Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Instant" "Majority"

48 days after the election, a statewide instant runoff vote in North Carolina has concluded. After applying the IRV method, which FairVote touts as always returning a majority decision, the win was awarded to a candidate with 28% of the ballots. So much for "instant", and so much for "majority."

It took 10 days for Oakland, California to count their "instant" runoff vote for mayor this year. The winner there received a "majority" consisting of 45% of all ballots.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fix Congress, Too

I firmly believe that, by using superior election methods, we can greatly improve our democracy. I think it's the single most cost-effective change we could make. But it's not the only effective change we could make.

Five years ago, I wasn't reading the New York Times and the Washington Post; I was reading Slashdot, Techdirt, and ArsTechnica. (Actually, I still read those, but I now also read political blogs.) I was concerned with copyright, free software, and the DMCA. It was only slowly that it dawned on me that my concerns about technology and culture were losing out because of a failure to influence the law, and the politicians and political parties that write the law.

Five years ago, one of the heroes of my world was Lawrence Lessig: copyright crusader. But today, one of the heroes of my world is Lawrence Lessig: election reform advocate. We've marched the same road. But Lessig's plan for change is different from mine. He wants publicly-funded elections, in order to take the money of out politics. If you're a fan of this blog, and you haven't already done so, please take a look at Fix Congress First. It's a good idea, and it would do a lot of good... even if it's not the only good idea. ;)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Voting for the Best Comments

Lots of websites have a comment section. Some sites which get huge numbers of comments have a sort of voting system for determining which comments are helpful, and which are not. The website of the San Francisco Chronicle is an example of such a site: this article on Oakland's use of ranked choice voting (AKA instant runoff voting) shows the system in action.

You'll note that, for each comment, you can give it a "thumbs-up" or a "thumbs-down", or leave it alone; the difference between ups and downs gives each comment a net score, and the most highly-scored comments get preferred listing. This is an example of range-3, i.e., range voting with three levels. Meanwhile, comment sections at The New York Times allow you to "recommend" comments, and the most-recommended comments get preferred listing. This is an example of approval voting, and is probably the most common sort of comment-voting setup on the internet.

However, I have never seen anywhere on the internet a comment-voting setup that used any sort of ranked-order voting system. (Although Kitten War comes close to a Condorcet system, sort of.) Why do you think that might be the case? Of course, who our next elected representatives will be is a much more important question than which is the most helpful blog comment (and obviously, when the stakes are so much higher, captchas and email-verification wouldn't be used for voter-roll identification) but the theory is the same: many people will have an opinion, and we want to aggregate those opinions to express a single, group opinion. If range and approval voting work so well in one domain, there's good reason to expect that it will work well in the other.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Third Party? We Already Have One (Or Thirty)

Since last Tuesday, there have been more than a few articles written clamoring that we need a third party to rescue this country from the terrible evils that the Republicans and Democrats are laying upon it. A third party, we're told, will really resonate with the voters; will unite them against the two "basically identical" major parties; will end corruption. There's only one problem: we already have a third party.

Actually, we have several "third" parties. The Libertarian party, if you add all the races together, got over one million votes for the House of Representatives this year. The Green party got more than twice that many for President just 12 years ago. And the Libertarian, Green, and Constitution parties have all run nation-wide Presidential tickets in every election since 1992. And that doesn't even count the literally dozens of smaller and regional parties.

Maybe you think there's a growing trend? That, yes, it's true that this has been going on for decades, but that's because it's building slowly, and now it's clear that the wave is about to crest, and a three-party utopia is on the horizon! Well... not so much. There have consistently been three or more new political parties founded in every decade of the nation's history since at least the 1840s, and some of them have done much better than any of the ones we have now. The only exception to this rule is the 1860s which, significantly, is the decade of the civil war and, related, the decade after the Republican party replaced the Whig party as one of America's two major-parties. (And by the way, the Republican party was never a third party.)

Third parties come, and third parties go; if they're lucky, they get to have some indirect influence on the debate by way of being a credible-enough spoiler threat. Occasionally (once a century or so) a major-party goes, and a new major-party forms to take its place—never (yet) an existing third-party. And that's the way it is, because third parties can't win this game.

Anyone who is whining that America needs a third party to "save" it then, is wrong for two reasons: we already have them, and they can't save us. We have a two-party political system because we have a two-party voting system, and if you don't like the former, you have to change the later.

Approval voting and score voting allow third parties a real chance to grow and actually win elections. That would, at the very least, facilitate a faster rate of change of who the two major parties are, and perhaps even lead to a long-term three (or more) party system. This would then speed the rate at which new issues, new ideas, and new ideals, are incorporated into our political discourse.

Consider that the Whig party collapsed because neither it nor the opposing Democratic party could discuss slavery, and that the Republican party's rise was because it could. Had this changeover not been artificially retarded by an inefficient voting system perhaps war could have been avoided. If war really is just the continuation of politics by other means, then a better voting system really is a matter of life and death. I ask you to give this a moments thought on this Veteran's Day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Strategy-Free Elections, And The True Measure of a Voting System

If you get involved in the debate on voting system reform, it's never long before someone brings up the concept of "strategic voting." The idea is simple enough: we all want to be as honest as possible on our ballots, but because the voting system is imperfect, we vote otherwise. This is easy to see in plurality; lots of people who claim to really want a third-party candidate end up voting for one of the two major-party candidates on election day. But it happens, to a lesser or greater extent, under all voting methods.

Actually, that's a cleverly-constructed lie of omission.

It turns out that there are a number of voting systems which are 100% strategy-free, so your honest vote will always also be your best vote. But you're not going to like them. Here's an example: voting is performed like plurality, i.e., each voter picks a single candidate. The winner is whichever candidate is named on a ballot chosen at random. Clearly, you should always vote the one candidate you think is best for the job, because there's no reason to fear that you're "throwing your vote away" or making it easier for a candidate you dislike to win. The clever part in the constructing of the lie was omitting the word deterministic, which means "no random components". There are no strategy-free deterministic voting systems.

Constructing other (and better) strategy-free methods is easy enough. So if strategy is so vitally important that it invariably comes up in every voting-system discussion, why don't we use one of them? The answer is: average performance. Random ballot voting, as your intuition probably tells you, is an absolutely terrible system. But intuition is sometimes wrong, so it's important that we can back it up with data by running computer simulations to calculate Bayesian regret. And the data shows that, based on the number of candidates competing, random ballot is two- to four-times worse than plurality voting; which we all know from experience to be a pretty bad system.

Strategy, and a voting system's susceptibility to it, are an important thing to be aware of. But immunity to strategy, even though it sounds like a great thing to strive for, isn't the goal of a voting system; if it were, we'd have an easy answer to the problem, in the form of non-deterministic voting methods. And there are a host of other reasonable-sounding things for a voting system to accomplish, many of which have been codified as voting system criterion. But, besides many of them being mutually-exclusive (i.e., you can't meet them all), using any of them as a litmus test obscures the true objective, in the same way that focusing exclusively on being strategy-free obscures the true objective. The only true measure of a voting system is it's expected performance: how well it delivers a desirable candidate to the electorate. Average performance, as measured by Bayesian regret, smooths over all the coarse edges of criterion, implicitly assessing all of them for frequency as well as impact.

Why should it matter that, for instance, approval voting fails the majority criteria, if the failure rate is vanishingly-infrequent and has minimal impact? When it performs significantly better than a host of other systems that do meet this criteria, but fail some other, equally-reasonable criteria? It shouldn't. Holding the percentage of strategic voters constant, approval voting has significantly better performance than just about any other voting method. Range voting (AKA score voting) can be even better. Which criteria are passed are secondary to that fact.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How it Might Have Been Different

Sorry for the lack of posting, but my political energy has all gone towards volunteering my time to my favorite candidates. One of those candidates was Scott McAdams, who ran in the race I am about to discuss. I have tried to keep my partisan views out of this piece as best as I can and to refer only to polls and election results in the most dispassionate way possible, but I feel it would be deceptive of me to not acknowledge my connection to the campaign.

Sometimes it's hard to articulate how approval voting or score voting would serve to create better electoral results. The typical election quickly boils down to just two good choices, and despite the rare holdout, most voters begrudgingly accept that they have a binary choice to make. But when there are only two options, every voting system produces the same result; the improvements only come by making more choices viable. Yet, for whatever reason, people have a hard time imagining how a better system encourages more choices, preferring instead to just complain about the lack of options or to simply demand more options, without supplying any mechanism that could encourage such a thing.

Approval voting and score voting are the mechanisms. And this election has actually provided an example to illustrate it: the three-way Alaska Senate race. Thanks to Public Policy Polling, we have some excellent information [PDF] pertaining to the candidate's favorability ratings. Favorability is a pretty good proxy for three-point score voting (where the scores are -1/0/+1). The first thing that jumps out when we look at these numbers, is that Miller and Murkowski had some of the worst favorability scores out of all Senate candidates across the entire country. Miller had 36% favorable versus an astounding 59% disfavorable, for a -23 net, and Murkowski had a 37/53, for a -16 net. But McAdams had one of the best favorability scores in the country, with a 50/30 for a +20 net.

This means that, under this simple score voting system, McAdams would likely have won this race, and it wouldn't have even been close. Under plurality though, he got only 24% of the vote, while Miller got 34% and Murkowski got up to 41% (41% is the total for all write-ins, but polling suggest that about 95% of those (so about 39% of the total) are for Murkowski). Looking at just these numbers it's clear that not only did a large number of Murkowski-and-McAdams approving voters chose to go with Murkowski, but that at least some Alaskans voted for Murkowski in spite of the fact that they did not approve of her.

Clearly, this is an example of tactical voting. No (deterministic) system is completely immune to tactical voting, and we can't be fully certain that voters would have voted precisely how the poll suggest they would have if they knew their favorability opinions would decide the outcome (indeed, some PPP favorability polls would have called narrow two-way races backwards). But, assuming the poll represents honest opinions, we can be certain that a majority of Alaskans (i.e., over 50%) would be disappointed with either a Miller win or a Murkowski win, while about half would have been satisfied with a McAdams win. And yet, the winner will be either Miller or Murkowski, and certainly not McAdams, depending on how many write-ins survive the auditing process.

Plurality voting breaks down when there are more than two good choices. That's why most elections see just two "viable" candidates. But simply adding more candidates (or even more parties) accomplishes nothing, because we don't have a system that can deal with more than two options. We have a two-party political system because we have a two-party voting system. But if we change to a better system, one where we can get better results by adding more candidates, only then can we find success by doing so.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

I have a game for you. Get one hundred things--pennies, toothpicks, whatever--and set them up in a line, from left to right. This is our voting populace in simplified, one-dimensional form. Each "voter" has just one simple rule to decide how to vote: vote for whichever one candidate stands closest to them (yes, we're using plurality voting; and if there's a tie for closest, each gets a half vote). Now, grab another thing--a pencil, a button, it doesn't matter--and place it on the line, between two voters, so that 17 voters are to the left of it. This new thing is one of our "candidates", Libram McLeftyson. Nearly five out of six voters think he's too liberal. Grab another candidate, and place it, mirror-like, so that 17 voters are to the right of it, and in equal measure to her competitor, nearly five out of six voters think Constance O'Righterly is too conservative.

Now, here's how you win the game: place a third candidate between any two voters (except right on top of one of the existing candidates) such that they win the election. Go on, try it; I'll wait while you count your things.

Give up yet? You should, because the challenge is impossible. No matter where you put your third candidate, it is impossible to make it so they win; even putting them right in the center won't do it. As an added bonus, you'll find that whichever of the other two candidates you put them closer to, also loses. And if I move them from inside the 17 marks to precisely the 25 marks, you can't even come in second. I can even put them at the 49 marks, practically next to each other, and there's still nowhere you can go where you can win.

More and more Americans are agitating for a "third party", most without even realizing that there are already dozens of active third parties to choose from. But they don't win. They can't win. And this is without even acknowledging the effects of tactical voting, this is with honest voters! In this simulation, the only ones voting for the big-two are the ones who honestly believe them to be the uniquely best option available.

The existence of a multitude of third parties hasn't change this. Screaming that we need even more third parties won't change this. You cannot win this game. The only way you can win, is if you change the rules.

And the rules that would give third parties a chance to win are approval voting and score voting.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Voting In Pictures

Everyone needs to play around with this graphical voting simulator. Be sure to click on the help link at the top, so you can know what all the features do (and to find the link to two-dimensional voting simulation graphics.) At a minimum, you should click on and enable the displays for plurality, approval, and Hare (IRV), as well as enable a third candidate; then slide the candidates around. From this, it should be very easy to highlight the short-comings of plurality, and see the sorts of bizarre and non-intuitive results that IRV can give.

For instance, you should easily be able to construct a case demonstrating the non-monotonicity of IRV, which will show up as bands of a candidate's color being disjointed (for instance, red-yellow-red). Or, a case where the point directly above the candidate's marker in IRV (or plurality) is not the same color as the candidate; meaning that, even if the candidate were perfectly-centered in the voter distribution, they would not win the election. I think that is something that, with this model, cannot ever be the case for approval voting, but I'm not 100% certain of that (the non-normal distributions are probably the best bet for proving me wrong.)

You can also demonstrate the effect of "spoilers" (or, in Borda, "teaming") by toggling candidates on and off, and noting how the winner changes.

Have fun!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Aspen Update

Never mind. The vote will be between keeping IRV or going back to the 2007 system. One simple, binary choice. I guess deciding between three things is just too hard.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Irony: Aspen To Use Approval Voting... Once

In 2009, Aspen, Colorado voters chose to begin using instant runoff voting in some elections. They were, apparently, less than satisfied with it, and are now working out their options for replacing it. Aspen Daily News describes how the choice will be made:

Aspen voters will be asked if they support the winner-take-all system that was used through 1999, and one that requires a majority for council members and the mayor, which was used through 2007.

Both options will have their own “yes” or “no” question on the ballot. Whatever receives the most support will become the new voting method...

Does this sound familiar to you at all? It should, because this is approval voting! Each option can be approved or disapproved of independently, and the most-approved option is the winner.

There is one hitch though:

If neither method gets a majority, IRV will remain.

For this to be a proper approval voting election, the un-stated third option in favor of the status-quo ought to also be on the ballot. After all, it is possible that both replacement options will get more than 50% support but that an even greater percentage would approve of keeping IRV. (I didn't say likely, I said possible.) Or, conversely, that both alternatives could get less than 50% but that even fewer voters would want to keep IRV. Leaving one of the options unstated leaves open these possibilities. Imagine if this near-approval format were used when two challengers faced an incumbent office-holder; you wouldn't want the incumbent off-ballot and to make these sorts of assumptions about how the voters truly judge them!

Thankfully, Ward Hauenstein, a member of the city's election commission, has suggested precisely this; although his reasoning was due to the possibility of voter confusion. Either way, it's not clear if the people in charge of the ballot will take him up on the idea.

So, Aspen will be using approval voting (or at least something close to it) this one time; but they will be using it to decide which less-effective-than-approval voting method to use for future votes. Come on Aspen, you're so close!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Instant Runoffs Elects (a) Third-Party Candidate

It's a red-letter day for supporters of instant runoff voting; after a three-cycle drought, the instant runoff system used for the Australian House of Representatives has elected a member of a third party. As there are 150 seats elected in the house each cycle, this means that one sixth of one percent of all elections were won by a third party member over the last four cycles.

Previous elections had seen a number of independent candidates win seats, but all of these had won their seats primarily because of previous membership in one of the two major parties, before falling out to run on their own (think Joe Lieberman in the US Senate, for comparison.)

Although The Coalition is officially two separate parties--the Liberal party and the National party--the two have an agreement whereby they do not challenge each others incumbents, have been united (as government or opposition) in the legislature for 60 years, and have formally combined as a single party in some Australian states. Virtually all Australian news sources refer to "the two party vote" as being between Labor and the Lib/Nat coalition.

Meanwhile, the Australian Senate uses single transferable vote, which is a system of proportional representation, on which IRV was based (but in such a way that it loses all proportionality.) There, the greens hold 5 of the 76 seats, while the Country Liberal and Family First parties hold 1 each (and 1 independent); for about 9% third-party representation, versus the 0.16% now available in the House.

So congratulations to Adam Bandt and to all the people out there tell us that IRV would be a huge boon to third parties; today you are a little less wrong.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book Review: Numbers Rule

After being directed to it by The New Yorker Book Review (and getting involved in the debate about the review and the response to it) I borrowed a copy of Numbers Rule, by George G. Szpiro, from my local library.

Numbers shares a similar concept to Gaming the Vote, of presenting the somewhat dry topic of voting theory via the colorful true stories of the great thinkers who have wrestled with the subject over the centuries. And I do mean centuries; we start with Plato, who is harshly criticized for his didactic and entirely unscientific approach to the issue. Quickly, the realization that it's hard to decide among three or more choices is brought out, as Pliny the Younger presides over a choice between the innocence, banishment, or execution of an Athenian slave.

Next, we are introduced to Ramon Llull and Nikolaus Cuanus, who, Szpiro tells us, developed the Borda count and the Condorcet method, over 350 years before the stars of the following chapters, Borda and Condorcet, were born. While the rediscovery and repetition for these two pairs of chapters is interesting and historically relevant, unfortunately it doesn't add anything to the readers knowledge about elections. To further the irrelevance, each chapter ends with entirely irrelevant (but still interesting) additional historical information on the main characters.

In the following chapter on Laplace—a contemporary of both Borda and Condorcet—the clever idea to "guarantee" majority-choices is introduced: If a vote doesn't result in a majority decision, vote again. Laplace's original thought was that voters would, eventually, settle on a compromise. Instead, his legacy is France's consistent use of top-two runoff, and the mathematically-unsound claims of instant runoff proponents. I think Laplace, as a mathematician of the highest caliber, would be displeased.

And then we go through much of the same material one last time—only with accusations of pedophillia—thanks to Charles Dodgson; better known as Lewis Carroll. Again, interesting, but the repetition is not especially helpful for learning the issue at hand.

It's here that the book takes a two-chapter and mostly-unconnected side trek to discuss the difficulties of apportioning seats in a legislature to its constituent districts. Even the impending re-apportionment that will soon occur on the heels of the 2010 census couldn't bring me to really care about the issue. A one-seat difference, out of 435, every 30 or 40 years, just seems insignificant to me. (Or maybe it's just that my new home state will certainly continue to have just one representative.)

When we return to elections proper, we are following Kenneth Arrow, to learn about the impossibility of perfection. Numbers gives a more in-depth explanation of why Arrow only considered ranked-order ballots, but armed with that understanding, I am now more confident both that Arrow's work can't be applied, for good or bad, to approval voting and score voting, and that the election simulations I often refer to can still be valid. A strange parallel is drawn between Arrow's work on voting, Hisenberg's work on physics, and Godel's work on logic; the point of which seems to be "Give up; nothing in the world works!" Again; interesting, but even more so than the chapters on districting, it seems out of place.

The book closes with one final chapter on districting—with an extra side of impossibility, for good measure—followed by a short and un-directed prance through the modern issues. This is the first, and only time, that any sort of proportional representation is mentioned, or that approval voting is brought up. (And the misleading description of approval voting that led off the New Yorker review? Not present at all.) Instant runoff voting is not mentioned by name, but single transferable vote is, and that it can be used for single-winner elections is discussed. But Szpiro avoids discussing them in any depth, and keeps far away from taking any sides. Having now spent a year and a half myself participating in the argument, perhaps this is a wise move on his part; but if the intent of the book is to educate, it's a missed opportunity to avoid what's happening in the world today.

If you love historical trivia (and I admit, I do) Numbers Rule is great. But if you're looking to get a handle on the issue of elections, Gaming the Vote is not only better focussed, but is more engaging to read. While Gaming sucked me in and inspired me to get involved and make this blog what it is today, I had to pull myself back into Numbers each time; happy that I would get a few more interesting tidbits, but knowing that I wasn't going to learn anything about voting that I didn't already know.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Topsy-Turvy Instant Runoff

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is known to display a number of perverse problems when there are more than two strong candidates. As a thought experiment, and mental exercise, Professor Warren Smith--mathematician and founder of the Center for Range Voting--try to determine the simplest IRV election that can showcase the greatest number of these issues.

9 voters: A > B > C
12 voters: B > C > A
8 voters: C > A > B

The example has only three candidates, and needs just 29 voters, but still illustrates:

  • Reversal Paradox: if all the ballots have their order reversed, the "winner" stays the same, so the "best" choice is also the worst choice. (It's A in both cases.)
  • Less-is-More: one of two forms of non-monotonicity, where by lowering the rankings for a losing candidate on certain ballots, they become the winning candidate. (Change two B-first voters to C-first, and B wins instead of A.)
  • More-is-Less: the other form of non-monotonicity, where raising the winning candidate's rank on certain ballots makes them lose. (Raise A from bottom to top on 5 of the B-first ballots, and C wins instead of A.)
  • Participation Paradox: where, if certain voters had just stayed home instead of voting, the result of the election would have been better for them. (Remove 5 B-first voters (who rank A last!) and C wins instead of A.)
  • Anti-Participation Paradox: where, if more of a certain group of voters had shown up and voted, the results of the election would have been worse for them. (Add 2 C-first voters (who rank B last!) and B wins instead of A.)
  • Precinct Paradox: the ballots can be divided into precincts, and the winner in each precinct is the same, but is not the same as the winner of the overall election. (Break into 3 precincts such that A-first/B-first/C-first in each is 3/4/4, 3/4/4, 3/4/0; B wins in each precinct, but A wins the aggregate.)
  • Tactical Opportunity: some voters could prevent their least-favorite choice from winning by ranking a different candidate above their honest favorite. (If at least 2 B-first voters instead rank C above B, then A doesn't win; either B or C wins.)

I want to emphasize the last point, tactical opportunity; because this is the number-one problem that I see IRV-proponents falsely claiming that IRV doesn't have. It is simply not true that IRV removes the incentive to vote for the "lesser of two evils". There are less-contrived examples that can show this too, but it's worth pointing out every time it comes up.

How would approval voting handle this election? That, of course, depends on exactly how many voters in each faction approve of their second choice, but the Nash equilibrium is a win for B. I believe this is also true for IRV, but it involves the majority of voters ranking their second-favorite above their true favorite. Meanwhile, under approval it never helps you to lower your vote for your true favorite. I'll explore equilibria more in a future post.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Further Thoughts: Minneapolis RCV Report

I was contacted via email by a concerned reader about my last post, discussing Minneapolis' use of ranked choice voting (RCV, AKA instant runoff voting (IRV)). This reader had attempted to contact the report's lead author, Dr. David Schultz, with the hope of clarifying a few points, such as:

  • The paper notes a factor of four increase in ballot spoilage rates, but the prose refuses to acknowledge the possibility that any of this increase was due to the use of RCV. What else would Schultz attribute the increase to?
  • How is such a large number of votes being tossed out not disenfranchisement? How would Schultz identify disenfranchisement?
  • How does Schultz reconcile the 7.5% ballot-error rate with a claim that there did not seem to be any voter confusion?

Unfortunately, Dr. Schultz chose not to answer any of these salient points at all, and was rather short--I would say insultingly dismissive, if the message forwarded to me is any indication--with the few questions he did answer. (One question, about why Schultz's report made constant comparisons to first-past-the-post while Minneapolis had previously used top-two-runoff, was answered with "SO? Your point?")

So perhaps I was too generous to the good doctor. It seems he desperately wants to "prove" that RCV/IRV works, and despite reporting the numbers truthfully (which, he should be praised for), it seems he will continue to support pro-IRV rhetoric, even when his own numbers strongly suggest against it; and that he isn't interested in discussing it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Minneapolis RCV Report: IRV Is No Magic Bullet

Dr. David Schultz (not be confused with Mark Schulze, of Schulze method fame) has posted his report for the Minneapolis Elections Department on the use of ranked choice voting [PDF] (more commonly known as instant runoff voting or IRV), as it was used in that city's recent elections. Schultz was (and apparently still is) a strong supporter of the use of IRV, having previously served as a board member for FairVote Minnesota, a fact he plainly states in his paper's Conflict of Interest heading. And this refreshing honesty continues throughout the document... which probably isn't good news for FairVote's or Dr. Schultz's objectives.

First on the chopping block is the claim that IRV increases turnout. Turnout for the 2009 IRV election was down 21% form the 2005 election. Now, there are many reasons for turnout to vary between elections--for instance, the report mentions that there weren't any particularly heated contests on the ballot--so this alone isn't certainly damning for IRV; but it surely doesn't help.

We also find that the well-advertised claim of decreased election costs turned out to not be true. We already knew this, based on a previous report, but it's worth reiterating: even when one-time costs, including voter-education costs, are ignored, the 2009 IRV election cost 20% more than the 2005 election. This is primarily a labor-cost issue, since Minneapolis was not able to find any voting machines capable of adjudicating an IRV election which meet the necessary security and accountability requirements set by law; so the vote had to be counted by hand. Schultz hopes that, perhaps, other towns in Minnesota will express interest in IRV, which will encourage the approval of the cost-saving IRV-capable voting machines. Considering the continuing problems of Diebold Premier Dominion Voting, I wouldn't hold my breath.

I do have one serious complaint about this report, and that's Schultz's claim that first past the post (FPTP, AKA plurality voting) is, like IRV, non-monotonic. This statement is unequivocally false, and the blatant attempt to whitewash this shortcoming of IRV stands out, painfully, against the otherwise honest assessments given throughout.

But my "favorite" part of the report is the section on Spoiled Ballots and Voter Error. Schultz begins by assuring us that "[T]he worst fears were not realized." By which he means IRV only quadrupled the ballot-spoilage rate, from 1.0% to 4.1%. It's true, previous IRV elections would suggest a six- or seven-fold increase in spoilage rates would be expected. Although it should be pointed out that, in addition to the 4.1% of ballots that had to be thrown out, an additional 6.4% had "errors" which the hand-counting procedure was able to "ascertain the intent of," for a total error rate of 10.5%. It's not clear how these ballots would have been handled by an automated system, had one been available.

Finally: how much of an impact did IRV have on the election? In all 20 single-winner contests, the candidate with the most initial 1st-place votes won the election. In 17 of these 20, the winner surpassed the 50% threshold immediately, and in the other 3 cases they did so after the first round of eliminations. But I don't want to hold this too strongly against IRV: as mentioned earlier, there weren't any hotly-contested races in this election. That usually means low-turnout and a lot of blow-out elections. Realistically, any electoral system would probably have come to the same conclusions in these races as IRV did. The true measure of an electoral system's quality is how well it can handle highly-contested and close-to-call elections. The predominant examples suggests that IRV would handle such elections poorly; but the Minneapolis data provides no real information for or against that proposition.

I hope that Dr. Schultz will carefully consider the empirical data that his report has highlighted, and that it will help to temper the misleading rhetoric that FairVote Minnesota has used, and which the national FairVote organization continues to use, to push for IRV's adoption around the country.

Instant Runoff (AKA Ranked Choice) Voting Has Spoilers

Another new YouTube video from SJVoter, showing how, despite claims to the contrary, instant runoff voting has spoilers.

Hmm... that example looks really familiar...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Linky Linky

Ran across a great summary of voting theory issues and why score voting is worth taking a look at. It covers a lot of the same points I often make, so if you've been following along here, you won't find anything new (well, I don't think I've talked about the bees thing yet...), but if you're just starting out, you'll find it to be an enlightening read.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Three Is More Than Two (But Less Than Infinity)

Why are approval voting and score voting such good voting methods? This certainly wasn't the expected result when Dr. Smith's voting simulation was first run, and a lot of work has gone into trying to make sense of the result.

I've Got a Theorem...

When anyone first starts to dig into the vagaries of electoral systems, they will quickly hit upon the Nobel-winning work of Kenneth Arrow and his impossibility theorem. But there was another very important--perhaps more important--theorem that came along just a few years later. It goes by the mouthful-of-a-name of The Gibbard-Satterwaite theorem. You do have to admit "Arrow" is a much catchier, and certainly shorter, name; so we'll call this "G-S" for short.

What G-S proves is that, under any electoral system using rank-order ballots, if there are at least three candidates, there will always be situations where a voter who knew how every other voter was voting, would be better off by voting strategically. Always. Even if you allow for equal-rank preferences (which some Condorcet methods can handle) you still run into this problem. So the conjecture is that no single-winner, rank-order-based method could ever possibly support three strong parties, since any candidate would eventually run headfirst into this problem and the perfectly-informed voter will have to choose between honesty and strategy.

But approval voting and score voting don't have this problem with a third candidate. It is still always in your best interest to rate your true-favorite highest, and your true-hated lowest, and doing so will never cause the election outcome to be worse than any other outcome you could achieve. In short, there's no incentive to vote strategically.

Preemptive Counter-Counter-Arguments

Now, there are a couple counter-arguments that people will bring up at this point. One of them is that, since G-S is about a "perfectly-informed" voter, they claim that this means approval (and score) only work this well if there is perfect polling for an election. Which is clearly impossible, so we should obviously use INSERT_FAVORITE_METHOD instead. The logic here is entirely unsound. First, even if G-S doesn't guarantee the effectiveness of ratings-based methods, it certainly does guarantee the ineffectiveness of all ranking-based methods; to stump for a known-bad over an unknown-but-potentially-good, seems blindingly counter-productive. Secondly, the fact that even the best-informed voters may have to strategize to avoid a bad outcome will tend to cause less-than-perfectly-omniscient voters to hedge their bets, and strategically go with the lesser of two evils out of fear of the greater evil.

But a more bizarre (or perhaps just more brazen) argument is that, since approval and score can't pass G-S with four or more candidates, then they are clearly insufficient. Which is an absolutely mindboggling argument, since even school children know that three is still more than two, regardless of the fact that three is less than infinity. Are these methods perfect? No, they aren't. Are they able to deliver an outcome that it is impossible for any ranking-based method to deliver? Yes, they are.

Too Infinity!

The fact that these methods have no perverse incentives in three-candidate elections is probably a large contributor to their improved performance in three-candidate elections, even if they still aren't perfect. And we know that all methods do better when everyone is honest, so having nothing to gain from being dishonest probably accounts for something. And perhaps this improved performance with three candidates somehow carries over and provide better results with four-or-more candidate races too, since performance drops at a noticeably slower rate than the rank-order methods do.

Perhaps knowing why something works isn't as important as knowing that it works; but being able to explain why may help convince some people who refuse to believe that.

I Am Full of Links Today

Another one for you, this time from The New Yorker book review; but it does a mighty job of summarizing 200 years of the intersection of math and politics in that rambling, New Yorker style, with a shout-out to my favorite book on the subject, "Gaming the Vote" (Amazon link on your right). An enlightening read, even if it does unfairly complicated approval voting in the opener (selecting the voters, no matter how complicated, isn't a part of the voting system!)

Must-Read Pro-Approval/Pro-Range Piece

Frequent LoAE commenter Broken Ladder post this excellent piece at As It Ought To Be, about the superiority of score and approval voting. The piece is by Andrew Jennings, Clay Shentrup (who I believe has also commented here), and Dr. Warren Smith (whose work I regularly quote).

Note to self: write up a post on the "complexity" argument.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Promising Trends

I want you to take a look at this Google Trend, particularly the breakdown by cities (bottom, center).

Minneapolis and San Francisco, which have both passed instant runoff laws in the last few years, have practically zero people who have looked into approval voting. But on the plus side, in Los Angeles, which is slowly examining IRV, even though IRV is more-often searched for, approval is still getting a noticeable number of hits. And in New York City, which has also begun considering IRV, approval voting has actually caught more people's interest than IRV has.

It's hard work, but it seems that the word is getting out. Please, do your part, especially if you're in LA or NYC. Unfortunately, score voting/range voting have no noticeable activity in any city; but keep talking about approval voting, because people are starting to listen!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The United Kingdom and the Alternative Vote

If you follow international news, you may be aware that, as part of the agreement for a new government, the Liberal Democrats have argued for a national referendum on the alternative vote, or what we would call in the United States (and what I will call in this post) instant runoff voting. Now, I'm no fan of IRV. But I think that, if the UK went this way, they might actually come out a bit better for it.

At first, I will be ignoring any non-outcome-based effects (i.e., costs) and holding everything else equal. And under these conditions, IRV would provide slightly better outcomes than plurality, given the assumption that a significant number of voters vote honestly rather than tactically. And, examining the election data for the UK, it seems that more voters are honest. There are two reasons that this may be the case.

One, the UK is a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one, so there is an extra layer of dis-connectedness between voters and the executive branch. This means there's less incentive to rally around or against the prime minister, and less direct control over them, meaning there is (or at least there is perceived to be) less to gain by voting tactically (this is, I think, a large reason for the LibDems success in the last several years).

Two, compared to the US, there is practically no polling done in the UK, except on the national level. And knowing that, say, 23% of people plan to vote for the LibDems, tells you practically nothing about what percentage of people will be voting for them in your local election, fancy new attempts to model such things not withstanding. Without that information, it's difficult to know how to vote tactically. Election results bear this out: there are a great many constituencies where tactical voters could have easily swayed the outcome in their benefit. So, given that there is and will continue to be significant honesty, the IRV results could be slightly more satisfying, based on Smith's simulation data.

But only slightly. And the elections will be more costly to count (perhaps only a little, perhaps 20% more). And this election marked a strong shift towards rallying around the party's would-be prime ministers (featuring the first-ever debate among them). And there's also a rising interest in local polling, partially caused by interest in IRV's possible benefits. Taking everything into account, there will likely be less election-satisfaction in the future no matter what, and if IRV is passed, it will probably be blamed on it, as a great deal of money will have been spent with little to show for it; which surely won't endear voters to the politicians who fought for— and over-sold the benefits of—it.

I wish someone with Nick Clegg's ear would tell him about approval and score voting. It would not be appreciably more costly, and would lead to markedly better outcomes (and probably more LibDems) regardless of voter honesty.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Always Learning

I picked the wrong day to be out sick, so since I missed out on the latter half of the conversation, I wanted to give a big thank you to DLW and Broken Ladder for an engaging debate in the comments. In the near future, expect to see some post from me based on those discussions. When intelligent people disagree with you, you should take the opportunity to come up with better ways to make your arguments, and that's what I'll be trying to do.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pro-Approval Video from NYU Professor

Steven Brams, Professor of Politics at New York University, runs down the advantages of approval voting and refutes many of the arguments against it, in this video. Worth the five minutes.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Start With the Primaries?

Enacting meaningful election reform is going to be an uphill battle. But perhaps there's an easier way to get a foot in the door. Currently, the national Republican party is reconsidering the rules for its presidential primaries. The plan coming from the national party would require that the states--at least those earliest in the primary season--divide their delegates in some proportion based on the percentage of votes each candidate receives in the primary, rather than using a winner-takes-all approach.

Presumably, this is coming as a response to John McCain's "win" in the Florida primary, way back in January of 2007 (seems like forever ago, doesn't it?), where he got 36% of the votes, but 100% of the delegates. Allegedly, this led to McCain's nomination, despite most Republicans wanting someone else. (The first post to LoAE was about this very issue. Oh my, I was still planing to advocate for Condorcet methods then!)

This will be a difficult process to implement. While there could be some potential improvement in national outcomes if every state delegation went with a proportional division, this is in opposition to the fact that each individual state can improve it's own power by sticking with winner-takes-all. It's the same reason that only a couple states divide their electoral college votes: by dividing your effort, you weaken the effect you have on the outcome. It may be possible for the national party to convince the state parties to give up this power, but someone, somewhere, is going to lose out in this transition.

But let's take a step back: the deeper problem here is that the national Republican party is trying to find a better way to make plurality votes decide an outcome among more than two possible choices. Whether or not to divide delegates up is missing the forest for the trees; the problem is that plurality voting sucks when there are more than two options.

The answer (which you've already guessed if this isn't your first time here) is approval voting (or score voting). Under approval, rather than have each voter vote for one, and then divvy those up somehow among several delegates who will also each vote for one, a better result can be obtained by having each voter approve of as many candidates as they want, and then assign a proportional number of delegates to submit approval for those candidates, potentially even having some delegates approve of multiple candidates. If 55% of the voters approve of A, have 55% of the delegates approve of A; if 65% also approve of B, have 65% approve of B, even if that means that (at least) 20% will have to approve of both. A similar procedure can work with score voting; if a candidate's average score is 5.5/10, have 55% of the delegates approve of A, and so on.

This process will require a larger change than perhaps the party can manage (it will require changes in all states, not just a Florida and a few others), but it will lead to much better results than any proportional-division plan based on plurality ballots could.

In the larger sense, entering the political system via party primaries is potentially a much better way to get approval (or score) voting adopted: while in the general elections, alternative voting methods could only hurt major parties (to the benefit of third parties), in a primary election it could only help, by delivering better candidates into the general election whenever more than two candidates vie for the nomination (where "better" is determined by whatever the voters think it means).

Friday, June 18, 2010

First and Second, or First and Last?

When I find myself trying to persuade others of the advantage of approval and score voting, I often end up arguing with proponents of instant runoff voting. And after debunking the claim that IRV is immune to spoilers, their typical follow-up response is to bring up "bullet voting".


"Bullet voting" means that, even if a voter has the option in a voting system to rank or rate multiple candidates, they choose to only rank one. And so, their ballot is effectively equivalent to a plurality voting ballot. Since plurality is bad (a fact we can all agree on), any system that incentivizes it will also be bad.

My opponents argue that, if enough voters choose to approve of (or to give maximum points to) a second candidate—one other than their honest-favorite—that these voters could cause a worse result for themselves than if they had not done so. In other words, they could cause their true favorite to lose by approving multiple options; therefore, voters have an incentive to approve only one candidate, hence bullet voting, hence plurality-level results.

"You Missed"

The truth is, they've actually pointed out the greatest strength that cardinal voting systems (like approval and score) have over ranked voting systems (like IRV and Condorcet systems): you might accidentally cause your second choice to win. But how is this an advantage? Because in those other systems, the risk is that you might accidentally cause your last choice to win! That's what the existence of spoilers in these systems mean, that when voters choose to support their true favorite above all others, they risk throwing the election to the candidate the hate the most; that, or they can play it safe, by supporting an acceptable, but not fantastic, candidate, at the expense of removing all hope for their true-favorite to win.

Meanwhile, while you sit in the booth contemplating your approval ballot, trying to decide whether or not to "bullet vote", your fear isn't of your least-favorite candidate winning, but of your second-favorite candidate winning. Now, that's still not going to be an easy choice, but your prospects seem much better when your choice is between 1st and 2nd rather than between 1st and last.

Friday, May 28, 2010

What Do You Mean By "Best"?

Plurality voting is terrible and should be replaced, but what's the best voting system to replace it with? This isn't a new revelation, or a new question; for instance Thomas Jefferson considered the problem. But academic inquiries to it had been in a lull since Kenneth Arrow's Nobel-prize-winning work in 1950 showed that, given certain assumptions, there was no perfect system. Social-decision scientists everywhere were crushed.

What little debate that continued about the subject focused around various "voting system criteria". Arrow's work had shown that a group of five certain "clearly necessary" criteria were mutually exclusive, but perhaps by breaking certain ones in a minimally-damaging way an almost-perfect voting system could be found. The problem was, no one could agree which criteria were most important; each practitioner could always come up with some worst-case scenario in which their opponents latest new proposal clearly gave a horrible result (usually involving a candidate named "Hitler" winning the election, just to make the point clear.) And so the debate degenerated to what situations were more likely to come up or led to more damaging results: the terrible one I concocted for your new voting system, or the terrible one you concocted for mine. But all these arguments lacked one important piece: evidence.

To make good estimates of how often various worst-case scenarios happen and how bad they are, it would take at least hundreds of elections, each with a minimum of a few hundred participants, multiplied by each of dozens of systems that had been developed, in order to get a clear picture. But even then, what do you measure? When your experiment is to ask people "what's the best ice-cream favor," how do you measure whether the voting system was right without knowing the right answer ahead of time? And how would you determine the right answer ahead of time, without asking people to vote on it?

The problem is that economic utility can't be measured directly. Combined with the in-feasibility of performing enough test-elections, it's enough to make almost anyone throw up their hands in frustration.

But here's a clever idea: what if we replace real people with little bits of computer code? Instead of futilely trying to measure each participants utility, we can just assign them randomly from a statistical distribution. We'll have each little bit of code "vote" using every one of the electoral methods we've developed, but also calculate what the maximum possible utility could be from each election, and see how much we miss by. And we'll do it a few hundred times and take the average. Running the whole simulation should take maybe a long weekend. (If only Arrow had had access to a modern desktop computer!) What would we find? Let's ask Professor Warren D. Smith, who ran this simulation over the 1999/2000 New Year's holiday.

If the data from this simulation is to be believed, using approval voting, or score voting (listed here as range voting), could improve the results of our elections by the same proportion as voting at all is an improvement over choosing our leaders at random. That's an astounding result!

Of course, there are still critics: most of them just repeat their favorite criteria argument (usually later-no-harm or majority, since score and approval fail them) ignoring that this data already accounts for any downsides from those short-comings. A few smug folks point out that you can't measure utility; but we already know that, that's why we used a simulation. Some attacked the statistical distribution of utility (now we're getting to something meaty!), so a series of better distributions, based on their suggestions, were used: the results were virtually the same. Then they argued that voters are a poor judge of their own utility; so the experiment was rerun with a "voter uncertainty" parameter. Even with a 50% error factor, score and approval still top the list.

The most bizarre argument is that score and approval can't be the best voting systems, because they aren't voting systems at all. You see, one of Arrow's assumptions was that a voting system would convert a set of all voter's "ranked-order preferences" into a societal order of ranked preferences. But score and approval don't used ranked-order preferences; perhaps, if Arrow hadn't used this overly-restrictive requirement, it wouldn't have taken 50 years to find these results.

Not only is this an astounding result, it seems to be a fairly unassailable result. The "best" voting system is score voting, and approval is almost as good (but easier to implement).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hawaii 01: Another Example

The state of Hawaii has provided us yet another example of the need to reform our electoral system. Voting in the special election to fill HI-01, left open by Neil Abercrombie's (D) retirement, finished up today, and the results are out:

  • (R) DJOU, Charles 67,274 39.5%
  • (D) HANABUSA, Colleen 52,445 30.8%
  • (D) CASE, Ed 47,012 27.6%

Quick math will show that Hanabusa and Case, both Democrats, combined for 58.4% of the vote. (The other three Democrats, other four Republicans, and four third-party and independent candidates combined received about 1.5%.) It would be a hard argument to make that a majority of either of the Hanabusa or Case voters would prefer that Djou be their representative, and yet, for the next 8 months, he will be.

Some people will claim that this is mostly Abercrombie's fault: he knew that Hawaii election law would lead to this free-for-all election, and he should have stayed on the job until January. Some will blame Case: he should have known he was running behind Hanabusa, and therefore should have stepped aside. Some will claim that this shows Hawaii should update its election laws to allow for primaries, or at least for party-commission selection of candidates.

A better answer would be approval voting (or score voting). This wouldn't have required a gubernatorial hopeful to half-heartedly continue on as a congressmen. And it wouldn't have forced a legitimately viable candidate (27.6% is a pretty respectable percentage) to bow out prematurely. Nor would it require another expensive and time consuming set of elections, or required the choice to be made by an undemocratic party boss. Instead, voters whose concern is that a Democrat, any Democrat, wins could have approved of both Hanabusa and Case, and as long as about 9% or so of the electorate had done that (or about 1/6th of the voters who voted for any Democrat), a Democrat would have won.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Utah Republican Primaries

Ignoring, for a moment, the larger political implications of stalwart Republican Senator Robert Bennett failing to get on the Republican primary ballot for his re-election, I find it very interesting that Utah's Republicans have taken the idea of a primary to the next logical level, by having a pre-primary decision that makes the actual primary a top-two runoff; which then, of course, feeds straight into the two-party-dominated general election. It's the only rational response when you assume single-winner plurality elections.

Someone should tell them about approval voting.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Lies My Blogger Told Me; Or:The Republicans Were Never A Third Party

I've read this on a several small blogs and in many comments over the last few months: this misguided belief that the Republican party was, at one time, a third party; like the Constitutionist or the Libertarians or the Greens or the Socialist of today.

It's not true. The Republicans were never anything like any of the third parties we have now, because the Republicans were never on the outside looking in at the two-party system. Instead, one of the existing two major parties—the Whigs—collapsed due to an internal schism over the issue of slavery. Then, one of the factions met up and re-named themselves the Republicans. But the people involved were the same people, the same politicians! And a lot of them went straight from being elected Whigs to being elected Republicans!

(Although some of them, fed up with the squabbling, left a few years before the dramatic collapse, and had to be coaxed back later.)

That's completely different then any group of out-of-power citizens trying to build an organization up from the ground floor to challenge the two near-indomitable incumbents. Remember, it is a two-party system. The only road to success for a third party (other than a fundamental voting system change such as approval voting or score voting) is for one of the two major parties to collapse; which has only ever happened in American history because of internal disagreements, never because of an assault from the outside.

So good luck.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thought Experiments: On Top-Two Open Primaries

If you follow voting issues, or if you happen to live in California, you may be aware of Proposition 14, an initiative which seeks to replace party-based primaries in the state with the so-called "top-two open primary" (TTOP); top-two because only the top two vote-getters get to appear on the ballot for the general election, and open because its open to candidates and voters from all parties.

It's a terrible idea. Let me show you why, by means of a few thought-experiments:

#1: Party Hack

First, let's presume I'm an ultra-partisan party hack for one of the two major parites; all I care about is whether or not a member of my party wins the general election, and that a member of the other major party doesn't. What changes for me under TTOP?

Before TTOP, the only reason I cared about primaries at all was I wanted to candidate with the best chance to win the general election to come out of the party primary; typically, I tend to back someone who's a moderate, rather than an extreme, member of my party, so that they'll get some cross-over support in the general, and pick up the moderates and independents; but not someone who's crazy moderate, such that the "base" (read: extreme wing of the party) stay home on election day... which means I can actually back a much more moderate candidate than their grumblings would attest to (they'll come around; after all, they wouldn't want a member of the other party to win, would they?)

What's different for me with TTOP? To keep things simple, let's assume that the other party only has a single candidate in the TTOP. Well, I have a small problem: if my moderate is too moderate, then the base will abandon him for the more-extreme option. And then, fearing that the extreme candidate in my party and the moderate member of my party will be the top-two, my cross-over support starts to slip away. So I stand I good chance to see my moderate go down, and the general to be between my extremist and the other party's guy; and that's a contest that I worry I might lose.

On the other hand, maybe I pick up a lot of true moderates. As long as the primary voters really don't care in a fight between my extremist and the other party's guy, then they have nothing to lose in voter for my moderate. But there's two problems with that. One, they really have to not care which of the those two wins, and most moderates lean one way or the other. Two, actual moderate (or independents or what have you) aren't used to voting in the formerly party-only primaries, so I'll need to step up my get-out-the-vote game, while focusing it on an entirely new electorate. That'll cost me a pretty penny.

These two forces pull in opposite directions with respect to how "moderate" the final election winner will be. But which force is stronger? Which is more likely to come up? A lot of ink is being sacrificed over that debate, but the best analytical guess comes from The Center For Government Studies [PDF], who conclude that, averaged over time, there will only be minimal improvement. Sometimes you'll end up with a more moderate eventual winner, but sometimes you'll get the crazy. By "on average" though, it means we're adding a lot of variance, which is to say, randomness. But we don't want randomness, we want accountability, and transparency, and responsiveness. Randomness doesn't help anyone. Still, I have to play the odds, and no matter what, I back my moderate.

But what if the other party chooses to also run two candidates against my two candidates? Then things get a bit more complicated, because now there's the chance that neither of my guys makes it to election day. Now I need to do extensive polling, and advertise it widely, because I've got to make sure that, no matter which of our two guys we choose to back, we've all got to back him, because in this case, a split vote could mean we're out with no chance of recovery.

My instincts point me clearly towards a simple conclusion: it would be really nice if we could have a party primary before the open primary. Except that's, for one, illegal now, and two, kind of pointing out how ridiculously stupid this law is in the first place. And the problem only gets worse for me if there are more members of my party running; as long as there's more than one candidate not of my party, I need to do everything I can to limit the number of members of my party that run, and the one tool I have for this, a party primary, is gone.

If I'm a party hack, I don't really like TTOP.

Separately, let's consider the case where there's three candidates in the TTOP: my guy, the other guy, and a third-party candidate. I still need to do a lot of polling and advertising, because if the third-party guy is doing well, and is doing well at my party's expense, then it's similar to the case where the other party was running two candidates; I might be out before the general. This is the dream scenario that a lot of third-party backers are envisioning for themselves now, where they unseat a major party candidate and go into the final vote. But how likely is that? Thankfully, we already know the answer to that, because TTOP is functionally the same as another voting system we've looked at: instant runoff voting. And we know that, in many situations involving three candidates, IRV leads to spoiled elections, and spoiled elections lead to a two-party dominated system. Which means we get the "lesser of two evils" voters, and things keep working for us just as before.

#2: A Moderate Voter

On the flip side, the problems are equal, but opposite. I can try to vote for third-parties, but I still probably see a spoiler before I see a winner, which the party hacks will be betting on. So I'll try to vote for more moderate members of major parties; which is fine, unless both parties are running a moderate, in which case I have to do a lot of homework to make sure the moderate vote doesn't get split such that neither moderate goes to the general and we're stuck with a vote between two insane extremists.

Sound and Fury

So in the aggregate, what we find is an effectively identical average effectiveness (perhaps a smidge better, according to simulations), but one that's surrounded by a lot more random variance, and with a whole lot more money spent on polling and advertising; which is, again, the same conclusion as the Center For Government Studies came to. And really, do we want to enact a change whose most significant effect will be to make our elected representatives to be more dependent on their corporate financiers?

All in all, TTOP isn't worth the trouble. So if you're Californian, remember to vote NO on Proposition 14.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Betrayal and Clones

Why do I call this blog The Least of All Evils? It's a play on a well-known phrase that seems to come up a lot around election time every year. Many voters—and perhaps you've been one of these voters—have found themselves standing in the election booth, looking at a Democrat and a Republican, and also perhaps some other third choice, and said to themselves "I really like this third option; but I know they haven't being polling great, and I really hate the Democrat (or the Republican), so in order to prevent the worst candidate from winning, perhaps it's best if I vote for the lesser of two evils." And so either voters take such a tactical position—and third-party candidates become self-fulfilled prophecies of failure—or voters stick to their honest views—and third-party candidates become spoilers.

Making the tactical choice is an example of favorite betrayal, which is hands-down the most common type of strategic voting, and is probably the most damaging as well, so it shouldn't be surprising if a student of voting theory might try to design a voting system to combat it. (And yet, the Wikipedia article for the favorite betrayal criterion has been deleted.) This is the crux of my problem with instant runoff voting: that it cannot guarantee immunity to favorite betrayal and, more so, that it markets itself by lying that it can.

A Brief Digression

Let me change gears for a moment and talk about primaries again. I said before that the sole reason for political parties to exist is to hold primaries, in which they try to determine which of several similarly-minded candidates would best serve their members while still wining the election. What if a party were to consider two completely identical candidates, and they found themselves tied for first-place in their party's primary, could the party run both candidates? Of course not! At best, everyone will vote for the same candidate and any effort spent on the other will be wasted, and at worst the votes will be split perfectly equally, and the party will have done nothing but increase the share of votes they need to win from half to two-thirds. Having this sort of problem crop up in a voting system is called susceptibility to cloning. (I should note that there are voting systems, such as the Borda count, that have the opposite problem, where a party's best strategy is run as many similar candidates as possible; this is sometimes called "teaming", but we'll refer to both collectively as "cloning" here.)

Now, why have I brought up cloning? Because there is an interesting piece of mathematical work [PDF] that shows that no voting system based on ranked order ballots (which is the kind of ballots used in instant runoff voting) can be immune to both favorite betrayal and to cloning. So given the choice between a voting system that prevents the worst type of tactical voting, and one that can protect elections from the Star Wars Clone Army, instant runoff supporters have decided that the science fiction ravings of George Lucas are a bigger threat.

Accidentally On Purpose

Now, back to favorite betrayal, and how instant runoff supporters lie that they can fix it. Here's their claim (from FairVote.org's "How Instant Runoff Voting Works"):

IRV allows all voters to vote for their favorite candidate, while avoiding the fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate.

Now, this is simply not true; I can provide simple examples illustrating it, and point to real-life elections where it was not the case. If it's so obvious, why the lie? Perhaps it's not intentional; perhaps they are simple confusing favorite betrayal with independence of clones?

To fall for this lie, you only need to make one unstated, seemingly-intuitive, but regrettably false, assumption: that everyone's true favorite is functionally a clone of another candidate. Allow me to sketch an example. Lets assume there's a Republican, a Democrat, and a Green running in an election. If you assume that every Democrat-first voter has the Green candidate as their second choice, and every Green-first voter has the Democratic candidate as their second choice—which seems to be close-enough to true that it shouldn't really effect the outcome of the election—then instant-runoff voting performs flawlessly! That's because you've treated the Green and the Democrat as clones; you could just as easily had two identical Democrats running in the election, and the voters would have acted the same way. But the problem is this: it only takes one, single, solitary voter to throw the election into a situation where a large number of voters will find that they have accidentally elected their least-preferred candidate, which they could have avoided if they'd strategically betrayed their favorite and voted their second-favorite first, just like so many voters do today under plurality. This is because instant runoff is immune clones, but is not immune to favorite betrayal. And all it takes is one Democrat who likes the Republicans better than the Greens (someone like Al Gore, to name one example.)

A Whole Lot of Work, For Nothing

Because of its susceptibility to favorite betrayal, instant runoff voting will ultimately result in the same two-party-dominated system as we have under plurality; the proof is in the Australian House of Representatives, which has used instant runoff for decades and is as two-party-dominated as the U.S. House of Representatives. (Note that the Liberal and National parties are universally considered to be the same party, to the point that they don't run candidates in the same elections unless Labor isn't running.)

A better answer is approval voting and score voting. Approval voting and score voting are immune to both cloning and to favorite betrayal. They do what no other voting system can, because they don't use rank order ballots, which means they are the only systems which can actually help third parties, and the only system which can help us escape from two-party politics. If you are a third-party supporter, or if you are simply fed up with feeling you are forced to pick the lesser of two evils, then your number-one political priority should be to enact approval or score voting. Even if all politicians are scum, you should at least have your choice among The Least of All Evils.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Paradoxical Primary

2008 was a historic election, and understandably for such a momentous vote, it saw the highest voter turnout percentage in over 40 years. But still, only about 63% of eligible voters took the opportunity to participate. The 2008 election also saw one of the closest and most drawn-out presidential primary contest in American history, and "Super Tuesday" set an all-time-high record for participation. That record? 27%

Primaries are funny things. In virtually every city and county in America, the local government pays an exorbitant amount of money—nearly as much as it spends on the general election—for a vote which is not only poorly attended, but which a growing number of voters are legally barred from participating in (due to both more-restrictive affiliation laws and the growing ranks of third-party and independent registrations). And furthermore, why are public funds being expended at all, when political parties are private organizations?

The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of parties; and George Washington famously warned against such factionalization. Nevertheless, the First Party System coalesced right in Washington's cabinet chambers (among his secretaries of State and of the Treasury). And despite the fact that pretty much everyone has been complaining about it ever since, we've had essentially the same two-party dynamic straight through to today.

On the flip side, consider that, of the 435 house elections held in 2008 (concurrent with those same high voter-turnout numbers), 56 were uncontested, and an astounding 149 more were won by two-to-one margins. That's over 47% where it's safe to say the "real" election didn't matter at all, and it was the primary that decided the outcome. This is the secret truth of political parties: they exist for one reason, and one reason only, and that is to hold primaries.

Why are primaries so important?

Why do we have a two-party system?

The answers to these two questions are the same: our voting system is stupid. It's stupid because it does an abysmally poor job of deciding between more than two options. Parties hold primaries in order to limit the number of options presented to voters, so that like-minded candidates won't overload the system such that every one of them loses to some other, presumably less-worthy opponent. We have two parties because like-minded candidates continued to band together into parties until a manageable number of options were presented in the final vote: two.

The collapse from a nation of individual free-thinkers to two-party rigidity happens almost instantly, but once reached, is almost impossible to escape. And when it is escaped, we fall back almost as quickly; hopefully not to many of us die along the way. But this is as much a moral failing on our part as it is a moral failing of a stone to fall to the ground. As much as the contours of the laws of physics inescapably control the path of the stone, the contours of our voting system control the path of our politics. The difference is, we can change our voting system.

Of course, we change our voting system all the time. Ballot Access News notes that, in the month of March alone, nine states had bills introduced changing the vote percentage, or the number of signatures, or the number of registrations, needed to get on the ballot for elections. Seven states are considering laws to change precisely who can vote in primaries. And some states are considering larger changes, such as California's proposition 14, which would replace all party-specific primaries with a single blanket-primary, from which only the top two vote-getters would appear on the ballot for the actual election. Every single one of these efforts is a poor attempt to patch the system without acknowledging the underlying truth that our voting system is stupid because it does an abysmally poor job of deciding between more than two choices, and until we can change that fact, no change can initiate the systemic reform that the backers of these efforts naively expect them to.

Prop 14 is particularly egregious since the failures of "top two blanket primary" are well-known, and functionally identical to "top two runoff elections", which have also led to disappointing results.

I recently read "Grand Illusion" by Theresa Amato (campaign manager for Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004). Chapter 8 of the book is titled "'The Debate Commission Sucks'", although the book's other eight chapters could have had similarly dismissive titles. ("Ballot Access Laws Suck", "Being a Third Party Sucks", "Lawsuits (over ballot access) Suck", "Democrats Suck (and blame us)", "The Judicial System (with respect to ballot access laws) Sucks", "The Federal Election Commission Sucks", and "Voting Administration In This Country Sucks") Ms. Amato, and indeed, Ralph Nader and everyone around him, are berating a stone for falling. Although, in her defense, she does make some effort to suggest solutions, although most of them are along the same lines as what Ballot Access News is tracking. She does, however, make two passing references to the real solution: score voting (which appears in her index under an alternate name, as "range voting").

Score voting, and only score voting [PDF], can correctly adjudicate an election with three candidates. Three is a very important number. Scientist have known since Newton how to determine all the physical interactions between two objects; such as a stone falling to the ground, or the Moon orbiting the Earth. There is a simple equation which will tell us the precise positions of both objects at any time in the future. But when we add a third object, just one more, that goes away. A three-body system is a chaotic system, and while it may appear as stable as a two-body system for an extended time frame, it is inherently unpredictable.

That sort of unpredictability is what we need, because its the freedom to make our own path rather than to be locked into this repeating orbit. It's what the 40% of Americans who aren't members of the Democratic or Republican party want, even if they can't articulate it that way. It's what everyone who rails against ballot access laws or rallies for new primary laws wants, even if they don't know it. We want a smarter democracy; one that can count to three.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Abyss Stares Also

There's been a lot of talk recently among people who dream of bringing the two-party system low, and ushering in a new era of three-party politics; with, of course, their own favorite third-party as the newcomer. They see their new party as a mediator, keeping the other two parties honest, and everyone, Republican, Democrat, and $NEWPARTIER alike will all be better off!

Let me lay this out in no uncertain terms: it won't happen; not like that anyway.

Here's the problem: it's a two-party system. I know what you're thinking, "This guy has no vision, no drive; history is written by those who believe in doing what others say can't be done; forget him!" No, that's not it at all. What I'm telling you is this: if you suceed—and I wish you the best of luck—it will not be by creating a three-party system where there was once a two-party system, it will be by destroying and taking the place of either the Republicans or the Democrats.

There are several lines of reasoning to support this; let's start with history. As I covered in a five part series late last summer, while parties have collapsed (Federalist), split (Democratic-Republicans), died (Whigs), and re-cast themselves over again (Democrats, Republicans), there has never simultaneously been more than two strong nation-wide parties. There are some people who seem to think that the Republican party began as a third-party movement and grew to supplant the Whigs, but that's not the case. The Whigs were well on their way to destruction when the Republican party formed among the despondent anti-slavery Whigs, and it then immediately attracted strong support from the anti-slavery faction of the Democrats. And this happened in a historical blink of an eye. In the 1852 presidential election, the Whigs took over 43% of the vote. In 1856, they didn't even hold a convention, and the Republicans took over 33% of the vote. The change in congressional seats tells the same story; the complete supplantation of one party by another in just four years (and this rapid change rippled across America before the invention of the telephone, let alone the internet).

The second line of reasoning is mathematical. It really is a two-party system. This is an application of Duverger's Law, which is the tendency of all single-member plurality voting systems to favor just two parties (note: I would personally extend it to all single-member spoiler-prone voting systems, but Wikipedia disagrees with me.) No amount of wishful thinking, inspired begging, or hard work can ever change that. This doesn't mean that your dreams of power for your preferred third-party are hopeless, not by a long shot; it means that if you are successful, you will become (half of) the two-party system.

But before you get excited about that idea, let's pause for a moment. In 1860, this nation snapped. Yes, the two-party system changed, something that it seems everyone always wishes will happen, and yet something that so rarely does. And over 600,000 died, and the echoes from those battles still haunt our politics today.

Why do I advocate for better voting systems? Because the system we have now, that we've used for over 200 years, too easily allows for politics to become calcified, for the government to become unresponsive, for the people to become disengaged and despondent. And when that happens, the nation is ripe for corruption, disorder, and in the worst cases, civil war. Spoiler-free election systems would allow a smoother and more graceful transfer of power because they allow a third-party to rise up non-violently.

So, if you are successful, remember what happens to he who fights with monsters. And if you want your success to come more organically, consider supporting score and approval voting now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Game Theory and Healthcare on Slate

A few months ago, I wrote about how the prisoner's dilemma from game theory applies to voting, and before that I mentioned how score voting could help with healthcare reform.

Now, Slate brings us a story about how the prisoner's dilemma and another famous game-theoretical example called "battle of the sexes" apply in the debate on healthcare reform... although they don't offer any suggestions for resolving the dilemma/battle.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oscar Update

As we discussed last summer, the Oscar for best picture is moving from a field of 5 to a field of 10, and the vote is done by instant runoff. Here's the 2009 best picture nominees, vs. IMDB's "Top Rated Titles".

  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side
  • District 9
  • An Education
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air
  1. Avatar
  2. Up
  3. Inglorious Basterds
  4. District 9
  5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  6. Star Trek

The IMDB list is a little truncated, since they only list by decade, and only the top 50 of the decade, so its hard to find IMDB's best 10 films for any one year (maybe they don't want to step on the Academy's toes). You'll note, there's a good amount of overlap this year, which isn't too surprising since the nomination step uses a "name five" approval-style ballot, in which each voter names up to five films, without ranking them. The ten most-often-named films become the nominees. Top-5 is mathematically similar to IMDB's score-based voting system; at least, the two are more similar to each other than either is to the instant runoff voting (IRV) used for the final round.

But which picture will win? It's tempting to say Avatar, since it's IMDB's top rated film of the year, but we know that IRV has somewhere between a 5 and 15% chance to exhibit non-monotonic behavior, in which the true first-choice is eliminated before the final round. And that's with three strong contenders; the odds get worse the more there are, and I think at least four of these can be considered "strong contenders".

But what does "true first-choice" mean? For me, it means consensus. If you put all the Academy voters in a room and told them to watch a movie, which movie would engender the greatest total happiness for the crowd? That's the question that score voting (and IMDB) asks. But supporters of IRV instead speak of something they call "core support"; they say that it's most important for a winner to have a large following of fanatics, voters who like them best of all. They don't use the word "fanatic", but it's appropriate. Instant runoff repeatedly removes the choice with the fewest fanatic followers and shuffles them off to their next favorite group; it's fair to call them fanatics because other options that you may also like are never considered until your number-one is eliminated. In other words, IRV doesn't offer you much of an opportunity to offer a compromise, because its almost always the compromise that gets eliminated by non-monotonic behavior. So the question is, is Avatar a compromise? Does it make everyone mostly happy, or does it make only a few people very happy? Luckily, IMDB records that data too! Maybe we'll examine that next time.

Also, remember that the Academy hates science fiction, and animation. In which case, maybe Inglorious Basterds has a good chance...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Grab Bag

I feel as if I blinked, and missed half of December and the entire month of January. I have a good excuse though: I quit my job, moved over 3,100 miles, and got married in that time. (It sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is; we'd been planning all this for close to six months.) Anyway, as I dig out from under the mountain that is life, here are some stories I wish I had the time to write more in-depth about:

  • Via Ezra Klein, Lawrence Lessig's powerful presentation on the damaging influence of money on politics. It's close to an hour in length, but it is absolutely worth watching.
  • Via Daily Kos, don't try to spin it, according to Public Policy Polling, Fox is the most trusted news agency. About 2/3rds of McCain voters/Republicans/conservatives trust Fox and no one else, whereas Obama voters/Democrats/liberals are split: half of them trust no one, a quarter trust everyone except Fox, and a quarter trust everyone including Fox. If I were a national news agency executive, I see opportunities at both ends of that spectrum.
  • From Ballot Access News, Alaska is considering a new way to deal with independents and primaries. In a world full of cumbersome work-arounds to plurality voting, it's better than most; but to really fix the problem, you've got to get rid of plurality!
  • Meanwhile, California is fiddling with primaries too. Like I said, a world of work-arounds...
  • Portland, Maine is recommending IRV. I blame Vermont for spreading this bad idea eastward. It doesn't even look like they considered anything besides plurality and IRV.
  • Finally, the Green party is using a collaborative process to modify their party platform. That's great, and I've already made a comment regarding the parties foolish support for IRV, when they'd be much better served by score or approval voting.

That's everything from the last week that I'd wished I had time to do a full analysis of.