Why You Should Invest In Upgrading Democracy And Give To The Center For Election Science — EA Forum

Aaron Hamlin
8 min readAug 15, 2019


This post is making the (follow-up) case for why giving to The Center for Election Science (CES) is a good idea. Here’s a summary:

  1. What we do
  2. Why we do what we do
  3. What we’ve done and what we intend to do
  4. Why we need funding
  5. Why there is urgency
  6. Our ask
  7. FAQ

What we do

We study and advance better voting methods.

On the study end, we decipher voting theory complexities for the general public. 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 advancing 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 focus heavily on approval voting right now due to its simplicity and strong performance as a voting method.

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 and modern use. 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 media who bothered to report on it, the ballot initiative passed with 64% of the vote.

We intend to strategically replicate this in cities neighboring Fargo, ND. Following that replication, we will move to larger cities. We can then keep scaling to focus predominantly on large cities and states. Eventually, we can go outside the US, but that strategy is currently unclear.

We intend to achieve these outcomes by scaling up our previously successful efforts. That means collaborating with more local 501(c)4 groups and hiring a Director of Campaigns to coordinate current campaigns and set up future ones We’ll also be hiring a Director of Research to highlight issues in current elections that are currently invisible and to bring awareness to our other work.

Why we need funding

We have been extremely grateful for the funding we received from Open Philanthropy Project. And we are grateful to Will MacAskill for believing in our ability and prospective impact enough to recommend us to Open Phil 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 large cities and statewide efforts. Early on, we’ve been lucky and our partners have been able to avoid spending funds on signature gathering for the initiatives. We also haven’t faced organized opposition.

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 increase to about $3. I don’t foresee it surpassing $5/person. Some of that spend will start the calendar year before the actual initiative.

[Note that we require economies of scale to get at the $3-$4/person because of the initial infrastructure required. Targeting populations of 500K+ gets us in the economies of scale range. You basically get a discount on your return by investing on the mission in bulk.]

So, if we’re targeting cities and states within a particular year so that the total populations add up to 2M people, then we’ll need a budget of $6M. If 10M people, then $30M, and so on. In addition to the initiative work, this helps us to support ancillary organizational programs that help our overall efforts-activities like research, creating election tools, and performing outreach. We are largely a funds-capped organization in terms of the impact we can make.

We’ll also have to set up a 501(c)4 ourselves soon to accept funding to direct out to other collaborating 501(c)4s. This is because we’re limited by the IRS on the amount we can directly spend or give supporting ballot initiative advocacy.

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. One leading organization claimed they would try to run as many as over a dozen statewide efforts by 2022. That’s not counting other independent organizations who have started on their own statewide campaigns.

As more people know about instant runoff voting and are less aware of its substantial inferiority to approval voting, it has more perceived traction. Consequently, campaigns for IRV are now following Maine’s statewide implementation. As IRV is implemented, it can remove opportunity for approval voting reform within a state. It can even nullify our wins within a state. On the other side, if the instant runoff voting campaign fails or is repealed, it could sour voters to the idea of alternative voting methods altogether.

This means we have to act quickly. There are other 501(c)4 organizations who are open to approval voting, but they will go with the inferior IRV if they perceive that we cannot provide the funding. This means our funding and frantic pace have to continue.

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.

Our ask

Many of you are already familiar with our work. Maybe you heard about the Open Phil grant. You may have heard me 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 following the 80,000 Hours podcast. EA members have already donated at levels of $50, to $500, to $20K.

Please consider a gift that matches both your capacity and your commitment to fundamentally improving government. You can give online through our website. Donations up to $30K given by December 31 will be matched. To give by other means or at a significant level, please reach out to our Director of Philanthropy. She will happily get back to you within 24 hours, even over the holidays. We are a sophisticated team so we can also handle complex assets if you let us know your situation.

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. Also, I talked with Kenneth Arrow personally for an hour and he said that our choose-one voting method was bad. .

Q: How does IRV 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.

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.

Q: Will approval voting increase the number of parties?

A: Probably, but 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. We’ll write a post on that proportional method before too long since it’s just been updated.

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 (IRV 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’ve written lots about primaries. Here’s an article. Here’s one, too. Here’s one more. We’ll likely write another one before too long as well.

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.

Q: I listened to the 80,000 Hours Episode, but I felt that you didn’t go into enough detail in certain areas.

A: Here are some quick follow-up details into areas like voter turnout where I could have given a more complete answer.

Q: Let’s talk about that website of yours.

A: We’ll be launching our new website by the end of December to early January. In the meantime, we have a landing page for our donations.

Q: How can I help again?

A: Let other people know about our work and invest in a better ballot to improve government.

Originally published at https://forum.effectivealtruism.org. (Dec 14, 2018)



Aaron Hamlin

Executive director at The Center for Election Science. Attorney. Utility maximization enthusiast. Lover of effective altruism. Other work at: aaronhamlin.com