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?