Score voting: the obvious solution to the GOP's Trump problem

Note: In this post, I am assuming that you are familiar with the current dynamics of the 2016 US presidential race. For future context, at the time of this writing, the Republican nomination is uncertain but Donald Trump is currently favored by most analysts. This situation is unpalatable to the majority of conservative Republicans because Trump has few conservative bona fides; to many pundits, he is equally aligned (or not aligned, depending on your point of view) with both major parties.

From my point of view, he is an authoritarian, which makes him nearly an opposite of my political persuasion, libertarianism.

Also see the follow up to this post for more thoughts on score voting.


The Republican party has a Trump problem. A minority of the party—about a third—favors Donald Trump as the nominee, and the rest of the party considers Trump the worst possible Republican candidate. Unfortunately for the two-thirds majority, the rest of the field of candidates has not yet consolidated, meaning the non-Trump majority is dividing their vote among four other candidates (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and John Kasich).


I'll be quick about the point: The solution is score voting.

Let's take it for granted that generally speaking, a Cruz supporter would favor Rubio over Trump. A Kasich supporter would favor Cruz over Trump. A Rubio supporter would favor Carson over Trump. You get the picture.

The non-Trump group could consolidate in any way and result in the non-Trump candidate as the majority candidate. Trouble is, the group isn't yet consolidated and each Republican primary voter can only cast one vote, doing so for their favorite among the four.

They split their vote. That is what happens in our current voting system, oddly called "plurality voting." In plurality voting, each voter is forced to make only one selection. A better name might have been "singular voting," but so be it.

With plurality voting, if you like two candidates, you have to choose one. Other similar voters have to do the same. The result is that the support for these two candidates is split for no good reason. The split ends up aiding the two candidates' mutual opponents.

The favorability ratings for Trump among Republicans are lower than the other candidates. As the non-Trump field consolidates, it is expected that non-Trump voters will align with another non-Trump candidate rather than otherwise. (However, in practice, this dynamic may vary over time since some people leverage both viability and preference when selecting a candidate. If the field consolidates slowly, this may work to Trump's advantage as the process will contribute to the appearance of viability for Trump.)

Score voting avoids the party-damaging consolidation of the non-Trump group we're witnessing right now, a process that works to Trump's advantage since his supporters are apparently quite fixed in support. The nature of the Trump campaign is anti-establishment, so any maneuvers by the establishment to paint Trump as a bad candidate—such as demonstrating (fairly) that Trump is not known to hold Republican values—fall on deaf ears. Worse, they probably reinforce the vigor of his supporters because the "establishment" is so desperate to shut down Trump.

Allow me to clarify: score voting would have prevented this. It's too late for 2016. But the GOP should be thinking about this as they rebuild.

So what is Score Voting?

Score voting allows voters to assign a score to each candidate.

The score range could be any range of numbers, but 0 to 100 makes sense to me since everyone is familiar with this range from high school test scores.

Illustrative example

Let's say that I like Cruz most, Rubio next, I am lukewarm on Carson, I can stomach Kasich, and I hate Trump.

Meanwhile, just for the sake of argument, let's say you are a Trump supporter and you hate all of the other candidates because they're all establishment crooks. Bear with me, it's just an illustration; I'm not trying to make you feel awful.

Here is how we might cast our score votes:

CandidateMy voteYour vote
Ben Carson500
Ted Cruz1000
John Kasich200
Marco Rubio900
Donald Trump0100

Meanwhile, a third Republican primary voter, Jane, is a Rubio supporter who would be pretty happy with Cruz, but mostly unhappy with the remaining candidates. Let's add Jane's vote to the illustration, along with a new total score column:

CandidateMy voteYour voteJane's voteTotal score
Ben Carson5001060
Ted Cruz100080180
John Kasich2001030
Marco Rubio900100190
Donald Trump010010110

The winner of this illustration is obvious: Rubio with 190 points.

Approval Voting

In fact, the range of score voting can be as narrow as 0 to 1. There is a special name for score voting that is just 0 to 1: that's called approval voting because you either approve of each candidate (a "yes" or "1" vote) or you don't (a "no" or "0" vote).

Repainting the above illustration as approval voting:

CandidateMy voteYour voteJane's voteTotal score
Ben Carson1001
Ted Cruz1012
John Kasich0000
Marco Rubio1012
Donald Trump0101

We obviously have a tie here because there are only three voters. But you can see how it would easily play out with a full population.

Approval Voting is the most natural voting system

How do you select what movie to watch with your spouse?

How do you and your colleagues choose a restaurant for a work lunch?

Easy answer. Everyone lists the options they like. The option with the most support wins.

Both you and your spouse are in the mood for raunchy low-brow and low-budget humor? Great, Deadpool it is. Maybe your husband also cast a vote for the high-budget debacle Gods of Egypt. We'll forgive him for that since it didn't win the approval vote.

(Actually, no. Wanting to see that movie is unforgivable. Have you seen the trailer?)

Approval voting is the most natural—the most human—voting system. It is how egalitarian humans instinctively make group decisions.

Plurality voting adds considerable mental burden by requiring each person make one selection and one selection only. Now they have to think a lot more carefully and invoke a measure of strategy. They need to predict how the others in the group will vote and may decide to strategically cast their single vote for something they like (but don't love) because they feel it has more likelihood of being selected by the others in the group.

In your group decision-making, if you force everyone to cast only one vote of approval, it is nearly inevitable that some in the group will struggle to do so and will ask if they can vote more than once. The desire for approval voting may be hardwired in us.

Approval voting is superior to plurality voting. It's better to allow every person to cast approval votes for everything they love, everything they like, and even everything they would tolerate. I'm not a fan of Five Guys' hamburgers, but some days I can tolerate them, so they'd get an approval vote on those days.

So why score voting over approval voting?

It's a subtle matter, but score voting allows a thoughtful voter to assign partial scores (anything that's not 0 or 100) to candidates they consider imperfect. But importantly, score voting also allows voters to give every candidate they like the same score.

Score voting is both flexible and easy to understand.

Versus ranked or instant runoff

You may be familiar with instant runoff voting (IRV) and other ranked-order voting systems that are championed by some as an ideal voting system. To be clear, IRV is superior to present-day plurality voting. Unfortunately, the noise of IRV support alongside score voting support creates a cacophony that causes observers to see voting system reformers as disagreeing fringe academics with no coherent message.

It is a bit ironic that we can't use score voting to select the best voting system because we have a situation where IRV is better than the plurality model we have now, but it's not as good as score voting. I'd give IRV 80 points versus score voting's 100 points. Or to use IRV parlance, I would rank score voting first.

Here's the rub: Score voting does not burden voters with the task of having to rank candidates.

Requiring voters to create a rank order for candidates increases the complexity of voting unnecessarily. If I like candidates A and B equally, I should not be forced to choose one before the other. Voters should have the freedom to either thoughtfully assign carefully-crafted scores to each candidate or more stubbornly assign 100s to some candidates and 0s to the rest. Or whatever scores make sense to them.

Score voting solves the Trump problem

Pundits agree: the Republican party is in chaos thanks to the Trump problem. Will the non-Trump candidates consolidate in time? Is Trump the inevitable nominee? If Trump is the nominee, are Senate seats, House seats, and Governors' offices in danger due to Trump's poisonous coattails? How would the party rebuild from this? Are there emergency ripcords that can be pulled to prevent a Trump nomination administratively?

The candidates themselves are blamed for not having unified the party. Check out this quote from Fred Malek, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, in the New York Times:

There’s no single leader and no single institution that can bring a diverse group called the Republican Party together, behind a single candidate. It just doesn’t exist.

Plurality voting is profoundly efficient at splitting voters. Blaming candidates for an inability to consolidate support is misguided. Plurality voting requires that candidates drop out in order to allow other candidates to consolidate. The consolidation process is insidious and hurtful to the party.

Score voting does not require consolidation at all. Candidates with low support may still drop out to save money, but they do not need to do so in order to save the party from catastrophe.

Incidentally, that last hypothetical question above—the possibility of overruling a popular Trump nomination via some administrative shenanigans—leads to another point on score voting. An administrative take-down of Trump could lead to a Trump third-party candidacy. That would split the general vote in November. It would be a disaster for the GOP candidate assuming Trump supporters would be GOP defections, though I admit that much is not clear.

The point is: score voting should be in place for primaries and general elections. There is virtually no exception. Score voting beats plurality voting in almost every context.

I don't know him, but Fred Malek is wrong

There is in fact an institution that helps unify a party and does it with greater voter satisfaction. Score voting.

The Electoral Science folks say a voting system should "minimize regret." And think about it for a moment. If Republican primary voters used score voting, they would likely cast non-zero votes for a set of candidates. If any of those candidates ends up winning, the voter is satisfied, maybe not maximally satisfied, but satisfied nonetheless. This results in a broader feeling of, "I voted for that candidate."

Plurality voting, on the other hand, leads to more people feeling, "I voted for the other guy."

Score voting is not just about third-parties

Historically, it has been third-parties that champion alternative voting models such as approval or score voting because it is estimated that third parties may have the most to gain from these alternatives. Score voting allows a third-party supporter to avoid being criticized by pragmatic Republicans and Democrats for having cast a vote for their third-party candidate: "You're throwing your vote away!"

As a registered Libertarian (yes, capital 'L' Libertarian. I know, I know), the criticism stings every time. Sometimes I vote strategically, sometimes I don't. The situation sucks.

But a Trump third-party run in the general election could illustrate why score voting is better for everyone. Score voting could prevent an unpopular Hillary presidency in the event Trump is forced out of the Republican ticket.

Aside: oddly enough, few third-parties communicate forcefully about alternative voting models. Sometimes I think they are genuinely afraid of increasing their odds of winning elections. "What kind of public relations disaster would we have if our candidate was actually elected and inevitably failed, as all politicians do?"

The big question: Is the GOP serious?

What is the GOP going to do about their Trump problem? Are they going to cross their fingers and hope it goes away? Are they going to try an administrative maneuver certain to inflame the Trump supporters?

Or are they going to realize that score voting would have allowed Trump to test a candidacy, witness his declining approval rating, and then ultimately drop out or lose the primary vote to someone with broader appeal? Will the GOP realize that this approach would have let Trump supporters lose with dignity since many of them would have cast simultaneous approvals for other candidates, giving them a more likely stake in supporting the actual nominee?

I'm not sure. The two major parties have all but ignored the discussion of voting models. This is probably a mix of simple disinterest, ignorance, fear, and self-preservation.

It will be amusing, but also sad, even as a non-Republican, to watch a Republican party in disarray, knowing they could have mitigated the disaster with a sensible voting model.

Is the solution really painfully obvious?

No, of course it's not obvious to everyone. The current news cycle is saturated with articles detailing the dire situation of the GOP and their desperate need to resolve the Trump problem. Each of these articles unknowingly dances around the root cause of the problem.

What should be obvious, and what is obvious to anyone on board the score voting hype train, is that plurality voting unnaturally constrains and frustrates the voting process. Presently, a majority want to express an "Anyone but Trump" sentiment, but they're not allowed to. They can't literally vote in approval of everyone other than Trump.

So yes, from a point of view the solution is obvious. You just need to realize that Trump isn't the problem. His success is a symptom of the problem. The real problem is that people cannot vote the way they want.

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