The Center for Election Science Appeal for 2020
This is the 2020 case for giving to The Center for Election Science (CES).
This updated annual post makes the case for why giving to CES is an awesome decision. I’ll give a background on our organization, include our updates for this year, and provide some key information to help you with your giving decision. Links in the article will tend to go towards more technical articles on our site. Feel free to include any questions you have.
What we do
Why we do what we do
What we’ve done and what we intend to do
Why we need funding
Why there is urgency
Benefiting the future
What we do
We empower people through voting methods that strengthen democracy. We do this through research and advocacy with a focus on approval voting.
On the research end, we decipher voting theory complexities for the general public and academia. We do that through internal analysis, gathering existing research, and through primary data collection. All this shines light on the issue of voting methods and helps inform our action.
On the advocacy end, we run educational campaigns alongside ballot initiatives. We work with local groups who involve their communities so that they can implement better voting methods. We do this through a national chapter system that we developed this year. We focus heavily on approval voting due to multiple factors—but in essence, its simplicity and strong performance.
Why we do what we do
Virtually across the globe, we all use the worst voting method there is—a choose-one voting method—to elect people to executive and other offices. We trust those same people we elect using that terrible voting method to (1) spend vast sums of taxpayer money and (2) execute the policies that control our daily lives.
Our current choose-one voting method causes vote splitting between candidates. This vote splitting causes spoilers and can squeeze out moderate candidates. Good candidates sometimes don’t even run for fear of being labeled a spoiler and not being perceived as viable. This results in bad government and a poor environment for good ideas to be discovered and implemented.
There are much better ways of electing these people to office, one of which is very easy—approval voting.
Approval voting is classically a single-winner method that lets voters choose as many candidates as they want. The candidate with the most votes wins. This voting method tends to elect more consensus-style candidates and give an accurate reflection of support for third-party and independent candidates. Voters can always vote for their favorite no matter what.
These features permit new ideas to develop that otherwise couldn’t under our current choose-one method. It also pushes for a more stable government over time so that the winner doesn’t wildly shift in ideology from one election to the next.
What we’ve done and what we intend to do
We brought approval voting to its first US city in 2018 and modern use within one year of our initial funding. We did that by collaborating with a local organization, Reform Fargo, who ran the advocacy campaign while we did the education campaign. While this was perceived as a long shot among the media who bothered to report on it, the ballot initiative passed with 64% of the vote.
In 2020, we brought approval voting to its second city, St. Louis, MO. Again, we worked with the local community to make this campaign a success. This win by 68% via ballot initiative replicated the success of Fargo’s implementation and scaled it by over twofold with St. Louis’ population of just over 300,000 people.
Our Director of Campaigns has also set up a chapter program that has organized groups across the country. Those chapters, in combination with strategic resources and a request for proposals for funding, allow us to take a tactical approach to campaign planning in the future.
Why we need funding
We have been extremely grateful for the funding we received from Open Philanthropy. And we are grateful to Will MacAskill for believing in our ability and prospective impact enough to recommend us to Open Philanthropy in the first place. We wasted no time in translating that funding to a historic win within less than a year. We’re proud of that turnaround.
To succeed in our mission, we need to scale up our funding to handle larger cities and statewide efforts. We’ve faced some organized opposition (via the St. Louis city council) in our second city, but we have overcome it.
In the future, however, that will likely no longer be the case. Thus, the cost per person to use approval voting will increase. Counting our infrastructure, the spend per our partners, and running education campaigns, I’d estimate the cost per person using approval voting will likely be about $3. I don’t foresee it surpassing $5/person. Direct costs are much lower. Some of that spend will also start the calendar year before the actual initiative.
Once we have a separate large fund for campaigns, it will make sense for us to set up a 501(c)4. This will address caps that we’ll experience funding larger campaigns. This is because we’re limited by the IRS on the amount we can directly spend or give supporting ballot initiative advocacy.
With proper funding, we are very likely to bring approval voting to other large cities and states. This, however, is expensive. For reference, a recent failed initiative in Massachusetts for IRV cost over $10M in direct costs. The narrowly passed initiative in Alaska cost almost $7M in direct costs. Given our past experience, I think CES will be far more efficient, but it will still be expensive to scale our work.
Why there is urgency
Pushing voting method reform through legislation is a nonstarter due to the conflict of interest from legislators. It’s particularly a nonstarter given the relatively short modern timeline for approval voting. Instead, ballot initiatives are the main tool for pushing approval voting. Only about half the US states permit ballot initiatives. Even fewer have the legal framework to do initiatives to change voting methods at the city or county level.
That may still sound like a lot of places, but instant runoff voting (IRV) (also called ranked-choice voting or the alternative vote) reformers are starting to take up more space. In 2020, RCV was attempted in 5 cities (one was STV) and 4 states. It passed in all cities, whose population totaled just under 300,000. It was removed from two state ballots by courts, failed in Massachusetts, and passed by 1% in Alaska. Absent this narrow win, this would have been the first election cycle when the population of new places implementing approval voting was greater than RCV.
As more people know about instant runoff voting and are less aware of its substantial inferiority to approval voting, it has more perceived traction. This is partly because supporters believe that IRV has merits that exceed its actual limits. Consequently, campaigns for IRV are now following Maine’s statewide implementation. As IRV is implemented, it can remove opportunities for approval voting reform within a state.
We have demonstrated so far that with funding being equal, approval voting can move faster than RCV. Tens of millions went into RCV campaigns this year supported by organizations with budgets averaging over $4M. In contrast, we had a $1M budget at CES.
This means we have to act quickly. There are other 501(c)4 organizations that are open to approval voting, but they will go with the inferior RCV if they perceive that we cannot provide appropriate resources. This means our funding and frantic pace have to continue.
Benefiting the Future
In addition to declining opportunity, there are future people to consider. When considering future people, there’s further urgency to act now. If approval voting can improve policies and government over time, then we want those positive effects to build as quickly as possible to those in the future.
We are building the case that focusing on approval voting and thus policy will affect the far future. This is because approval voting is more stable compared to other methods and it allows new ideas to grow, some of those ideas of which are crucial for our long-term health. We have successfully made this argument to the Long Term Future Fund as well as Survival and Flourishing.
This is not to say that approval voting accomplishes these long-term goals completely independently. Rather, it creates an environment where stable and responsible policy can take hold.
Many of you are already familiar with our work. Maybe you heard about the Open Philanthropy grant or its renewal in 2019. You may have heard us speak at EA Global or REACH Berkeley. Or perhaps you listened to the 80,000 Hours episode. Regardless, our team and I are grateful that you take this issue seriously enough to direct your attention to it.
And to those of you in the EA community who have already donated, thank you. It really takes a special kind of donor for this think-heavy cause. Many of you have reached out to us following your gift to let us know about your interest in the cause.
Please consider a gift that matches both your capacity and your commitment to fundamentally improving government. You can give online through our website. To give by other means or at a significant level, please reach out to me personally. I will be happy to get back to you, even over the holidays. We are a sophisticated team so we can also handle complex assets if you let us know your situation. You may have already seen many of my essays on philanthropy, advanced giving instruments, and tax consequences on my personal website.
Thank you again to those in the community who have already given.
Q: I heard there was this thing about approval voting that wasn’t so good or that another voting method was better. Also, don’t forget about Arrow’s Theorem.
A: All voting methods have quirks, but we maintain that the quirks of approval voting are comparatively mild compared to the alternatives. You can see this article where we go into all the details about approval voting critiques. Also, I talked with Kenneth Arrow personally for an hour, and he said that our choose-one voting method was bad. Really.
Q: How does IRV/RCV match up to approval voting?
A: Not very well. From encountering avoidable anomalies to being needlessly complex, IRV falls well short of what approval voting can offer. Here’s an article on that topic. And here’s an article on the limits of RCV (which includes its limited merits). Note that IRV and RCV are the same, though RCV is the name commonly used by advocates. This is notably confusing not just because of the multiple names but because there are many different ranking methods.
This year, we showed repeatedly that approval voting better captures support compared to RCV. We did this by polling Democratic voters in the primaries using multiple voting methods and compared the results to control measures. We did this earlier and later in the primaries.
Q: How do you decide what makes a voting method good?
A: We look at the type of winner it tends to elect as well as practical issues from simplicity to implementation. Here’s an article on that topic. Here’s an in-depth article comparing methods using these broad criteria.
Q: Will approval voting increase the number of parties?
A: Probably, but likely not by much. Those parties can, however, get their voice heard (and ignored if they have bad ideas). Here’s an article on Duverger’s Law. (Fun video here). Also, third parties and independents clearly benefit from approval voting. Note that the multi-winner proportional version of approval voting would encourage more parties. But it’s more complicated on the calculation end.
Q: Why don’t you go after organizations that do achievement awards?
A: We do, though we limit our resources to high-impact opportunities. Here’s an article about how we worked with The Webby Awards. We’ve also done an article on giving games. I’ve personally encountered some resistance when talking with some large awards organizations. They don’t collect the data to know whether their current voting method is bad. Plus they likely perceive that changing their voting method may reveal that their previously given awards have less value.
Q: The Electoral College is awful. Why aren’t you working to get rid of it?
A: The current actions to make the electoral college moot would still leave us with that awful choose-one voting method. Approval voting would work with this current approach though (RCV wouldn’t). We wrote a whole article about it.
Q: Why don’t you go after primaries? You should be going after primaries.
A: In areas where we run initiatives and there are primaries, we will be having them use approval voting. We did that in St. Louis. We’ve written lots about primaries. Here’s an article. Here’s one, too. Here’s one more.
Q: Why don’t you target third parties to get their support?
A: We target third parties to get their support. Green and Libertarian chapters in multiple states support and use approval voting. The Libertarian Party even uses it for national internal positions. Other third parties use it, too. Many of those folks have already bought that IRV will help them, so we have to explain how approval voting would be better. RCV gives little additional support to third parties. Just look at the minuscule support third-party candidates got in Maine.
Q: I listened to the 80,000 Hours Episode, but I felt that you didn’t go into enough detail in certain areas.
A: It seems like you always think of things after the fact. Here are some quick follow-up details into areas like voter turnout where I could have given a more complete answer.
Q: How can I help again?