Will New Hampshire Be the First State to Abolish First-Past-the-Post?

A bill to adopt approval voting has been filed in the N.H. House, and one of the co-sponsors is a member of the relevant committee. The bill would establish approval voting for all state offices and presidential primaries. Approval voting is an electoral system for single-winner elections that allows voters to cast not more than one vote for as many candidates as they like and selects the top vote-getter. Steven Brams and other political scientists have endorsed the system as an alternative to plurality rule (or “first-past-the-post”) because a) approval voting is more likely than plurality to select a Condorcet winner when there is one, b) approval voting tends to favor candidates with even temperament and broad ideological appeal, and c) approval voting is more likely than plurality to permit victories by independent and third-party candidates. (However, approval voting is much less likely to ensure representation for political minorities than is a multi-winner, proportional electoral system.) I see approval voting as a good option for inevitably single-winner elections like gubernatorial races and possibly also when it is desirable to keep districts very small and “close to home,” as the massive N.H. House of Representatives does. However, the N.H. Senate has highly artificial districts, and statewide party-list proportional representation seems like a more logical system for that body. Nevertheless, all efforts at bringing electoral reform to the fore of debate are to be welcomed.

25 thoughts on “Will New Hampshire Be the First State to Abolish First-Past-the-Post?

  1. Some see the adoption of Approval Voting as a necessary _prerequisite_ to getting proportional representation. You have to break up two-party duopoly before you can break down obstactles to PR.


    Approval Voting would be a really simple and vastly superior system. I think it might make sense to still combine it with runoffs if no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote (or maybe a lower threshold like 40%).

    1. There’s something to that. You’ll have to get third-party candidates elected before PR becomes an item on the agenda.

  2. Approval Voting doesn’t seem like a good solution when you have districts with as many as 13 seats.
    Districts vary in number of seats based on their populations, with the least-populous districts having only one member and the most having 13. In multi-member districts, voters are allowed to cast as many votes as there are seats to be filled, which often results in one party winning all of the seats in the district.

    1. Yes, AV is no better than plurality in multimember districts in which voters have as many votes as seats. However, redistricting in NH will be reducing the number and size of multimember districts b/c the legislature has re-legalized floterial districts that ensure that each town above a certain size has its own representative. Also, of course, AV should be an improvement for senatorial and gubernatorial elections.

      1. “AV is no better than plurality in multimember districts in which voters have as many votes as seats.”

        That’s simply untrue. Imagine you’re voting in a two-seat election, and there are 10 candidates. The vote splitting effect could cause highly unrepresentative outcomes if voters can only vote for two candidates.

    2. This is true.

      And a good reason to use re-weighted range voting (RRV) or one of the other proportional multi-winner approval variants in multi-member districts.

      Using straight-up approval wouldn’t be much different (if any different!) than the system in place now for the NH house, and it would be a shame if this passed and approval voting were blamed for the failure to effect any change.

    3. Approval voting is a single-seat system and is not designed for multiple seats. To keep approval voting as-is and to use it for multiple members (bastardizing it) would make it something akin to multi-member approval voting, a bloc system and not proportional. That is not to say that its selection in candidates would be equally as bad to multi-member plurality. A voter can still keep on approving outside the allotted seat number. Popular non-two party candidates could get elected. But they’d likely be on a similar range of political ideology as the rest of the elected slate–the homogeneous nature of a bloc system.

      As Dale has said, there is reweighted range voting–a proportional version of score voting. But you can also use proportional versions of approval voting if there’s a desire to stay consistent. One variation works much like how we allocate US House members to the states using the Webster allocation method (sequential odd divisors). From the voter’s perspective, it would look quite similar to a regular approval-style ballot. Reweighted range voting is a superior method, however, in its expressiveness.

      1. Just a quick note:

        Since approval voting is simply range voting with a range of 0-1, the math to use RRV is the same; the ballots could be identical to approval ballots.

        I guess I could have said “re-weighted approval voting” to make that clearer.

      2. Agree with all of above. However, legislators are conservative by temperament (not referring to ideology here), and simplicity may be the overriding criterion here. I actually spoke to the bill’s writer, Dan McGuire, and he’s arguing for the change not primarily on the grounds that this is a new electoral system superior to what NH has now (although he will make use of this argument secondarily), but that it will allow ballots that are now thrown out to be kept. In many multimember districts especially, voters often vote for more candidates than they are allowed to – the whole ballot is then discarded. McGuire is simply saying that we should keep those ballots and count the “overvotes,” as a matter of basic fairness. He’s selling a fundamental systemic change as primarily a technical one. (I don’t mean that he’s hiding what he’s doing, simply that he believes this is the best way to sell the reform to legislators.)

      3. @Aaron Hamlin and @icr, you are right that multi-member approval voting is *in general* not as good as proportional voting, but bear in mind that New Hampshire State House has one of the highest representation rates of any legislative body in the world, literally 100x that of California (400 vs. 80 legislators for 1.5M vs. 37M people). Even with multi-seat districts (and the large ones are going to be reduced to much less than 13), NH can afford to have reps elected in blocs. But does experience support such fears? Since people are already voting for multiple candidates, we should already be seeing blocs, but in my city (Nashua, the second largest in NH) we have wards (districts) with a mix of Republican and Democratic reps. Real voters are not one-dimensional sheep, and in New Hampshire they a bit more sophisticated. Admittedly there is currently a risk of vote-splitting, which might deter clones from entering the race, and AV would remove that threat.

  3. However, legislators are conservative by temperament (not referring to ideology here)…

    Still it’s hard to figure why changing the age-old definition of marriage is a fit topic for debate but altering the voting system to make it more democratic is not. If NH had a sizable number of racial/ethnic minorities the federal courts might be looking askance at those multi-member districts.

  4. I would like to see a system that allowed negative voting. That is, let people cast a vote against the candidate they regard as the greatest among the evils. Votes against would be subtracted from votes for and the winning candidate would be the one with the highest net positive total. One result, I think, would be to make minor party candidates competitive.

    1. The functional equivalent of the “negative voting” you refer to would be score voting (range). All the information you could ever want on that subject is here: http://rangevoting.org

      Score voting is summable, just like approval voting. Approval really is score voting, but it just has two levels of expression (approve and don’t approve). Score voting has voters score all the candidates on a scale, say 0-9. Whether the bottom of that scale is negative, 0, or whatever doesn’t matter. The highest score wins.

      To the extent score voting doesn’t use the extreme ends, it is better than approval voting. And evidence from a large-scale French study suggests voters don’t exclusively use those extremes (http://rangevoting.org/OrsayTable.html).

      But while the average voter utility from score voting is quite high, the utility is also high for approval voting (http://rangevoting.org/BayRegDum.html; http://rangevoting.org/BR52002bw.png). And as you can see, that simulation considers tactical voting. (To attempt such a simulation in real life would be impracticable.)

      The fact that both approval and score voting allow voters to ALWAYS express their honest favorite is likely why it will be possible for members outside the two parties to gain momentum. As mentioned earlier though, it’s still a single-seat district, and the threshold needed to get elected is still high. So, an outsider would still need to be a strong candidate, as they should be.

      Remember though that it doesn’t get any better than approval voting if we’re staying within SUPER-simple methods. It’s easily the best bang-for-your-buck voting system. NH will be extremely lucky to have it if it passes.

      1. Given an opportunity to vote on a scale of 0-9, I can’t imagine a situation in which I would vote anything but 0 or 9.

        Anything in-between reminds me of the sucker bets one is allowed to make when playing blackjack or craps. They might add to the fun but are never to the player’s advantage.

        I suppose if I were completely indifferent to the outcome I might consider voting a 5, but would be just as happy flipping a coin for 0 or 9 in that case.

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