Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Let's Talk

First, let me say that I still get absolutely thrilled whenever I get comments; I've only been at this for a few months, and I've been really squeamish about publicizing it. I got one comment though in response to my last post about how IRV fails to fix the spoiler problem or grant success to third parties. And it really got me thinking. So let's talk:

IRV has elected Progressive Bob Kiss as the mayor of Burlington, VT and Ross Mirkarimi, a Green, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While score/range voting is a worthy system, third parties in this country have enough problems with credibility without trying to advocate for a voting system that has never been used anywhere in the world.

I Owe It All to IRV?

This comment bring up two points, and they're both worth responding to. The first is the assertion that IRV does fix the spoiler problem and allow third parties to succeed, as evidenced by Bob Kiss of the Vermont Progressive Party winning the election. I have three responses to that. One, if that's true, than plurality voting also fixes the spoiler problem, because plurality elected Bernie Sanders mayor of Burlington, VT in 1981 when he was the Progressive candidate. Obviously, that's ludicrous; if plurality was immune to spoilers, none of us would be wasting our time trying to fix the problem. No, the truth is, that Burlington (and San Francisco as well) is something of an exception in American politics, in that it has a very strong "third" party that is already capable of winning elections. But IRV has virtually nothing to do with their success.

My second response to this first point is a bit more flippant, but makes the same point: in Burlington, the Republicans are the third party; something that I went into more detail with in the too-long post I referred to in the previous post. (Mental note: maybe I should try to turn Burlington's Republicans on to score voting. Or would that be overly antagonistic?)

Third, and more substantive, if IRV were actually any help to third parties, then you would expect a country that has used IRV for years, like Australia, to actually have some in their legislature. But of the 150 Australian legislators, currently every last one is a member of one of two parties. (Technically, the Liberal party and the National party are different, but the two have been in a tight coalition since 1922, and are currently working on a merger plan that has already succeeded in the state of Queensland. In the minds of virtually every Australian, they are a single party. Furthermore, the three "independent" representatives were all, at one time, members of the National party, before leaving over intra-party disagreements; a situation very similar to "independent" US Senator Joseph Lieberman's position with the Democratic party.) And let's not forget senator Bernie Sanders; the same Progressive who won a plurality election to become mayor of Burlington also won a plurality election to become a senator from Vermont; by this logic, plurality is better for third parties than IRV!

But It's Doing Nothing Right Now!

The commentator's second point is that, even if IRV isn't helpful at fixing the spoiler/two-party problem, it's still a better idea than anything else out there because it's actually being used already. This is, one, foolish, and two, a bit disingenuous. It's foolish to put all of this effort into making a huge change, knowing that it doesn't actually fix the problem. Besides being a clear waste of effort, it creates a hostile environment for any future real improvements; once an electorate has been bitten by a false "fix-all" solution like IRV, they become much more shy about trying some other solution. Many locales that try IRV find themselves slipping back into the even-worse world of plurality; North Carolina, for instance, has a pilot program that is facing some strong motions this week to go back.

Besides, the truth is score voting has been used for a very long time, and is a system people are already quite familiar with: from Olympic judging, to movie and restaurant reviews, to Hot or Not. We use it every day; we just haven't used it to democratically elect our leaders. At least, not recently. But the two longest-running democratic governments in world history did. For 500 hundred years, Sparta used a (loud and very analog) score voting method for all their elections, and for another 500 years, Venice used a three-valued (+1, -1, 0) score voting method. IRV, on the other hand, was first used in 1893. Call me in three or four centuries.

The Real Winner

But really, it's not important which idea is older, or was used for longer. Even clearly showing that IRV can't completely fix the spoiler problem doesn't show that it's, overall, no good. Taken alone, each of these arguments can be brushed off as simple anecdotes, and we want data (and the plural of anecdote is not data!) Spoilers are bad, because it means a lot of people get something they strongly don't want; two-party domination is bad, because it restricts voter's choices to "the least of two evils" and we often don't want either. But how bad? Which is worse? How often is it a problem? Warren Smith's insight was to try to side-step all the anecdotes, and directly measure "how bad"; that's the idea behind Bayesian regret. And even he was honestly surprised at just how overwhelming the data was.

Now, maybe the simulation is flawed. But maybe it's not. But it's certainly compelling enough to suggest that score voting would be something worth trying. Meanwhile, everything CRV has said would happen with IRV, has happened, including spoilers and continual failure for third party candidates. So again, I would urge you: if you're supporting IRV because of spoilers, or because of third parties, you should STOP supporting IRV. Other options do a better job of fixing the issues you care about.

But if you're still not convinced, I'm game to continue the debate, so keep the comments coming!


  1. Dear Anonymous,

    Third parties may have an easier time implementing IRV than score voting, simply because of its more widespread usage in political elections. But what's the point of doing that, when IRV historically maintains two-party duopoly? The anecdotal examples you point out are from San Francisco and Vermont -- where politics are so shifted to the left, that Greens and Progressives are close to being a major party.

    Look at the overall reality of IRV usage over e.g. Australia: two-party domination. That's reality.

    Score voting is vastly superior to IRV, and so I think it's worth the effort to push for it instead of IRV, even though it has been used in fewer (recent) political elections. (It was used for hundreds of years in Sparta and Venice.)

  2. Dale, I've been following LoAE for a few weeks, you've got some great info and analysis here. Have you been following the IRV debate in North Carolina?

  3. Hi d.eris! No, I haven't been following at closely as I might like; it's something that started going before LoAE did, and I've just never taken the time to get caught-up on all the details. If you can point me to a good summary page though, that may get my butt in gear!

  4. Actually, n/m, I found one:

    Wow. Yeah, a treasure trove of future posts there. Thanks for the poke!

  5. cool. I haven't been following it closely myself, but have come across various sides of the debate in recent weeks. I look forward to your take.