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).


  1. Are you going to link to any of my posts?

    I mean I did post on this topic recently...


  2. Chew on these rules.



  3. I'm kinda bad at this whole "blogosphere" thing and the whole tit-for-tat linking fest.

    That said, a lot of your effort seems to go into PR; which, I agree, is a great way to go, but I generally argue from a very empirical angle, and while with single-winner methods I can fall back on Bayesian regret and Smith's simulations, similar work just doesn't exist for PR systems.

    My intuition is that RRV (re-weighted range voting) would be a very effective system, even with just a two-level approval-type ballot, but I don't have numbers to back that up; so I don't say anything.

    Perhaps I should write a bit about RRV, and then perhaps I will find it useful to link to some of your work.

    Honestly, the first I'd heard of your blog was when I commented yesterday, and I only found it because I have a Google Alert on phrases like "instant runoff voting", "approval voting" etc.; so I'm not even that well-acquainted with your work.

    Nice to meet you!

  4. DSH: You see and that's the problem when you look to a particular criterion.

    Habits trump rules, anyways, and so it's best to hold all purportedly objective approaches to election rule evaluation with a grain of salt.

    My thoughts:
    1. One election rule doesn't fit all elections. Or all election rules embody values and no specific election rule can get all of the values "right"... and once again it's voter habits that matter most, not the election rule.

    2. The winner-take-all and winner-doesn't-take-all election rule distinction is the most important distinction.

    3. Keep all election rules simple for voters and bear in mind that most voters are both low-info and that political choices are inherently fuzzy and therefore not rankable objectively.



  5. "Criterion" is a loaded word.

    When you say "criterion" I think "immunity to irrelevant alternatives" or "later no harm"; the whole menagerie that came out as an attempt to argue our way through Arrow's theorem.

    The reason I support approval and score have nothing to do with criterion.

    The main reason I have is the Bayesian regret simulations of Dr. Warren Smith, which attempt to account for ALL criterion, AS WELL AS your concerns about differing values and about low-information voters.

    In other words, your concerns are not new; your concerns have been examined, and incorporated, to the best of our ability, into the simulation; and after accounting for them, your concerns have had NO APPRECIABLE EFFECT on the outcome: approval and score are still the best.

    The only thing not considered is multi-winner systems; I agree, they sound great, but I don't have numbers, and so I make no claims. But I believe that, if I can convince you that approval and score really are the best answers, that you will also come to believe the PR systems based on approval and score are likely to be the best answers.

  6. DSH: The main reason I have is the Bayesian regret simulations of Dr. Warren Smith, which attempt to account for ALL criterion, AS WELL AS your concerns about differing values and about low-information voters.

    dlw: One can attempt to deal with low-info voters in those settings, but when you compound that with the inherent fuzziness of political options (too many issues plus problems of character) then the solutions proferred don't necessarily cut the gordian knot. I'm well aware I'm not arguing anything that hasn't been argued before. I'm simply trying to explain why the bayesian regret simulations do not settle the matter for me.

    There is no meta-criteria for evaluating elections. The different criterion remain in tension with each other and we can and must experiment and learn by doing.

    I offer an alternative other than what was tested. I also point to how what really matters is that we use a better mix of winner-take-all and winner-doesn't-take-all elections, with the latter being a system that your uber-criterion can't handle.

    And so my point is that you just gotta face the music that we're still groping in the dark with how best we might go about fixing the US's democracy. My intuition is that we waste too much time/energy on trying to figure out and argue about the "best" voting rule. We also need most to use both winner-take-all and winner-doesn't-take-all elections and then we can experiment with ways to give voters more options in more local elections.... (the more local, the more options, imo.)