80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#34 - We use the worst voting system that exists. Here's how Aaron Hamlin is going to fix it.

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

In 1991 Edwin Edwards won the Louisiana gubernatorial election. In 2001, he was found guilty of racketeering and received a 10 year invitation to Federal prison. The strange thing about that election? By 1991 Edwards was already notorious for his corruption. Actually, that’s not it.

The truly strange thing is that Edwards was clearly the good guy in the race. How is that possible?

His opponent was former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

How could Louisiana end up having to choose between a criminal and a Nazi sympathiser?

It’s not like they lacked other options: the state’s moderate incumbent governor Buddy Roemer ran for re-election. Polling showed that Roemer was massively preferred to both the career criminal and the career bigot, and would easily win a head-to-head election against either.

Unfortunately, in Louisiana every candidate from every party competes in the first round, and the top two then go on to a second - a so-called ‘jungle primary’. Vote splitting squeezed out the middle, and meant that Roemer was eliminated in the first round.

Louisiana voters were left with only terrible options, in a run-off election mostly remembered for the proliferation of bumper stickers reading “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”

We could look at this as a cultural problem, exposing widespread enthusiasm for bribery and racism that will take generations to overcome. But according to Aaron Hamlin, Executive Director of The Center for Election Science (CES), there’s a simple way to make sure we never have to elect someone hated by more than half the electorate: change how we vote.

He advocates an alternative voting method called approval voting, in which you can vote for as many candidates as you want, not just one. That means that you can always support your honest favorite candidate, even when an election seems like a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Full transcript, links to learn more, and summary of key points.

If you'd like to meet Aaron he's doing events for CES in San Francisco, DC, Philadelphia, New York and Brooklyn over the next two weeks - RSVP here.

While it might not seem sexy, this single change could transform politics. Approval voting is adored by voting researchers, who regard it as the best simple voting system available.

Which do they regard as unquestionably the worst? First-past-the-post - precisely the disastrous system used and exported around the world by the US and UK.

Aaron has a practical plan to spread approval voting across the US using ballot initiatives - and it just might be our best shot at making politics a bit less unreasonable.

The Center for Election Science is a U.S. non-profit which aims to fix broken government by helping the world adopt smarter election systems. They recently received a $600,000 grant from the Open Philanthropy Project to scale up their efforts.

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The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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