensus among a state's voters and, across the states, to accurately reflect the sentiments of the nation's voters. The Republican National Committee could then award the nomination to whichever candidate has the most delegates. This approach would hew closely to the consensus among Republican voters and infuse stability into the Republican Party.
While the current unfortunate situation has unfolded within the Republican Party, it could just as easily have come to fruition within the Democratic Party, if a similarly polarizing figure were running against many other candidates, who were persistently splitting the vote against him.
Logistically, approval voting is cheap to implement, as it can be used on existing voting machines. It is easy for voters to understand: just mark the candidates who you support. Most importantly, though, it would prevent candidates with narrow but ardent bases from dominating an overall election.
There is no "perfect" voting system. But in nominating contests, approval voting would select the most broadly agreeable candidate. It would also inject stability into the political parties in an enduring manner and place them on permanently solid ground. We must seek to understand and address the legitimate concerns of Trump's supporters; but we must do so in a way that bolsters and improves American democracy through greater consensus.