Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bring Approval Voting to Oregon!

In the last few years, legislative efforts to enact approval voting have been stymied in Arizona, Colorado, and New Hampshire. But there's an exciting new possibility opening up in Oregon, where there's an effort under way to get approval voting up through a ballot initiative.

Actually, it's an approval top-two-primary, and I've never been a fan of top-two primaries, but since it will be carried out using approval voting, this will still likely be a huge boon to the people of Oregon, if the initiative proves to be successful. If you're in Oregon, please get involved (or if you're willing to go visit; out-of-state petition circulators are legal in Oregon.)

So visit their website, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and get the word out. I'm hoping there will be a lot less friction moving this through with an initiative process rather than with a legislative process, so fingers crossed!

In an entirely unrelated personal aside, this marks my first success with managing to post something at least once per month for an entire calendar year. Next year's resolution will be for at least two per month.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Minneapolis Results

Way back in June—almost 5 months before the voting took place—I made a prediction about the outcome of the mayoral race in Minneapolis. Specifically, I predicted that the winner of the election would not get 50% of the votes cast. For this, I was told, among other things, that I didn't understand how ranked choice voting works, and that I was a troll. I was also right.

As you can see on the election results page, Betsy Hodges was elected the new mayor of Minneapolis with 48.95% of the votes cast. Close, but not quite, 50%. (And I'll argue below that she actually got a slightly lower percentage than that.) I should point out that I know absolutely nothing about Minneapolis politics; I've never even ever set foot anywhere in Minnesota. All I knew was that RCV was going to be used and that the DFL failed to choose an endorsement for the race, so there would be 6 DFLeres along with 29 other candidates on the ballot.

The Stakes

It's not actually important that RCV is able to elect a winner with less than 50% support. What's important is maximizing expected voter satisfaction, and RCV (AKA "Instant Runoff") is not particularly good at that. But plurality is terrible, so a lot of people are looking for something to replace it with, and they have been plied with stories from certain less-than-reliable organizations that RCV "upholds majority rule"—along with other, less-easily-falsifiable claims. And it's the easy falsifiability that makes this important... or at least useful. Since RCV is a poor target for reform, my hope is that disproving one of it's selling points will get activist to take a closer look, and discover the superior (single-winner) election method reform choices of approval and score voting.

Side Bet

But the mayoral winning percentage wasn't the only prediction I'd made about the Minneapolis election results. I'd also claimed that there would be more spoiled ballots in this election than there had been in the 2005 election (the last one before RCV.) But what I didn't know (remember: I know nothing about Minneapolis) was that the city had invested in new machines to immediately check ballots, and give voters the chance to try again if they made a ballot-invalidating error. And it worked really well! Almost all voters successfully cast a valid ballot, so Kudos to Minneapolis. But with this new check, we're no longer comparing apples to apples. Luckily, the Municipal Canvassing Board still accounts for spoiled ballots, and their report provides the number we need to make a fair comparison. Recall that the ballot spoilage rate in 2005 was a hair over 1.0%. According to this year's report, there were 3,358 spoiled ballots, and 80,099 ballots cast (note: I'm not sure where the two ballot difference between the report and the results webpage comes from.) That works out to just under 4.2%, closely matching the 2009 results and, again, more than quadrupling the pre-RCV rate.

There's been more than a little bit of confusionsome of it caused intentionally—about RCV's effect on ballot spoilage rates in Minneapolis, so this is another RCV-advocate claim whose falsehood I find is important to point out.

Odds (and Ends)

I downloaded the full mayoral election results spreadsheet to play around with, but it turns out that, despite all the ink spent on it, this was a really boring and, honestly, kind of predictable race. But if you're curious, here are a few other numbers I pulled out:

  • Total Ballots: 80,101
  • Non-Blank Ballots in Mayoral Race: 79,462
  • Valid Ballots in Mayoral Race: 79,415

That means there were 47 voters who tried to vote in mayoral race, but who weren't counted because, in each rank, they either undervoted (listed no choice) or overvoted (listed more than one choice). And these 47 voters are separate from the 639 voters who voted on something in this election but who completely skipped the mayoral race (i.e., undervoted in all three ranks.) This is why I think Hodges actual winning percentage should be reported as 48.92%, instead of 48.95%: Those 47 voters deserve to be counted towards achieving a majority.

  • Valid Ballots with an Overvote in Mayoral Race: 142
  • Valid Ballots with a Skipped Rank in Mayoral Race: 292
  • Valid Ballots with Duplicated Candidates in Mayoral Race: 11,673

These groups of ballots were all counted toward the majority by the official count, since they had at least some valid information. However, they also illustrate a lack of understanding by the electorate for how RCV actually works. Skipping a rank (i.e., filling in only ranks 1 and 3, or 2 and 3) or duplicating a candidate in multiple ranks, can't change the outcome, but apparently over 15% of voters think it might; that's not a good sign. The overvotes are even more concerning, since they could theoretically change the outcome (and should have all been caught by the fancy new scanners.) Thankfully, they were rather few (probably because of the fancy new scanners.)


This makes two consecutive elections where RCV didn't screw up, at least not on the same scale as it did in Burlington, VT. On the one hand, that's good for the people of Minneapolis. On the other, since RCV is not an overall good election reform, it's probably bad, since it means there isn't going to be a strong motivation to change away from the system before people get accustomed to it... unless someone takes this "less than 50%" outcome, and all the other arguments against RCV, and runs with it. Minneapolitans (I had to look that up!) let me know if I can help.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October Op-Eds Weave RCV Spell over Minneapolis

Minneapolis is conducting their local elections by ranked choice voting (AKA instant runoff voting) for the second time this November. I've already written about this a number of times. But with the election drawing closer, RCV proponents are getting op-eds published in an attempt to hype the systems purported advantages.

Please indulge me while I reiterate my refutations of these common, and false, RCV talking points.

  • RCV does not "ensure majority outcomes": With the large number of candidates running for mayor, and the inability of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party to settle on an endorsement, there is an extremely high likelihood that the winner of that election will not have a majority of the votes cast, since a large number of votes will be exhausted. But be on the lookout, because reported results will likely conceal the total number of ballots cast, as they did in the 2010 Oakland mayoral election, giving only the number of "continuing ballots" in the final round.
  • RCV does not "encourage more respectful campaigns": We know this because of experience in California. It does seems that the first couple RCV elections are more respectful, but this is solely because of RCV advocates' claiming this to be true, and uncertain politicians being afraid that they might be right. But after having some experience with the new system, trying some negative ads, and seeing the effect on their polling, the politicians realize they've been tricked, and go back to their old ways.
  • RCV does not eliminate "fear of a wasted vote": This is the most persistent RCV myth, because it appears true at first glance. And it is true... when there are only two significant candidates. Since most elections have only two significant candidates, it can take quite some time for the truth to come out. But we only need to look at Burlington, VT to remind ourselves. It's unclear if we'll see it in Minneapolis this year though. I give it about 1-in-5 odds of occurring.

I do agree with the op-ed authors that this is perhaps the most important test of RCV yet. And I've already made one testable prediction about the outcome of these races: That the mayoral race winner will not win a majority of the votes cast. And now, I'd like to add a second testable prediction, one for which I have even higher confidence: There will be a higher percentage of spoiled ballots for this election than there were in the 2005 election (the last one before the change to RCV). This op-ed didn't repeat the claim, but previous ones had implied (falsely) there was only one spoiled ballot in the 2009 election. The actual rate was over 4.1%, while the 2005 rate was less than 1.1%. I expect similar performance this year.

Those are my claims. If any RCV proponent would like to make a friendly wager of it, you can step up in the comments.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Defined Measures

I give a lot of guff to FairVote and their Executive Director, Rob Richie, because of their stance on instant runoff voting. (They love it. I hate it.) But there's a lot more topics in the sphere of technocratic election reform, and on almost all other issues, we agree vehemently. But I especially want to call out Richie's (and Andrea Levien's) latest in the Huffington Post, on the topic of voter ID laws.

Richie and Levien point out something I hadn't even noticed: That voter ID proponents play fast-and-loose with measures of voter turnout, in order to minimize the apparent problems with it. In short, ID proponents cite measurements of turnout among registered voters as evidence that voter ID isn't problematic, when measurements of turnout among eligible voters tells a very different—and probably more truthful—story.

Read the whole piece, and remember two things. One, that you always need to be precise when defining what you're measuring. And two, that, despite the things we disagree about, election reform advocates still have a lot that we can agree on.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alaska Statute 15.15.360(a)(4)

I moved to Alaska a little over 3 and a half years ago, about a year after I decided to take up Poundstone's challenge and work to enact approval (or maybe even score) voting in my city. Needless to say, changing localities tends to disrupt those kind of local efforts, and I've been hesitant to start, from scratch, again. But it's time I stop making excuses.

Alaska statute, section 15.15.360, part a, line 4. This is my enemy:

"If a voter marks more names than there are persons to be elected to the office, the votes for candidates for that office may not be counted."
These 27 words are the greatest legislative obstacle standing in my way for fairer electoral outcomes. All I would need to do in order to make approval voting the law of the land for elections across my entire state, is to change that line to something like:
"If a voter marks more names than there are persons to be elected to the office, a vote shall be counted for each candidate properly marked."
...which is copied, word-for-word, from the preceding sentence of the statute, about what to do if a voter marks fewer names than there are persons to be elected to the office.

It's such a small change. But it has such profound implications, and will (I'm sure) see so much resistance. Time to get to work.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Typical "Voter Fraud" Example

Today, the 28th of August, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech, which contains this line:

We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
The movement this speech came from and drove onward eventually led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which in large part dealt with ensuring the right of all American citizens—especially minorities, and African Americans in particular—to vote.

Everyone knows this, and today, everyone is celebrating this. And yet, on this very day, the states of Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina are in court trying to defend the removal of these same rights, from these same citizens. The states claim, of course, that undoing half a century of progress isn't the objective of these laws. The laws being challenged in court are instituting requirements for photo identification at the time of voting, and the justification for them is to prevent fraud. So today I'm going to walk you through an example of exactly how accurate these claims of fraud are, from a state that isn't—yet—in court: South Carolina.

We're using South Carolina because advocates for this sort of law made a specific claim, made it very publicly, and it was investigated very extensively. We begin with Department of Motor Vehicles Director Kevin Schwedo, and Attorney General Alan Wilson, who claimed that they had a list of 953 deceased individuals whose names had been used to fraudulently vote in the 2010 election. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) spent nearly 7 months examining the list, and this is what they found:

  • -746: Hadn't voted in the 2010 election. Only by including 74 elections over a 7 year period could that number be reached. SLED wasn't going to go digging that far back, but was happy to investigate the remaining 207.
  • -92: Junior/Senior name recognition errors. In other words, John Smith Sr. had died, and John Smith Jr. had voted, legally.
  • -6: "Clerical errors," where the poll worker had marked the wrong person in the poll book and not fully erased their mistake.
  • -56: "Bad data matches," where the state had the wrong social security record on file for the voter. The owner of the SSN had died, but the vote was legit.
  • -5: Cases where election workers incorrectly marked the wrong person as having voted absentee.
  • -3: Absentee ballots which the state had issued in the wrong name, but the (legal) voter who requested it filled it out anyway.
  • -32: Scanner errors. The machine screwed up.
  • -3: Voters who were alive when they requested their absentee ballot, but died before the day of the election.
  • That left -10 cases that needed further scrutiny:
    1. Jr. voted, father deceased. (Although Jr. hadn't registered to vote.)
    2. Agent exhausted all leads, no further information.
    3. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    4. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    5. Agent exhausted all leads, no further information.
    6. Agent exhausted all leads, no further information.
    7. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    8. Unrelated individual with the same name, who was a registered voter, voted. (Although in the wrong precinct.)
    9. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    10. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.

All told, that's at most 4 fraudulent votes, 5 if you count the guy who went to the wrong precinct, but saw his name in the book and voted anyway. And statistically, the 3 inconclusive cases were probably not fraud either. The only certainly fraudulent vote was the guy who never registered and voted under his dead father's name. (Which I guess they let slide, because SLED didn't file charges against anyone; I'm sure Jr. will either register or stop voting now that he's been investigated and let off with a warning.) That's 1 out of 207, or less than half of a percent, or 1 out of 953 if you use the initially very-well-advertised and very-inflated number, which is hardly more than one tenth of a percent. And this in an election where 1,365,480 votes were cast. Meaning this "huge" example of voter fraud resulted in, literally, less than one fraudulent vote in one million. And this is how it always goes with these cases.

Further more, I would like to point out that many of these claimed cases of fraud were by absentee ballot, which voter ID laws would not be able to prevent. A great many more were cases where the voter would have had photo ID with the correct name, including the one and only certainly fraudulent one, so a voter ID would not have stopped these either. Almost all the rest were errors on the part of the state, which voter ID also can't stop.

But maybe you're thinking "Okay, none of these cases were fraudulent, but there's surely some other cases that were. And even one vote, one fraudulent vote, is worth stopping; we're talking about our democracy after all!" And now we're into cost-benefit analysis. Because voter fraud does—rarely—happen. But if stopping one fraudulent vote is good, not incorrectly preventing thousands of legitimate votes must be even better. The ACLU of Pennsylvania was able to, almost instantly, find 5 voters just in the Philadelphia area who would be unable to meet the state's voter ID requirement, even though they are clearly legitimate voters, and South Carolina has 3 times as many people as Philly. Imagine how many such voters must be in South Carolina, if you look even a little bit harder. If it's just two, then the voter ID law is a net-negative. And it is certainly more than two, and possibly as high as 100,000.

I know that this issue has become a partisan one (although some Republicans have defected from the party line) and it pains me to bring a partisan issue to a blog that I want to be welcoming to all advocates of democracy; left, right, center, and off-axis. But I can't look at the arguments being made by the other side and see anything other than barely-concealed discrimination, because those 100,000 voters who will have difficulty getting an acceptable ID are not evenly distributed across the population, they disproportionately come from minorities, and African Americans in particular. And I will not let that go unmentioned on this golden anniversary day. We should, at all times and in all ways, do everything we can to get as many people as we can to vote. That forms the bedrock of our electoral system; without that, the calls I make for better voting methods are pointless.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Tweet of all Evils, or The Least of all Tweeters?

I'm a huge RSS fan, but with the death of Google Reader last month (I'm using Feedly now, by the way) it's well past time that I actually put this blog through to Twitter (which I guess is how the cool kids do everything these days?) If you've been with us long enough (long enough that you recognize where the user icon came from) you'll remember that we tried this once before. But this time I've set things up (through TwitterFeed) so that new post will automatically be tweeted (one has already gone through, so I guess it's all set up correctly; yay!)

So if that sounds like fun, you can easily catch all the new posts to The Least of All Evils by following @LeastOfAllEvils. I don't expect to be much of an active Twitter conversant through that account though, so if you want the full experience (which is to say, a bunch of stuff about politics, but also stuff about programming, random science, board- and video-games, and life in Anchorage) you can catch me at @Mudlock.