Don’t you find it highly frustrating when you want to vote for a person or party you like but you can’t really do it because you know that the person or party has a very low chance of being elected or being part of a coalition government? You may think it’s frustrating yet unavoidable. After all, isn’t it part of what making a choice means to sacrifice some attractive options? Well, no, or so I argue in a recently published article. We have a right to voting methods that allow for a more honest and complex expression of our preferences, that do not force us to sacrifice the expression of our genuine preferences. And the good news is that appealing alternative voting methods exist.

I believe that citizens do not merely have a right to vote. More fundamentally, they have (1) a right to express their political preferences on key political issues; and (2) a right to a procedure by which their preferences are equally taken into account. The first component corresponds to the deliberative dimension of democracy; the second to its aggregative dimension, both dimensions being necessary. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that the two components should be kept apart, that the demand to allow for political expression is relevant only for the period that precedes the vote. The right to political expression would be weak if it were not understood as a right of citizens to express their preferences, on key issues, as much as is compatible with the exercise of this right by their fellow citizens.

In large-number democracies, the possibility of expressing one’s opinion through speech at the time of decision cannot be guaranteed to all. All are free to express their opinion in public debates whenever they want, but people cannot be guaranteed a tribune allowing them to address their message to the whole population. Furthermore, the option to address one’s opinion to the whole public cannot be offered to all either, as would be the case in an assembly democracy. Or at least it cannot be offered at a single point in time – at decision time. Therefore, an expedient is needed to gather quickly and simultaneously the preferences of all – the vote. However, I see no reason why the right to political expression would stop being relevant in the choice of the best expedient.

From this fundamental right to political expression, one can therefore derive a right to expressive voting methods. This should be understood as a pro tanto claim right, to which would correspond a duty for public authorities to provide an expressive voting method unless there is a prevailing reason not to do so.

In the article, I explore possible countervailing reasons. Central among these is the capacity of a voting method to represent citizens’ actual preferences. Others include fairness, ease of use, accessibility, transparency and cost of the voting method.

One type of voting method that offers increased opportunities for expression without jeopardizing other important values is evaluative voting. It is a set of voting methods allowing voters to evaluate separately the different candidates in an election, or options in a referendum, by giving them points or an appreciation mark. The most basic (and least expressive) form is ‘approval voting’, where voters give either 1 or 0 to each candidate. The most complex (and expressive) is probably the range voting with a 0–99 scale promoted by the Center for Range Voting in the USA. In between, there is ‘majority judgment’ (see figure below), inviting voters to evaluate each candidate with one of the following marks: ‘Excellent’, ‘Very Good’, ‘Good’, ‘Acceptable’, ‘Poor’, or ‘To Reject’ and its equivalents with points instead of appreciation marks. Although these evaluative methods are familiar to people taking part in wine contests or ice-skating competitions, they are currently not used in politics – at least not in general national elections.

Figure borrowed to Balinski & Laraki, Majority Judgment, MIT Press, 2010, p. 17.

In terms of opportunities for expression, all forms of evaluative voting score much better than prevailing voting methods – be it first-past-the-post or open-list proportional representation – because they allow one to express an opinion about each candidate or party. Voters are not required to have an opinion about each, but they have the opportunity to express it if they do. Furthermore, more complex forms of evaluative voting (such as majority judgment or point-summing alternatives) allow voters to express the intensity of their approval or disapproval of each candidate, knowing that this intensity will weigh on the final result. This is also a significant improvement in terms of expression.

Compared with dominant voting methods, evaluative voting also strongly reduces the pressure toward tactical voting. Voters face no or little pressure to focus on their most preferred candidate or on the one they prefer among the ones leading in opinion polls. Importantly, they do not risk helping the other political camp win by supporting a minor candidate in addition to a moderate one. Hence, they are largely freed from a burdensome ethical dilemma, although some tactical considerations are bound to remain. Voters may decide to give the best grade to their most preferred candidate and none to all of the others, to give that candidate a strong advantage. Yet the incentive to do so is not high: by doing so, they give up a genuine opportunity to express a preference among the other candidates in case their preferred one is not popular enough to win. Hence, they have quite strong reasons – and importantly, the opportunity – to grade them all.

With such a method, voters are more likely to express their sincere or genuine preferences and to feel satisfied about it. This reduction of frustration counts among the reasons to adopt evaluative voting. Other reasons and some challenges are also explored in the article.

Currently postdoc at KU Leuven, I hold a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium). My main research interests are democratic theory, theories of justice, and civic education.