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.