Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Laws Limiting Third-Parties Are an Effect, Not a Cause

Funny story out of Massachusetts. As you're hopefully aware, a special election is soon to be held to fill the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. The party primaries are over, and ballot-access forms have been filed, leaving three contenders. But just the other day, the Boston Globe came out with an opinion piece saying that one of those three should be shut out of the debates.

Obviously, I think that's a travesty of democracy that, after jumping through all the hoops it takes to get on the ballot as a third party, that anyone thinks that not enough was done to keep the rabble out. And most of the candidates agree; two-thirds, to be exact: the third-party candidate and the one who disagrees with everything the third-party candidate stands for.

Aww; how nice of a politician to stand up for the rights of someone who she doesn't even agree with. But allow me to be a bit cynical for just a moment. (Pause for laughter.) She's only doing it because it helps her. The third party candidate leans right, and is therefore more likely to draw away her opponent's otherwise-Republican voters rather than her own otherwise-Democratic voters. And she knows it; I'm fully certain that if the third ballot-qualified candidate were a member of the Green party, she'd be singing the opposite tune, and so would her opponent.

But let's look at this from the other side: spoilers suck. If I'm the Republican in this race, knowing that Massachusetts leans left, I'm going to need all the help I can get. But more importantly, if I really think most of the voters prefer me over the Democrat, then the voters stand to be harmed by the third-party candidate as well. A spoiled election means the wrong candidate gets elected, so how do you prevent that from happening?

It's popular to claim that ballot-access laws, and debate access, and media coverage are all a cause of poor performance by third parties. But it's the opposite that's true: it's the strong performances by third parties that inspire these things. Not strong enough to win the election, but strong enough to spoil it. From a certain point of view, these things exist to protect the voters, because unless a third-party is strong enough to win the election, then their presence is a hindrance to the will of the majority.

Before you start screaming: yes, this logic ignores lots of other very important factors. But from this limited view point, it is an entirely rational responses to the damaging effects of third-party candidacies. And as long as we insist on using voting methods which are known to be prone to spoilers, methods which we know have two-party dominance as the only long-term equilibrium, then these sort of short-sited "solutions" are going to be something that we will constantly be fighting against (or for, depending).

The long-term solution is spoiler-free election methods; something that can fairly tease out the real majority-will in a three-way contest. Plurality doesn't do it. Score and approval voting do.

If you find yourself screaming at ballot-access laws, or yelling about third-party candidates being shut out of debates, or crying over a close election that was spoiled by a third-party, (I'm looking at you, Theresa Amato) place the blame where it belongs: on our foolish voting system. And then, commit yourself to changing it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sympathy for the Whigs

You know, I wish the Modern Whig party all the best. I truly, earnestly, hope they achieve some measure of success. But as I just go through saying, moderate parties and candidates have an even harder time wining elections than the further-afield parties do under our shamefully-poor plurality voting method.

Hey Whigs, you know what would help you a lot? Score voting. Ask me about it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Prisoner's Moderate Voter's Dilemma

If you have any familiarity with game theory—and maybe even if you don't—you've heard of the prisoner's dilemma.

The idea is simple enough: two players each have two options; cooperate or defect. If both cooperate, both do well (gain utility). But if either one defects, they do better (gain more utility), at the others' expense. And if both defect both do very poorly (lose utility). But game theory can also elegantly explains why third-party candidates, and especially moderate third-party candidates, perform so poorly.

Consider the setup: two players, although each "player" is actually a block of voters, those who prefer one of the two major parties, but would be willing to vote for the compromise candidate. Each bloc has two options; vote for their party-line candidate, or vote for the compromise (third-party, moderate) candidate (voting for the opposing party-line candidate isn't really an option.)

If both blocks choose to compromise, the compromise candidate will win, and this will usually result in the greatest net-gain for the electorate (no one gets everything they want, but most people get most of what they want). Eventually, one bloc will notice that the compromise choice isn't polling well enough to win, and neither is their preferred major-party candidate, and so they will drift back towards their party-line favorite; the opposition will then see that the compromise candidate has lost some support, but even worse, their preferred major-party candidate is now no-longer winning either, and so they will also fall back toward their own party-line candidate. As voters abandon the compromise, the balance shifts back and forth, inspiring even more voters to abandon the compromise, and so on. Rapidly, the entire compromise collapses, and one of the two major-party candidates is, once again, elected.

This is what happened to Chris Daggett in the New Jersey gubernatorial race last month, and has happened to thousands of third-party and moderate candidates in the past. Daggett polled as high as 20% just two weeks before the election, but as election day drew closer, voters began to abandon him in droves; on election day itself, he got less than 6% of the vote. If a moderate/third-party candidate isn't leading in the polls—which would only have to be around 33%—this is bound to happen. In fact, Daggett's polling plus undecideds never exceeded that critical one-third benchmark.

When a third-party candidate results in a spoiled election, that's a tragedy; but this, where the fear of a spoiled election drives out the compromise choice, is the true tyranny of the electoral system. Actually, fear isn't the right word: each voter who abandons the compromise doesn't do so out of fear, but because it is the only rational choice they have to maximize their own utility from the election. Each one comes to the rational realization that, while the compromise would be best for everyone overall, it looks like the other guy is going to win, and so they have no choice but to run to the support of their guy.

These elections are, mathematically, precisely identical to the prisoner's dilemma, and the only rational result to the prisoner's dilemma results in everyone losing.

The only solution to avoid this problem is to play a different game. That's what score voting and approval voting do. They change the rules of the game so that the strategic choice which is best for each individual player's utility more often matches the strategic choice that is best for the utility of the population as a whole. No other proposed fix—not anti-gerrymandering laws, not fairer ballot-access laws, not instant runoff voting—changes the game. Change the game. Vote with score voting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Majority of a Majority is a Minority

Consider an election in a swing district; one that is very nearly evenly split between voters who generally prefer Democrats over Republican and voters who generally prefer Republicans over Democrats. Consider also that, in nearly all districts, voters can vote in a primary election, but in only one of the two primaries. Unless the primaries are complete blowouts, the winner of the election can not possibly be the favorite of a majority of voters. Rather, they will be the favorite of a majority of the majority, which could be as little as 25%+1 of the voters—or less if there are more than two candidates in the primary!

Score voting is occasionally attacked because it fails the "majority criterion", which states that, if a candidate is the first-choice of a majority of the voters, that candidate should win the election. I'll provide a simple example: three candidates, A, B, and C. Three voters, two of which vote A=9, B=5, C=0, and one who votes A=0, B=9, C=9. A majority of the voters (two out of three) prefer A over B, but B wins the election, with an average score of 6.33 versus A's score of 6.00. Score voting fails the majority criteria. (This might not be a bad thing, but that's a post for another day...)

But consider this in context of the first paragraph's example: plurality elections are known to fail spectacularly when there are more than two strong candidates, which is why the system of party primaries developed. But this has the side effect of squeezing the middle out of the pool of candidates. While it's true that many primary voters will take into consideration a candidate's chances of winning the general election, the voters are still by and large trying to choose a candidate who is preferable only to the majority of the party members; then, the hope is that the party members will be a majority of the electorate. However, we must remember that this candidate was the first-preference of only a majority of a majority. And since that's the case, is it even meaningful to say that plurality elections (preceded by primaries) choose a "majority winner"?

If you were to put all the candidates from both parties' primaries up at once, how often would more than half of all the voters indicate a single one of those candidates as their favorite? Not very often! Surely, if there were such a candidate, they would win any subsequent plurality election, but when we say that plurality elects a "majority winner", we are usually not talking about such a candidate, even if the system we use obscures this fact from us.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I have two mostly-written posts waiting in the wings, but they have to take a back-burner to this.

I love the webcomic xkcd, and considering the topic of this blog, today's comic is very special to me. But then I read the hover text: "I favor approval voting or IRV chiefly because they mean we might get to bring back The Bull Moose party."

Okay; approval voting I'm in favor of. It's a minimalist form of score voting (score where the only allowed scores are 0 and 1), which is good, and since score voting is free of both candidate cloning and favorite betrayal, it could actually allow third parties, like The Bull Moose party, to have a real chance at victory.

But IRV is not good. IRV is strongly susceptible to favorite betrayal, and so is only a marginal improvement over plurality, in that all those third parties, like The Bull Moose party, will still be spoilers (yes, IRV has spoilers) before they become winners. (And that marginal improvement is before you start to account for the significant increase in complexity while counting the election, the potential cost of new machines, and non-intuitive results stemming from non-monotonicity issues.)

But, I have hope: xkcd's author and fans tend to be rather logical (you have to be in order to get all the jokes!) Hopefully this proof will convince them. And if not, this image might.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


As you may know, the White House has its own Flickr stream. But take a look at the text bellow the images:

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
(Emphasis added.) As detailed in an article on Techdirt, these images, as government works, must be (and are explicitly indicated as) public domain, and you can't put restrictions such as these on items in the public domain.

So, in the name of civil disobedience, I bring you: Lolotics.

EDIT: You are welcome to join me in the virtual sit-in; pick any picture out of the White House photo stream, and manipulate away. Post links to your work in the comments. Do take note however that this is in direct violation of the legal terms presented by the White House; any who choose to do so must be aware of the potential for legal action against them, and take full responsibility for any of their own actions

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Now On Twitter

You can now follow The Least of All Evils on twitter, at the very-clever name LeastOfAllEvils.

CRV On the Biggest Elections of 2009

The Center for Range Voting is putting out a press release of sorts, covering the big elections of 2009: NJ Governor, NY-23, and the Afghan presidential election.

The take away: while IRV would have fixed some of the problems in NJ, score voting would have fixed all of the problems in NJ and in NY and been significant help in Afghanistan. (The release also recommends asset voting for Afghanistan.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Life Imitating Art: New York Edition

My last post centered around a set of example elections that serve to highlight the short-comings of instant runoff voting (IRV). Going into this Tuesday's election, we have two highly-publicized real-world elections that also perfectly highlight how IRV fails: the New Jersey governor race and special election for the US House seat for New York's 23rd district. Here, I will cover the New York race.

A lot is being made of what would, under any other circumstances, be a very minor race in upstate New York. What was expected to be a rather uninteresting race between moderate Democrat Bill Owens and equally-moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, has been grabbing headline after headline since Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman arrived on the scene.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a prediction, which I'll explain below: it will be close, but Hoffman will win. But that's not all: by a thin margin, he deserves to win.

First things first: Scozzafava's stepping out changes absolutely nothing. She was in third place under plurality, and even though she's a Republican, her and Hoffman were not about to split the (small-c) conservative vote. Hoffman's support, as 538 points out, was coming from voters who otherwise would be staying home. And even now that Sozzafava is out, her voters (at least the ones who won't now be staying home) will very nearly evenly divide between Hoffman and Owens. Which leaves Hoffman with a small, but noticeable, advantage. Were this election to be run under IRV, Scozzafava would be the first eliminated, and the results of the election would be exactly the same. IRVs results would mirror pluralities results (as is often the case.) But I'm okay with all of this because, in this case, they both agree with score voting.

I'm basing these numbers on the latest Daily Kos poll of the race (which if it can be accused of any bias, would be Democratic leaning, but meta-analysis has found them to be surprisingly honest and accurate.) To determine the score voting results of the election, I looked at the favorability scores, just like I did for the New Jersey governor race: "very favorable" = 4, "somewhat favorable" = 3; "somewhat unfavorable" = 1, and "very unfavorable" = 0. Since this poll doesn't separate "no opinion" from "haven't heard of candidate", I ran two separate sets of data; one where I treat all the "no opinion" scores as a 2, and one where I treat them all as an "X". Each candidate's real score will then be somewhere between these two values. Here's the data:

CandidateVery FavorableSomewhat FavorableSomewhat UnfavorableVery UnfavorableNo Opinion

Scozzafava ends up with a losing score no matter which way we count the "no opinion" column, somewhere between 1.8 and 1.7. Owens does much better, with somewhere between 2.1 and 2.2. But by a thin sliver, Hoffman takes the crown, with a low score of 2.2 and a high of 2.3. The only way Owens would win (modulo the margin of error of the poll) in a score voting adjudicated election would be if all the voters with no opinion of him voted that way because they had never heard of him and all the voters with no opinion of Hoffman voted that way because they knew him, but had a neutral opinion of him; if anything, the opposite if probably closer to the truth. Eyeballing the effect that margins of error could have on the result (which is a lot, since it's so close), I give Hoffman the advantage, 60:40, over Owens.

A lot will be made of the results of this highly-scrutinized election. But no matter how you slice the data, this is a painfully close election between the two remaining contenders. And the reason, to go back to 538's analysis, is because Hoffman has managed to excite a group of voters who otherwise wouldn't be voting.

Interestingly, the minutia of this poll doesn't fit the stereotype that most news outlets are trying to put on it: it's not a left vs. right vs. hard-right election. This is a ever-so-slightly-left vs. ever-so-slightly-right vs. I-hate-left-and-right election. Hoffman, and the voters in upstate New York, are refusing to fit the narrative. Hoffman will win (probably), but when he does, don't believe the spin you'll hear from Fox news about it: among the likely voters in NY-23, the same ones who are about to elect Hoffman to congress, Obama still has a net-positive favorability (he gets a score of 2.1.)


Since posting this, Scozzafava, the Republican who suspended her campaign on Saturday, has endorsed Owens, the Democrat. Also, several new polls have come out showing Hoffman's lead has skyrocketed. So my 60:40 odds are... kinda laughable now. Looks like it'll be Hoffman in a landslide.

Life Imitating Art: New Jersey Edition

My last post centered around a set of example elections that serve to highlight the short-comings of instant runoff voting (IRV). Going into this Tuesday's election, we have two highly-publicized real-world elections that also perfectly highlight how IRV fails: the New Jersey governor race and special election for the US House seat for New York's 23rd district. Here, I will cover the New Jersey race

In New Jersey, Democrat John Corzine and Republican Chris Christie are very nearly tied, while Independent Chris Daggett has faded into the background after reaching a peak of about 14% in earlier polls. On the 5th of October, a piece was printed in the Times of Trenton claiming that IRV is the panacea for this problem, an article which was recently quoted on and supported by Independent Political Report, a pro-third-party website. But IRV would not be a good choice for the independent candidate in this election, and would elect the same winner as plurality would. Let's walk through the logic.

First, the data. Political Wire points us to the latest FDU Public Mind Poll. One of the questions they asked was whether the voter would vote for Corzine (D) or Christie (R); the answers fell for Corzine, 44% to 43%; but while 4% were undecided, 6% named Daggett, even unprompted. They also asked the question naming all three possibilities; at that point, Daggett's support climbs to 14%, but then Christie takes the lead, 41% to 39%.

What does this tell us? Daggett's support is significant, and comes about 2:1 from otherwise-Democratic voters. But even if we were to double his vote share to 28%, while pulling in at the same 2:1 proportion, the election would go 29% for Corzine with only 28% for Daggett (with 36% going to Christie, giving him a clear win.) With double support, Daggett still comes in third! And since IRV decides who to eliminate based on first-place support, there is no way that Daggett can avoid being the first of these three to be eliminated if this election were held under IRV. We do see, however, that once he is eliminated, his supporters second-choice votes could change the outcome from Christie to Corzine. In other words, IRV isn't pro-third-party; in this election, it's pro-Democrat.

Digging deeper into the FDU poll, we find a different set of questions, which might shed some more light on what's happening here. Instead of posing the election as an either/or choice, they ask whether the voter views the candidate favorably or unfavorably, and whether that view is somewhat strong or very strong. The results are illuminating. I'll leave the names out (as well as the percentages for "no opinion" and "haven't heard of the candidate"); with just this information, which candidate do you think voters would most want to win?

Secret NameVery FavorableSomewhat FavorableSomewhat UnfavorableVery Unfavorable
Mystery Candidate A15%24%17%37%
Mystery Candidate B17%24%20%24%
Mystery Candidate C6%22%15%8%

Looking at just these numbers, who hard to tell which candidate "deserves" to win. B has the most "very favorable" ratings, and A has the most "very unfavorable"; but B has more "somewhat unfavorable". Meanwhile C has the fewest "somewhat unfavorable" and by a large margin the fewest "very unfavorable", but also the fewest "very favorable". Really, the choice is between two options that much of the electorate will absolutely despise and a few will cheer, and one choice that won't ruffle any feathers but will only have a few ecstatic celebrations. Is it more important to make a few people very happy at other's expense, or is it better to shy away from the extremes to have an overall slightly-satisfied balance? To give in to extremes, or to reach an equitable compromise?

I think the answer is to compromise. I think the preferences of the voters of New Jersey would be most closely matched by electing Candidate C; and that candidate (if you haven't already figured it out), is Daggett. But under plurality, as well as under IRV, voters are pushed away from the real compromise.

There are several ways to take the FPU data and interpret it as a score voting election. I chose to take "very unfavorable" = 0, "somewhat unfavorable" = 1, "no opinion" = 2, "somewhat favorable" = 3, "very favorable" = 4 (and "haven't heard of" = X; see's front page.) These values give final scores of Corzine = 1.6, Christie = 1.9, and Daggett = 2.0. Now, you may or may not agree that that's a fair rubric for scoring (if you have suggestions, please share in the comments), but to me it doesn't seem like a score that could even be coming from the same electorate that intends to vote 44% for Corzine, 43% for Christie, and 6% for Daggett. It seems to me like a large number of Daggett supporters are going to begrudgingly vote for Corzine, even though they don't like him. Those people will be wide-open to the false promises of IRV, when what they really need is score voting.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How To Decide: Where to Go For Dinner

Let me propose a situation to you: you, and eight friends of yours, all live on the same street in some city or large town. As a crazy random happenstance, you are all precisely equally distant from your nearest neighbors: two blocks away. The nine of you decide that you're going to go out for a big dinner somewhere along your street, and there are two more-or-less identically good options: you could go to ApricotBug's, over on the west end of town, or you could go to Beryl Thursday's, closer to the east end.

How do you decide? Well, let's suppose you decide to put it to a vote, since that seems most democratic. Let's further suppose that, since the restaurants are more-or-less identical, everyone simply votes for the one closest to their house. Three of you live west of ApricotBug's, four of you live east of Beryl Thursday's, and two of you live in between. Let's vote!

You can easily see that everyone west of ApricotBug's votes for it, everyone east of Beryl Thursday's votes for it, and the two in between split their votes one and one. Beryl Thursday's wins, 5 to 4.

Notice that, even though each of you used a selfish algorithm (or to put a positive spin on it, an honest, true-to-yourself algorithm) to decide how to vote (the option that minimizes your own travel time), that as a group you also voted for the globally-minimum amount of travel; it would take a total of 45 blocks traveled for everyone to get to ApricotBug's, but only 41 blocks for everyone to get to Beryl Thursday's.

Continuing with the story: You have so much fun, you decide to do it again next month. However, a new restaurant has opened down the street, CBIM (Can't Believe It's (Already) Monday).

How does CBIM change the voting?

If we used the well-known method of plurality voting, we can see that the vote for ApricotBug's stays at 4, but the 5 votes that originally all went to Beryl Thursday's are now split 3 for it and 2 for CGIM. Which means that, now, ApricotBug's wins.

This is no longer the globally-optimal solution, and if you think about it, it's really kind of stupid that adding more options, particularly an obviously bad choice like CBIM, would ruin the vote like this.

What to Do, What to Do...

After much existential gnashing of teeth, you decide to use "instant runoff voting" (because one of you heard about it on the internet and, at first glance, it sounds pretty good!) With IRV, you can pick additional options beyond just your first choice, and if your first choice doesn't win, your vote will be moved over to the next in line.

Everyone west of ApricotBug's and your friend who lives right next to it will vote A > B > C. Also, the two friends closest to CBIM will vote C > B > A. For the three in the middle, two vote B > A > C and one votes B > C > A. (Count the distances yourself if this isn't clear to you.) So which restaurant wins now? IRV tells us to eliminate the option with the fewest first-place votes. That's CBIM. We then move those votes to the voter's second choice, which in this case is Beryl Thursday's for both voters.

Those two votes puts Beryl Thursday's back over the top, which is good, since we know that it's the globally-optimal solution, with respect to total distance traveled. So it sure seems like IRV has improved things for us. (If you're curious, CBIM would have taken 81 blocks; almost twice as bad as ApricotBug's!)

Next month rolls by, and gosh darnit, you've all gotten really attached to this big night out, so you're going to do it again! One minor change though: CBIM had a little problem at their original location (it was too popular, so it wasn't large enough) and so the owner relocated four blocks over (a total distance of 53 blocks for everyone to reach.)

No problem; we'll let IRV handle this! It's still 4 for A > B > C, and 1 for B > C > A, but now we're up to 3 for C > B > A and down to 1 for B > A > C. That's 4 first-place votes for A, 3 for C, and two for B. Uh oh...

Now we're back to the exact same problem we had before under plurality. None of you or your friends have moved. ApricotBug's and Beryl Thursday's haven't moved. The only thing that changed is a that a third fringe option has moved to a slightly-more-acceptable position. The mere presence of CBIM spoiled the vote under plurality, and now its mere presence has spoiled the election in the exact same way under IRV.

Perhaps you're thinking to yourself that, no, some of the CBIM fans will see what's going to happen, and they'll instead vote for Beryl Thursday's first. But they could have just as easily done that under plurality voting; why would IRV be different? And even if it is, for some unexplained reason, different, why should they have to choose among the lesser of two evils, between ApricotBug's and Beryl Thursday's, when in their heart-of-hearts, they want CBIM? Wasn't IRV supposed to fix that problem?

IRV Isn't a Good Idea

If you think IRV is a good idea because it will allow third parties to win elections, you are wrong; it will be just like under plurality. If you think IRV is a good idea because it fixes the spoiler problem, you are wrong; it will be just like under plurality.

In the real-world, we don't have access to simple metrics like "fewest total blocks traveled" to guide us in choosing our political leaders; we only have everyone's biased, greedy, short-sighted, and misinformed opinions. I believe that, deep down, we all want what's best for everyone, but that, obviously, opinions differ on what that is. If IRV can't properly decide which of three kitsch restaurants to hang out at in a simple, one-dimensional scenario like this, I guarantee that it won't do any better in the real world.

Coming Soon!

Next up, I'll have a dinner-vote using score voting, and then maybe we'll try a two-dimensional example, which will show the problems with Condorcet methods.

Friday, October 23, 2009

How Score Voting Could Save the Healthcare Bill

Sure, score voting is great for elections; but it's also good for any decision you need to make among more than two options. Right now, for example, some folks are worrying about nightmare scenarios where the major healthcare bill being discussed gets stuck in Senate limbo, because not enough senators would vote for the bill as it is (or rather, will be), but also, not enough senators would vote to change it toward the compromise that might allow the bill to proceed. (It's a similar problem to that of a legislative "poison pill" amendment.)

The problem is, the healthcare bill is big; it has lots of different parts, some of which are more popular than others, and all of which are supported by different groups of senators, and any one of them can be strengthened or weakened or changed entirely. So the overall choice the senate has to make isn't "yes or no," it's which set of pieces to use, and there are lot of different possible combinations. A lot more than two, at least.

It would (or at least, could) work like this: instead of a series of "yes or no" votes on changes to the bill followed by a "yes or no" vote on the final bill, a whole series of different bills could be considered at once (including a "none of the above" option), and each senator could give each of those bills a score in some range; the bill with the highest average score is the one that's passed (or if "none of the above" wins, no bill is passed.)

You might say "That's way too complicated!" but consider the alternative (i.e., consider what we do now): months of committee work to craft a bill that might have a chance on the floor, months more to reconcile the bills from different committees toward that same end, and weeks of debate on the floor, including dodging "poison-pill" amendments. So is it really more complicated? Just like in elections, is score voting really more complicated than dealing with our current ballot-access laws, party primaries, party conventions, and runoff elections? I think not.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Term Limits

I've suggested before how score- and approval-voting could make primaries unnecessary, but after reading about this poll, it occurred to me that they could also make term limits unnecessary (or at least redundant).

It's well-known that incumbency is a huge advantage; name recognition is a big part of that (better the devil you know...), and being in office is the best way to build recognition. But the next-best way is to be in the news for months leading up to an election. But because of spoilers and vote-splitting, no party can risk running two candidates in the same election, and when the incumbent is a member of your party, of course you're going to run them. So if you don't like the incumbent, but do like the stance of their party (or at least, hate them less than the other guy), you've got little choice, because the party isn't going to risk the election by ditching their incumbency advantage (which I'm sure is precisely the thoughts going through people's heads when they're voting in the primary.)

But with score and approval, a party could run multiple candidates, the incumbent and an up-and-comer; giving voters the choice to stay within their party but still vote for change, instead of being stuck settling for "more of the same, but at least not a change for the worse".

Spoiler-free election methods allow for smoother incremental change, by weakening frictions like incumbency and "lesser of two evils" decision making. Its ability to make primaries redundant has occurred to many, but it will also lessen the need for legal patches like term limits. It's just like how the common comeback to anti-duopoly arguments, "If you don't like them, just vote for a third party!", won't actually work because of systemic problems in the voting system. Similarly, the common comeback to term-limit arguments, "If you don't want them to serve another term, vote for someone else!", also doesn't actually work. It's the same friction, the same systemic problem; and the solution is the same: score voting.

ASIDE: I've been super-busy this last month. Hopefully, this post marks a return to more-regular blogging on my part. I owe a guest post out there, too... I haven't forgotten about you!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part V

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

What It Is, Ain't Exactly Clear

As I've been hinting at since part one, there's still some debate over how many party systems we've gone through. Historians pretty much agree on when the first four ended (all the times we've already covered), but by some accounts the fifth is either still on going, while others say it ended in the late 1960s. The argument against is that there wasn't a significant, rapid shift in the composition of congress, which had marked every other transition. The argument in favor is that there was; it wasn't a large net change nationally, but it was, regionally, almost a complete reversal.

Since their inception on the cusp of third party system, the Republican party had enjoyed its greatest support in the north, and overwhelming support from African-Americans; conversely, the Democratic party had been able to rely on the "solid south" for many years. But there had been signs that this certainty wasn't quite so certain after all, going back as early as 1948, when Harry Truman backed the civl rights platform of northern Democratic leaders. This prompted several dozen southerners to walk out of the convention, whereupon they founded the Dixiecrat party, and nominated Strom Thurmond for president. Truman won the election narrowly over Thomas Dewey, while Thurmond took four southern states.

During Truman's administration, he found his policy objectives blocked by the so-called Conservative Coalition, consisting of a majority of Republicans and a large minority of the conservative southern Democrats who had favored Thurmond. In 1960, during the nail-bitingly close election between civil-rights supporter and Democrat John F. Kennedy, and Republican candidate Richard Nixon (who distanced himself entirely from the issue) fifteen electors in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, refusing to vote for either of the major candidates, voted for Harry Byrd, who had not at any point announced himself as a candidate, but who was a strong segregationist and conservative Democrat.

But 1964, perhaps, was the true turning point. Lyndon Johnson, who had assumed the presidency upon Kennedy's assassination, was all-but assured the party nomination. Still, he had to weather surprisingly strong primary challenges from segregationist Democrat George Wallace, and narrowly avoided a messy convention fight over civil rights brought on by competing Mississippi delegations. Meanwhile, for the Republicans, Nixon had been a strong bridge between the moderate wing of the party, which was predominantly based in the north and led by Nelson Rockafeller, and the conservative wing, which was led by Barry Goldwater and quickly growing—and incidentally picking up segregationist former Democrats—in the south. But Nixon refused to run, and in a highly fractured vote, Goldwater took the nomination. On July 2nd, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, allegedly saying "We have lost the south for a generation." But in exchange, the Democrats gained the votes of most African-Americans and turned many northern Republicans into swing voters.

A month and a half after the bill's signing, on September 16th, Strom Thurmond switched parties; other segregationist Democrats followed. Goldwater lost the election terribly, but more importantly, compare the 1956 electoral map and the 1964 electoral map: in just eight years, just two presidential election cycles, had almost completely reversed the map. Even though congress didn't show any great change in party split, the regions from which they drew their greatest support had changed completely. I would count that as being as significant, if not more significant, than when the debate over silver brought about the the fourth party system.

So what does this mean for today's third parties? Unfortunately, not much. At least, not much that's helpful. Wallace would make a third-party run in 1968, running on a pro-segregation platform and taking the old south, but a resurgent Nixon would win that election. As in the transition to the fourth and fifth party systems, the two existing parties had managed to hold on, lithely jumping on new issues when necessary and adroitly absorbing and swapping large swaths of various voter demographics as they became disillusioned with the alternative. The two have exchanged the white house and control of the chambers of congress with increasing regularity since, while third parties continue to fail to find a foothold. But the strange bedfellows that make up each of the parties are perhaps a chink in the armor; one that may lead us to a seventh party system! A possibility that we will discuss in the next installment.

Finally: The Future!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part IV

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

One Roosevelt, Red Roosevelt

Before we get to the next big switch, at little aside about a failed attempt to shift the two-party system: Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressive party. Having ascended to the presidency due to William McKinley's assassination, and then having won the 1904 election, he felt the honorable thing to do (and TR considered himself to be a paragon of honor) was to count that as his two terms and, as was tradition (but not, at the time, law), follow in Washington's footsteps by not seeking a third term. William Howard Taft took the nomination, and was easily elected.

But then the trouble started. Roosevelt found Taft to be unacceptable in office, and pressed for the party nomination in 1912. But he was rebuked by Taft's supporters; humiliated and unwilling to compromise, Roosevelt and his supporters walked out, and formed their own party, the Progressive or Bull Moose party. The new party seemed to survive solely by Roosevelt's force of personality, and had little if any appeal for staunch Democrats, and none for any Taft-supporting Republicans. At this point, Republicans were enjoying a rather solid and comfortable 55/45 or better advantage in Presidential elections; but the Progressives split the party almost completely down the middle. The final popular vote totals were 27.4% for Roosevelt and 23.2% for Taft; a total of more than 50%, but individually, both lost to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson's 41.8%, and by an absolute landslide in the electoral college: 88 for Roosevelt, to 8 for Taft, to 435 for Wilson.

Roosevelt apparently learned his lesson though; in 1916, when the Progressive party nominated him again, he declined, and endorsed the Republican candidate; Wilson won reelection, but only narrowly. But Roosevelt's contrition placated his party well enough that he was the front runner for the 1920 nomination; cut short only by a quick but fatal illness.

The lesson from this aside should be obvious: if all you do is split your party, you'll both lose. Neither the Republicans nor the Progressives got any appreciable support from Democratic voters. To succeed, a third party needs to divide, and then build from the pieces, a coalition from both (or as we saw in part I, the only) existing major parties. And it's not enough to build "in the middle", as Roosevelt tried; you have to be completely outside the axis of partisan identification.

Two Roosevelt, Blue Roosevelt

On to today's transition, from the fourth party system to the fifth. Economic recessions had helped usher in the previous realignment, by instigating the Populist party and the silver faction of the Democrats. And economics would play in a big way for this one as well. Yes, we're talking about the Great Depression. But there's not a whole lot to say. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Herbert Hoover insisted that he and the Republicans had it under control; but three years later, not many believed him. Instead, the put their trust in Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Teddy's 5th cousin.)

So, there's that option: hope that unbelievable economic devastation will be wrought upon the nation, and that you'll be there to pick up the pieces. Not a particularly uplifting or proactive strategy (at least I hope no one would try to cause such a thing), but one that we've seen can work.

It's also important to note that this shift didn't involve the rise of any new party (not even an analog to the aborted Populist party), only a drastic shift in support from one major party (which had dominated national politics for decades) to the other. Third parties did enjoy a startling increase in support after the crash, but not enough to even act as spoilers. Was it because of the homogenizing effect of modern communications, making what would have been strong regional third-party movements into a more diffuse national movement? Was it FDR himself, something about him that drew would-be third-party supporters to the Democrats? Or perhaps we had simply become more savvy about the inevitability of a two-party system under our spoiler-prone voting system?

Whatever it was, like the voters Bryan had brought (and driven from) the Democrats at the turn of the century, the voters FDR brought also stuck around; the New Deal Coalition, were reliable not just for FDR, but for Democrats in many elections to follow, up until the late 1960s; which may (or may not have, depending which historians you ask) have represented another realignment of the party system. But we'll discuss that next time.

Part V...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part III

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

One is Silver and the Other's Gold

Compared to the dramatic backdrop of civil war that carried America from the second party system to the third, the transistion from the third to the fourth seems mundane and almost alien (except maybe to some Libertarians); but the effect it had on US politics is no less imporant. It was about coinage; specifically, about moving the US from a currency based around gold as a standard, to one using silver. As with the concerns of slavery in the previous transistion, both major parties were internally split on the issue. But in the 1890s, mid-western silver miners (mostly Republicans), as well farmers who saw inflation as a way out of recession-caused debts (mostly Democrats), finding no outlet for their political aims, began building a coalition, which quickly grew into the Populist party. In 1892, the Populist nominated James Weaver for president... and promply spoiled the election for the Republicans, allowing Grover Cleveland's unprecedented (and unrepeated) non-consecutive presidential terms. (In addition to the 22 electoral votes Weaver won outright, he may have tipped the balance in states worth an additional 69 of the 444 available electoral votes.)

But the story doesn't end there. In 1896, pro-silver Democrats seized control of the party, denounced Cleveland, and successfully nominated William Jennings Bryan, who delived his famous "Cross of Gold" speach; the Populist party jumped on the opportunity and nominated him for their candidate as well. But what was more surprising was that the Silver Republican party, who had split from the Republicans over the silver issue, also supported Bryan. Meanwhile the gold faction of the Democrats, dejected over the result of the convention, nominated their own candidate, although he received practically no votes; instead, many gold Democrats voted for Republican candidate William McKinley. The end result was that many Republicans ended up voting for the Democratic ticket, and many Democrats voted for the Republican ticket, all over currency.

Bryan and his silverites lost, and even the silver issue itself fell by the wayside as economic prosperity returned. But the new coalitions formed in the leadup to the election lingered on, and solidified the supports of both parties. This would lead to decades of almost completely uninterrupted Republican rule.

So we see the same strategy repeated from before: Pick an issue ignored by the major parties, and run on it. The important lesson here is, it doesn't always work, at least not necessarily like you planned. Even though a major party picked up the issue, they lost the election, and the movement died out. Slavery had been an important issue in America since before the Constitution was written; maybe the gold standard just isn't something that captures the hearts and minds of voters, or maybe Bryan only picked up the silver issue to gain votes? Either way, pick your issue, and your allies, carefully.

Part IV...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part II

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

Choosing Not To Choose

When we left off, the Democratic and Whig parties were the components of the second party system. The two were nearly-equally popular in all parts of the country; north, south, and the newly-forming west. And so, both had to take care not to take sides in any regional conflicts, as that could cost them an election. Only one problem: the most important issue in the country, the focus of every debate and every headline, pitted north against south. Slavery. Neither party would take a stance on the issue. Democrats in the north were opposed, by needed the assistance of the slavery-dependent farm-owning Democrats in the south to win elections, and the story was similar for the Whigs. Everyone in America had a strong view on the issue, but with the axis of party alignment completely skew to it, it seemed a resolution on the issue would be impossible. The Whigs cracked first. Arguments over their party nomination in 1852 (and their subsequent loss in the election) shattered the party. Early in 1854, former Whigs began meeting as newly-minted Republican, Know-Nothing, and other party members.

In 1856, it was the Democrats chance for a nomination fight, settling on northerner-with-southern-sympathies, James Buchanan. That sympathy (and a southern running mate) was enough to defeat the clearly north-favoring Republican (as well as the border state Know-Nothing) candidate. As president, Buchanan's refusal to act or even speak out decisively about the rising calls for secession turned the whole nation against him, and in 1860, the Democratic party broke in half over the nomination of his replacement. The southern faction walked out, held their own convention, and nominated Buchanan's vice-president, John Breckinridge. The northern faction proceeded alone, and nominated Stephen Douglas, although many members left to join with the Republican party instead. A few border and western states, desperate to avoid war, combined the Know-Nothings with the few remaining (and still unaligned) former Whigs to create the short-lived Constitutional Union party, and nominated John Bell. The Republicans settled on a former Whig congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

The election was brutally close. Republican's didn't even bother to get on the ballot in 9 southern states. In three of the states Lincoln won—California, New York, and Oregon—he received less than half of the popular vote; in California, he received less than one third. Had he lost New York—where his margin of victory was less than seven and a half percent—then no candidate would have had the required electoral vote majority and the election would have been decided in the House. All told, Lincoln received a smaller percentage of the popular vote—39.8%—than Walter Mondale did in his 1980 landslide loss to Ronald Reagan.

Before Lincoln could even be sworn in, the Civil War had begun. When it was over, the Republican and Democratic parties would be the two to emerge from the ashes, nominally the same two parties we have today; although a lot has changed between then and now.

So, what do we learn from this? Another way to disrupt the two-party system is to find an issue both major parties are split over, so strongly that you can cause nomination fights in both in rapid succession. Then, while the parties fracture you can promote one of the pieces as your new third party, building it on a coalition from both parties that support your issue. Abusing the weaknesses of plurality election with more than two strong candidates, as well as the specifics of electoral rules, you can game the system just enough to slip your unpopular candidate in to office. But watch out for war. This is painful lesson on the inevitable, almost predictably periodic failures of a two-party system. The important issues were ignored in order to secure electoral victories, and they were ignored because they fell outside the domain that served to originally define the existing major parties. A new party was necessary in order to address the issue, but the two-party system held back its emergence, until it burst forth, violently.

On to Part III!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part I

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

Back in June, Bill Maher was railing about the lack of options in the voting both, hyperbolically pointing out that "We don't need a third party, we need a first party." (Exaggeration aside, what he meant was we desperately need third parties.) He then went on to describe his ideal platform and driving principles for such a third party. Oh, if only such a thing as he desired existed! The thing is, what he described does exist. But Maher's complaint echoes often. Everyone seems to be asking, "Why doesn't someone start a third party that matches my goals?" And the answer, when one if given, is often the same: "Someone has."

For instance, most people—even those clamoring for "a new third party"—don't even realize how many candidates there were for president in 2008. Sure, everyone knows about Obama and McCain. But there were four other candidates who were on the ballot in enough states that they could potentially get the necessary 270 electoral votes to win. There were eight more who were on the ballot in at least one state. And there are dozens more parties in the country that didn't nominate a presidential candidate last election, but have recently nominated candidates for other offices. The problem, therefore, is not simply a lack of choices.

Bill Maher knows the Green party exists. But he also knows that they don't matter. It's a two-party system, and when people are railing how "someone" should just make a new party, what they really are crying out for is a change in the two-party system. The way I see it, there are two ways to meet that goal: the one I advocate for is a spoiler-free election method, which I believe would, by avoiding Duverger's Law, cause and end to a two-party dominated system. The other? History.

A Brief History of Political Parties in the United States

To know where you're going, first you have to know where you've been. Since the 1960s, political history in the US has been examined through a framework called the "party system", numbering periods of stability, separated by short spans of realignment. In other words, the times when the two parties at the forefront of American politics changed. There have been at least five such stable periods. There is debate to whether we are still in the fifth or are now in the sixth; or perhaps we are in an unstable realignment period, in which case the lessons to be learned are all-the-more valuable. (The following are chock-full of Wikipedia links, and I encourage you to read up on aspect which you find particularly interesting.)

First Cabinet Fight through Nomination Failure

The first party system, which solidified early in George Washington's first term from disagreements between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, ended when, after twelve years of one party rule (Hamilton's Federalist party having become irrelevant after the War of 1812), the Democratic-Republican party split over a failure to settle on a single nominee for president in 1824, and so four candidates split the electoral vote. One faction, backing Andrew Jackson (who had led the popular vote and the electoral vote, but lost the election (if you thought Democrats were pissy about Al Gore, you ain't seen nothin')), became the Democratic party (from which the modern Democratic party draws its lineage). The other faction, backing John Quincy Adams and made up of many former members of the Federalist party and some long-time D-R members who opposed Jackson for their own reasons, became the National Republican Party (no relation to the modern party), which shortly reorganized as the Whig party.

So that's one way to shift the two-party system that's been shown to work; take an existing major party in wide-spread popular decline, resign to 12 years of defeat, during which you infiltrate the opposition, then use parliamentary shenanigans to exacerbate "intra"-party resentment, and be re-born with a slightly new direction. This also perfectly highlights one of the big drivers of the two-party systems: when there are more than two strong candidates, vote-splitting leads to unexpected (and unpopular) results.

More to Come in Part II!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

When You Poll, What Do You Poll About?

There's an interesting fact I've noticed about polling, especially at this point in time, when primaries for important state-wide offices are going by in some states (Virginia and New Jersey, for example), while in others, hats are being tossed into the ring well in advance of any primaries for next year's elections. And what I noticed is this: there are two separate classes of questions, and their proportions change as the primary passes.

The first class is the one people are probably most familiar with, and it completely dominates the post-primary polls. It follows the basic form of "If the election were held today, would you vote for A or for B?" Which is a fine question to ask, once the field has been narrowed such that there are only two candidates with any chance of winning (everyone knows, of course, that third parties can't win.) But there is a second question that, while it doesn't completely push the first out of the spotlight, gets at least equal billing before the primary has passed, when there are still more than two candidates who "have a chance", and it follows the form "Do you view candidate A favorably or disfavorably?"

The reason why is pretty clear: if there are 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans vying for the nominations of their respective parties, you would need to ask 3×3=9 questions to cover all the head-to-head match ups—and that wouldn't necessarily give you a clear impression of the likely outcome—but with the favorability question, you would only have to ask 3+3=6 questions to get, basically, the whole story (and there are proportionally even fewer questions the more candidates are added to each side). And it is basically the whole story: usually, the candidate with the highest favorability wins their party's nomination, and the candidate with the overall highest favorability wins the election.

There's only a few problems: First, a lot can happen in the time between the primary and the election, so who knows what may have happened if all the losers in the primary had just had more time to prove their case to the voters. Secondly, and more importantly, there's no place in this system for any third parties; there's no place to get in at all, actually, without going through one of the two major parties.

And that makes sense to: after all, we have to remember why the parties exist, which is to avoid the perils of vote-splitting by ensuring there's only a one-versus-one choice for any election. Sure, a few crazy folks floated the idea that the Democrats should have kept both Obama and Clinton in to election day, but you'd have to be insane (or angling for a Republican win) to think that would be a good idea: your unified-opposition would be almost guaranteed to win each state's plurality election, and both Democrats would lose. The only logical thing for all leftward-leaning voters is to pool their resources behind a single name; and the same is true for the right.

But what if vote-splitting weren't a concern, and you could rate each candidate, out of a field of three, four, or more, in a way that was completely independent of your rating for every other candidate, and the winner was simply the highest-rated candidate? Essentially, what if favorability polls were how the election was decided? Primaries would still be informative, but they would no longer be restrictive, eliminating most voters opinions before they even have the opportunity to express it; a second-place finisher in the primary could stay in the race as long as they'd like, withhout anyone saying they're ruining the parties chances. We would no longer even need the twin gatekeepers of the two major parties, which only 60% of voters even subscribe to despite their shared near-100% dominance of politics in this country, and those two would no longer be able to create a moral argument for the insanely restrictive ballot-access laws which they've created to keep third-parties from even making it to election day.

I contend that election results would be no worse—by which I mean, in aggregate the electorate would be at least as satisfied with the results of the election as they are today, and may possibly be more satisfied, given the larger field to choose from.

IMDB does at least as well as the Academy at choosing the best films of all time; and it can pick them out against a field of thousands, not just five. Favorability polls can pick an election winner out of a field of a half-dozen, not just two. And favorability polls are the same thing as approval voting. Some outfits even publish "net approval" ratings; the candidate's favorability minus their unfavorability. This system is precisely the same as the method used in the Republic of Venice's elections, which lasted under a Democratic system for over 500 years. We may do even better by including "strongly favor" and "strongly disfavor"—in essence, a score voting system from -2 to +2—which is an answer many pollsters already allow in their questionaires.

These last few post (I hope you've noticed) have a common theme: approval and score voting are all around us, we use them everyday, in mundane decisions and even, in limited capacity, with our current electoral system. It allows greater choice, and gives us better results. It's time we tried it on Election Day, not just in the polls leading up to Super Tuesday.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Award Season

I've been trying to come up with some sort of clear conclusion to draw about the Academy Awards vs. IMDB's Top 250, but I keep running into the problem that I don't know half the movies on both lists, and when I try to generalize anything from conclusions based on what I do know, I run into this wall of uncertainty (another reason that I was hoping for comments, but oh well.) But, before I give it all a rest, I'd like to talk about another award-slash-voting-system: science fiction's Hugo Awards.

According to their description, the Hugo Awards (like the Academy Awards) uses a two-step process; nominations and final voting. The nomination process for the Hugo's uses approval voting (good on them!) but with a limit of five titles on each persons ballot (oh well, no one's perfect) with the top five being nominated. The final voting step is instant-runoff (uh oh!) with one important exception.

In addition to the nominees, Hugo voters are allowed to rank "no award" anywhere on their ballot. After determining the IRV winner by the normal method, the potential winner is compared pairwise to "no award" (obviously, if "no award" was the IRV winner, there is no award). In other words, for each ballot it is determined whether that ballot ranks the potential winner higher or "no award" higher, irrespective of the rankings of all other nominees. If more ballots prefer "no award" than prefer the potential winner, then there is no award.

This "special case" highlights one of the more damning aspects of instant runoff: it does not, despite its advocate's claims, always pick a majority-preferred candidate, but rather, sometimes, one of the other candidates is preferred over the "winner" by a majority of voters. (This, among other issues, happened in Burlington, Vermont's most recent mayoral election.)

These sorts of pairwise comparissons—looking at a more-than-two way race as a series of one-on-one contests—is the heart of another ranked-order voting method (or rather, a family of such methods) called Condorcet's method; and as ranked-order methods go, based on Bayesian regret, Condorcet is better than IRV (not a tall order since IRV is the second-worst method, only ahead of plurality). If the Hugo awards are so fearful of "no award" getting an unfair pairwise chance against the IRV winner, I wonder why they don't use an entirely pairwise method; surely there must be some overlap with judges of a science-fiction contest (geeks) and open-source programmers (more geeks), and the programmers use Condorcet for their elections.

Of course, I recommend that both of them move to score voting; however, the approval-based nomination step is a great idea for the initial round of a two-step process (although on average the approval votes alone would likely get a better result than the final IRV round, barring the fact that the two-round process gives everyone a chance to go read any nominees they missed before the decisive round.)

Finally: I try to keep my personal views on any actual issues out of my writing here, and focus only on the process by which groups can make more-democratic decisions. But if Anathem doesn't win Best Novel, I will riot in the streets.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Better" Picture

Which method is superior for choosing the best movie: single transferable vote to plurality, or score voting? Really, last post didn't give enough data. So first: more data. A note though; I moved foreign films into the year of their U.S. release (since that's what determines eligibility for Best Picture). Films that appear in both columns are in bold.

Year Academy IMDB
2009 not yet determined partial result
  1. Up
  2. Star Trek
  3. The Hangover
2008 Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk
  • The Reader
  1. The Dark Knight
  2. WALL·E
  3. Slumdog Millionaire
  4. Gran Torino
  5. The Wrestler
  6. Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In)
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  8. Vals Im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir)
  9. Ip Man
2007 No Country for Old Men
  • Atonement
  • Juno
  • Michael Clayton
  • There Will Be Blood
  1. No Country for Old Men
  2. There Will Be Blood
  3. Into the Wild
  4. The Bourne Ultimatum
  5. Ratatouille
  6. Le scaphandre et le papillon
2006 The Departed
  • Babel
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • The Queen
  1. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
  2. The Departed
  3. El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labrinth)
  4. The Prestige
  5. Children of Men
  6. Letters from Iwo Jima
2005 Crash
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Munich
  1. Der Untergang (Downfall)
  2. Sin City
  3. Batman Begins
  4. V for Vendetta
2004 Million Dollar Baby
  • The Aviator
  • Finding Neverland
  • Ray
  • Sideways
  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  2. Hotel Rwanda
  3. Million Dollar Baby
  4. Tasogara Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)
  5. The Incredibles
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Lost in Translation
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Mystic River
  • Seabiscuit
  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  2. Oldboy
  3. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
  4. Finding Nemo
2002 Chicago
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Hours
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • The Pianist
  1. Cidade de Deus (City of God)
  2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  3. The Pianist
  4. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)
2001 A Beautiful Mind
  • Gosford Park
  • In the Bedroom
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Moulin Rouge!
  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  2. Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain (Amelie)
  3. Donnie Darko
  4. Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch)
  5. Dil Chahta Hai (Do Your Thing)
2000 Gladiator
  • Chocolat
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Erin Brockovich
  • Traffic
  1. Memento
  2. Requiem for a Dream
  3. Gladiator
  4. Snatch

So, take some time, look at, and see if it tells you anything. (Note: there are additional categories for "Best Animated Feature" and "Best Foreign Feature", which might explain some of that disparity. But there isn't a "Best Adapted Comic Book Feature".)

Our lone commentary from the last post mentioned that they were upset that Shawshank Redemption didn't win best picture in 1994; you'll be happy to know then that, according to IMDB, it's the greatest movie of all time.

Now, if you like IMDB's results, please ask yourself: if it works so well for movies, why wouldn't it work for elections? If the best method for picking a winner out of dozens and dozens of choices is score voting, why wouldn't it work for picking between two; or, do we only get to decide between two because we don't use a better system to decide?

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Best" Picture?

Between reading all that politics-stuff out there, you might have heard that the Academy of Motion Pictures has decided to expand the number of nominees in their "best picture" category from five to ten. This is, of course, the perfect time to talk about voting methods!

Okay, I'd probably say that about almost anything... but really this is a great example. And liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias almost puts his finger on why: "[B]ut if they want to make this switch they also need to reform the voting procedure to something with ordered preferences or something." But here's the thing, Matt: they already do. Kind of.

The Method

That article explains the current (until just now) method used to vote for best picture. According to that article, it goes like this:

  1. All Academy members can submit an ordered ballot of up to 5 movies
  2. Any movie which gets at lest 20% of 1st-place choices becomes a nominee
  3. The movie with the fewest 1st-place preferences is eliminated, and those ballots are re-allocated to their next choice
  4. Repeat until there are 5 nominees
  5. Then, a simple plurality vote on the nominees determines the actual winner
The first half is a (a very-poorly described version) of the single transferable vote method for multi-winner elections. And then, of course, we follow this up with a round of the worst voting method known: plurality.

Now, there's a funny thing about plurality; as shown by this graph from Brian Olsen's voting and elections page, the average performance of plurality (assuming honest voters) increases the more candidates there are... until you get beyond five candidates. So increasing the number of nominees to 10 might not actually help much.

But back to STV: it's not a terrible method, but it's not exactly great, particularly for this use: it's not designed to pick the best set of options out of a group, it's designed to pick a set of options that (more or less) evenly covers the voter's opinions. What I mean by that is, if there are, for instance (assuming we're picking 5 nominees) two very good movies that a very well received by a particular niche of voters, but those voters account for less than 40% of the electorate, then they can only get one of them to be nominated; STV will tend towards picking options strongly supported by other niches after one of these two is selected. STV tries to cover all the extremes, not pick 5 films that are all broadly well-liked. This is why it's used in political elections; if a region is 60% Democrat and 40% Republican, it's fairer to pick 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans than it is to pick 5 democrats (which is what would happen in 5 separate plurality elections for those same 5 seats.) This might explain why, sometimes, you get some really bizarre picks: the 20% of voters who hate everything popular randomly settle on some out-of-the-mainstream film. Addi tonally, it doesn't necessarily pick the favorite of each niche, either; like instant runoff voting (which is just STV with a single winner), if there are more than two strong competitors, you can run into problems with spoilers.

Still, STV-to-plurality is certain a better way to pick a winner than a simple plurality vote over a couple hundred candidates. But can we do better? You know what I'm going to say...

Score Voting!

That's right, the Academy should move to score voting. It's going to be a hard sell though. Hollywood (if any sci-fi film is evidence) absolutely hate math, logic, and science. So how do you go about convincing people that one method is better than another, when they have almost 80 years of examples for the old way and there's nothing to support the superiority of your new idea. Well, there's good news for us, because there is.

The Internet Movie Database allows its members to score any and every movie in their system, on 1 to 10 point scale and (barring some algorithmic scrubbing that we'll discuss in a minute), they sort them by average score. That's score voting. And IMDB has at least 430,000 "voters", who have voted on who knows how many hundreds (thousands?) of films. This is all the data we could ever ask for!

Now, about the scrubbing: IMDB doesn't used a simple arithmetic average. First, they work very hard to try to eliminate ballot stuffing (one person, one vote!), but that's probably impossible to do completely. Furthermore, Academy voting all takes place within a single year, whereas IMDB lets members vote years and years after the fact, and that may screw results as tastes change over the years. We'll just have to deal with all that in this analysis. Secondly, they realize that, since most people won't vote on most films, some films will have very few votes, and it'd be foolish to, for example, let a film with only 1 vote of 10 stars be listed as the greatest film of all time. So they do some math to correct for that, not unlike the quorum rule that suggests. Their quorum is around one-third of one percent of the number of votes received by the most-voted on film; not a large number, but enough to quell the "lunatic with a fanatic following that no one else has heard of wins" fears.

So, how does score voting stack up against STV+Plurality? Compare and contrast for 2000-2008.

2008Slumdog MillionaireThe Dark Knight1
2007No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men
2006The DepartedThe Lives of Others1,3
2005Crash2Sin City1
2004Million Dollar BabyEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind1
2003The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002Chicago2City of God1,3
2001A Beautiful Mind2The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  1. Not nominated by Academy
  2. Not contained in IMDB's "Best/Worst '2000s' Titles"
  3. Listed in IMDB under original foreign title

Okay, so what does this tell us? I'll tell you my thoughts in the next post, but for now, I'd like to know your thoughts? Which method do you agree with more often? What films are you favorites that don't make either list? What do you think this years best picture is and–different question!–what film do you think the Academy will pick?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

25% Majority: The Census, Governors and Gerrymanders (Oh My!)

I want to take a little side trek from my usual focus on election methods, to put them in a larger context.

The census is coming up shortly, and while it provides all sorts of interesting trivia to pour over, its main purpose has always been to determine how seats in the House of Representatives will be apportioned among the states, although the Constitution leaves most of the details for filling those seats up to the states themselves. In general (although this is not universal), each state's legislature writes up a proposal for the new district boundaries, which must be approved by the governor. And it's usually assumed that, if the legislature and the governorship are all controlled by the same political party, that the party can pretty much get away with even the most absurd boundaries. FiveThiryEight covered the where's-and-what-have-you's of these redistricting battlegrounds last month.

Of course, this isn't because of an appreciation for fractal geometry or for modern art, but in order to maximize the party's performance in future elections. Under a system of proportional representation, if an electorate's support is divided 40% for one party and 60% for another, than approximately 40% of legislative seats will be filled by the first party and 60% by the other; not so if you have single-winner districts and free-reign for drawing district boundaries! Depending on how much wiggle-room you want to leave yourself, you can fill 100% of the seats with members of your own party as long as you have a sliver more than 50% of the voters. And even if you have less than 50%, effective gerrymandering can double your seating percentage; which means that even if only 25%-plus-one of the electorate supports you, you can still have 50%-plus-one of the congressional seats.

This leads to a very strong self-reinforcing system, where a thin pseudo-majority can artificially inflate its political power for many years down the road, or one where a real, but small, majority can effectively remove all opposition. Occasionally, something of an unsteady balance is found, which you could positively think of as a "bipartisan compromise". Or, if you're more cynically minded, you could think of it as the parties agreeing to systematically disenfranchise about a third of the electorate; but it's okay, because this way, both of them save equally as much money by not having to buy ads in nearly as many markets (well, except for the primaries); and since it's equal, who can complain? Some states have gone so far as to remove the elected legislature and elected governor from this decision-making process, to replace them with a "bipartisan committee", whose equal number of Democrat- and Republican-appointed members would have control over the boundary lines.

Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of Americans don't think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats, and yet, 99.9% or more of elected officials do. These sorts of games are yet another of the ways that this imbalance is made to continue. We could throw our hands up in the air and say "It's terrible, but what can you do?"; or would could take the approach I always do here and ask if there's a better system, one that everyone (not just party-faithful) could agree is fairer. There are a lot of different suggestions for algorithmically-defined solutions (I'm currently enthralled by the third in that list), but like score-voting, effecting change will be an up-hill battle.

Just something else to think about when you're voting for governor next year, or filling out your census questionnaire.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Recently, I gave a brief presentation to the local chapter of the Green Party. I wouldn't call the following a "transcript", but it does hit the same points.

Between 1996 and 2000, the Green party increased their share of the votes in the presidential election by over 400%. But between 2000 and 2004, despite flagging support for the incumbent Republican, a lackluster Democratic challenger, and an increase in public support for the Green stance on virtually every policy issue, the Green party share of votes dropped by 96%. How is that possible?

Because Nader, and the Green party, was branded as a spoiler. When you spoil an election, your support dries up as voters go back to voting for the lesser of two evils. This is a known problem with our current plurality election method, one that economists, mathematicians, and political scientists have known about for years, and they have also known for years of alternative election methods that don't suffer from this problem. And yet, it doesn't seem to come up as something worth fixing.

Thankfully, recently, there has been some movement towards trying different election methods. Unfortunately, one often-proposed method, instant-runoff voting, which is a plank in the Green party platform, does not fix this problem. I'm here to show you some methods, called approval voting and score voting, that do fix this problem. Allow me to show you some examples.

This is a simple example with just nine voters; four vote for option 'A', and five for option 'B'. B wins. But what if we add a new option, 'C', that appeals primarily to the B-voters.

C doesn't win, but now, neither does B, so C spoiled the election. This is basically what happened in Florida in 2000. Instant-runoff voting (IRV) claims that it can fix this problem. On an instant-runoff ballot, instead of listing only one choice, you can list several choices in order. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and votes for them are re-allocated to the voter's next choice in line, and you repeat this until one candidate has a majority of votes. So, in our example, C has the fewest votes, so it's eliminated, and the votes go to the voter's second choice, which we know from before is B. B now has five votes, and wins, as they should have all along.

This looks great; it looks like IRV fixed the problem. But you still haven't won any elections. Support for a new party grows slowly over time; you don't go from zero to victory. So let's give C one more of B's votes.

Okay, now, you're doing really well; you've actually got more votes than one of the major parties. But now, we have to ask a question that we haven't answered before: what's the second choice of these last two B voters? If one of them (let's call him "Al") has A as his second choice, we get this:

Now, A wins. Remember, without C involved in the vote, B would win. But because C is here, A wins. So C is, again, a spoiler. And here you'll still lose 96% of your support in the next election.

A better option is score voting or approval voting: I'll do an example with approval since it's a bit simpler. With approval voting, instead of indicating just one candidate, you can indicate as many or as few as you want. So, those first two votes for C can come without in any way diminishing B's five votes, as can the third; and as your support continues to grow, maybe you convince some of A's voters to approve you as well, until you win. Without ever being a spoiler.

Score voting is only slightly more complicated, in that it gives you the option to explicity state a willingness to compromise, by letting you give each candidate a score in some range, such as zero to ten. So you could say, for instance, I give C my full approval at 10, but I'd be pretty satisfied with B as well, so I give it an 8.

Either way—score or approval—no spoilers, no abandonment by the electorate, and so your support can continue to grow until you actually win.

Now, what I want from you is I'd like to promote this idea to the rest of your party; your national conference is in July, perhaps something there. Also, IRV has had some pilot programs conducted, in California, Vermont, North Carolina; I'd would like to ask for your support in getting some sort of pilot program using score voting here.

Then there was a brief question-and-answer period. I was asked to reiterate the example of how a spoiler happens under IRV (the important part is that not all B-first voters will vote C-second), to speak to IRV's "success" in San Francisco (before IRV: one Green elected to council, after IRV: one Green elected to council. Change: zero), and to discuss briefly proportional representation (also a good idea.)

Overall, I thought the experience was very positive, and I will be put in touch with some local Green party members who are also voting-reform advocates. It was also recommended that I contact Ralph Nader directly.

The presentation took just five minutes, with five minutes more for questions and discussion. If you would like to give a similar presentation in your area, feel free to use everything I've said; the images are quite easy to reproduce on a chalkboard or whiteboard.