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'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.