Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Coming Year

Just want to let everyone know, we're not dead. It's just that in September I bought a house, in October I got married, in November I was standing with the local Occupation group, and in December it gets really, really dark and depressing in Alaska so I just didn't feel like writing anything. But now the solstice is behind us, the new year is in front of us, and we'll be back with a vengeance starting in January. My apologies for the unexpected absence (and my further apologies for making a "my apologies for not posting" post.) I left a couple of important comments un-answered in my haste to the bank/altar/park/dark, and we'll (if all goes to plan) be starting off with a response to those early next year. See you then!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Franchise

I've been waffling about discussing today's issue for the last month, for two reasons. One, while it's about voting, it's not about voting systems, so it's a bit off-topic. And two, it's become something of a partisan issue. On the other hand, I've made no posts since last month. So here we go!

The essential component of democracy is elections; to let the people who will be affected by the law decide the law (or at least, representatives who will do so.) Give people a choice over the government, and they will be more satisfied with that government's choices. That's why we have only, and always, expanded the franchise; to African Americans, to women, to 18 year-olds. Even if you disagree with the choices another voter makes, it is essential to democracy to allow them to make that choice. Which is why I am disgusted at the numerous efforts around the country to blatantly disenfranchise groups of voters because of their expected partisan voting habits.

I am, of course, speaking about the attempts, almost exclusively* in Republican-controlled state houses, to enact legislation that would impose stringent requirements, or strengthen the existing requirements, for government-issued photo identification before a voter is allowed to exercise their right to vote. These bills are nominally being introduced to combat voter fraud, and yes, voter fraud is something any democracy should be worried about. But in modern America, it is not a grave problem (a rough estimate finds that there is one alleged case of voter fraud for every 100,000 eligible voters, and only approximately one in 40 of those leads to a conviction. That's one in 4 million, and there are only slightly over 210 million eligible voters in the United States; do the math.) But worse, the laws being proposed do very-little to absolutely-nothing to prevent the majority of fraud cases (most fraudulent votes are cast by election insiders, and outsiders who vote fraudulently typically do so via absentee ballots or through multiple registrations at different polling places, neither of which can be caught by checking ID.)

Rather, the effect of these laws will primarily be to prevent innocent poor, minority, and youth voters from voting; all groups which tend to vote for Democrats. A generous estimate would be that 3,000 legitimate voters will be turned away at the polls for each case of fraud that these laws would stop, and the true number is possibly orders of magnitude higher.

In any functioning democracy, we will disagree. But attempting to win by reducing the electorate cuts at the very essence of democracy.

(Numbers based off various articles from The Voting News's "voter fraud" topic.)

*Rhode Island's law, although passed through a Democratically-controlled house, is much milder than the other laws pushed forward this year. It does not go into effect until 2014 (i.e., will not affect the next presidential election), it allows a much broader class of documents to count as valid identification, and rather than turn voters away it allows them to cast a provisional ballot.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Then They Laugh At You is an advocacy site for range voting (also known as score voting), full of (sometimes bewilderingly academic) information arguing in favor of range voting and other ratings-based election methods. is a brand-new-today site created by FairVote, an instant runoff (and other voting reforms) advocacy group, specifically for the purpose of mocking range voting and other voting methods that FairVote disagrees with.

I can't rouse anything other than disappointment over FairVote's blatant attempt to hijack the name "range voting" in such a search-engine-friendly way. It's sad how an organization, one that so often cries about its opponents being unfairly combative, would take such a low road to try and make its arguments seem more legitimate.

On the other hand, I guess it means range voting advocacy is making an impression. I often go to the trouble of checking the comments on pro-IRV editorials, and in the past I would always be the first to present any counter arguments or range voting advocacy. But recently, and more and more often, I find someone, or even two or three someones, have already beaten me too it. This new ".com" shows that FairVote feels that ignoring us is no longer an option.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Get This Party Started: Future History

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a five-part series looking at the historical transitions of the American party-system. At the end, I promised a look at the future, of what the next transition might look like, and an assessment of whether or not it could happen soon. But when I started looking in to it, I discovered that it was hard to find information about voter's views that wasn't broken down first by party affiliation, and mothballed that idea. But then, just a few weeks ago, the new Pew Research Political Topology Report was released, which has precisely the information I was hoping to see.


First, a quick (and what I hope will be seen as unbiased) summary of the 5 previously-examined transitions.

  • 1st to 2nd: One major party disappears in treasonous-embarrassment, it's members joining up with what is now the only game in town; one-party rule lasts 20 years before falling apart into four-way presidential race, partially along the old party lines; the winner gets just 30.9% of the popular vote.
  • 2nd to 3rd: Both major parties are unable to adequately address the nations largest economic and social issue: slavery; major presidential nomination fights occur in both; one party's leadership collapses completely, the other breaks into factions; a new party is created with an explicit platform on the issue, and they win the presidency on their second try, with just 39.8% of the vote.
  • 3rd to 4th: Economic arguments (over the gold standard and inflation) find split support in both parties; a splinter 3rd-party spoils the election for its parent, taking four (of 44) states, and in the next election, there is mass cross-party voting based on this issue; the crossover becomes permanent.
  • 4th to 5th: A massive economic downturn permanently pushes many voters (the working poor and academics) away from the party they blame for the crisis; despite massive 3rd-party voting, a majority (57.4%) vote for the opposing major party's candidate.
  • 5th to 6th: Massive social change and accompanying laws (culminating in The Civil Rights Act) permanently push many voters away from the party that enacted them, while attracting others; in the course of just two presidential elections, all but 5 (of 48) states reverse their partisan presidential leanings.

What's Your Issue?

After that first transition, there's a strong re-occurring theme in there, namely that of a major issue which cuts across the constituencies of both existing major parties. Only once did it completely collapse a major party, while the other three times it caused a major swap of supporters. And this is where the Pew Report comes in, because it examines the American electorate, and tries to break them down into a small number of issue-groups, from which we should be able to identify a nascent party transition.

The good news, if you're a third-party advocate, is that Staunch Conservatives and Solid Liberals only make up 11% and 16% of the electorate, respectively; this will jive with your belief that there aren't really that many people who are actually that devoted to the two major parties as they currently exist.

The bad news is that, to my eye at least, it doesn't seem like there's any serious cross-party split out of which you could expect to see the sort of transitions we've come to expect over the last 100 years. At least, not in the short term. For instance, Pew identifies Libertarians (10%) as one of its groups, but when you dig into the issues, they tend to hold identical views as Staunch Conservatives except for the issue of gay rights; similarly, we see New Coalition Democrats (9%), who are Solid Liberals except for the issue of gay rights. While that could be the makings of the kind of grand constituency-swaps we've seen since the creation of the Republican party, it hasn't yet risen to the level where this one issue can drive the outcome of every election.

The same story can be told about welfare, and other social safety-net programs. The so-called Disaffecteds (11%) are Staunch Conservatives, except they support (and often are supported by) these programs, while Post-Moderns (14%) are Solid Liberals, except that they would scale back these programs (which they are generally well-off enough to not need to use them, and question if anyone else needs them either.) This could also grow to become a defining issue that leads to a long term exchange of party support, but it's just not quite there yet. In both these cases, the issue at-hand would have to overcome voters' concerns on every other issue, and I have a hard time imagining, for example, that an overwhelming number of Libertarians would vote for the full Democratic platform because of its stance on gay marriage, or a Democratic candidate soften the party's stance on every other issue in an effort to attract them.

The other two groups which Pew identified were Main Street Republicans (14%; Staunch Conservatives except for their stance on the environment) and Hard-Pressed Democrats (15%; Solid Liberals except for their stance on immigration.) Expect these four issues (gay rights, social safety-net programs, the environment, and immigration) to be the top issues for the foreseeable future; but while this is what politicians will be talking about, it won't be bringing us any closer to a change in the party system.

Trying to use transitions from before the civil war as a model works no better. There is simply no issue that compares to slavery in its level of importance to voters and its ability to split both major parties. I've written before about how copyright brought me here, but while it is one of many issues which can draw support from voters for both major parties, it is also one of many issues which is not important enough to enough people to build a new, successful, major party on.

The odds don't seem any better for a "centrist" party to rise up in the current environment; if anything, groups in the middle disagree with each other more than the groups on the wings. For instance, Disaffecteds and Post-Moderns are opposed over the same issues that the Republicans and Democrats are, but while they take opposing issues on welfare from their "host" party, they still disagree with each other completely. The same with Libertarians and New Coalition Democrats over gay rights. An attempt could be made to build a pro-gay anti-welfare centrist party out of Post-Moderns and Libertarians (I read their blog), or an anti-gay pro-welfare centrist party out of Disaffecteds and New Coalition Democrats (does such a group exist?), but there is a huge systemic bias against centrist parties, and the Pew report doesn't show anywhere near enough strength for such a group to have any chance to unseat one of the two major parties.


If you accept the fact that we really do have a two-party system, and you should, then you have to accept that issues, and how the issues are tied to parties, and how the issues and the parties are tied to voters, creates an incredible knot of inertia and rigidity in the political system. And currently, that system does not seem to be near any sort of tipping point. So keep hammering away at it, you 73% of voters who disagree with the major parties on at least one critical issue; your moment isn't here yet, but maybe in another eight years, it could be.

That, or you could throw your support behind better election methods, like approval voting and score voting, which allow better support for third parties and for multiple-issue-driven campaigns; then at least we could at least argue about the issues, instead just the "two" parties.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Alternative Vote: Neither the Death nor Resurrection of Democracy

This Thursday, the UK is holding a referendum on voting. Specifically, voters are being asked whether they want to stick with the status quo--"first past the post" (FPTP) or "plurality" voting--or to try something new. The new method they are considering goes by the name "the alternative vote" (AV), but it's known in the US as "instant runoff voting" (IRV) or "ranked choice voting" (RCV), and unless you're new here you've heard me heap criticism upon it. For this article, I'll be using the UK terms.

Current polls show the measure is teetering towards failure, which if fine from my perspective, but both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns have been flying some pretty ridiculous propaganda, so let's set the record straight. AV will not cause democracy to crash and burn. They've used it for a hundred years in Australia, and it hasn't turned them into an arid wasteland of venomous monsters (well, no more so than it already was.) Nor will it create a utopia of perfect democracy. Again, Australia has used it for a hundred years, and everyone complains about the government just as much as they do in any other free country in the world.

In practice, AV gives about the same results as FPTP. I've seen a claim that over 100 seats would have been allocated differently, but that's based on counting any seat where the winner had less than 50% of the votes as a potential switch; the actual number, based on reasonable assumptions about voter's second- and later-choices, is 3, or 1%.

Furthermore, with perfectly-tactical voters, AV always gives exactly the same results as FPTP: It is only beneficial to the degree that voters will choose honesty over tactics, and despite the "Yes" campaign's claims, AV voters still can benefit from, and so will be incentivized to practice, tactical, rather than honest, voting. This is trivial to show, especially in the situation the UK finds itself in now, with three strong parties that have no natural and obvious split among them as a basis to form a coalition. While it is true that AV makes it more-difficult for a small party to act as a spoiler--which is the kernel of truth that the "Yes" campaign has built this fabrication around--it has the same susceptibility to spoilers as FPTP when there are three or more strong parties, and it's fear of spoilers that drives tactical voting. (AV can still result in hung parliaments too, for which I again point to Australia, who saw its two largest blocs walk out with 48% of seats each in their 2010 election.)

While AV does, in a limited way, shore-up this one weakness in FPTP, it also introduce its own special failure modes, including non-monotonicity, participation failure, and other paradoxes of voting which cannot occur under FPTP, but which are quite common under AV. The improvements are small, and then almost entirely countered by these new failures. Failures which commonly are used as the basis for repeal campaigns by voters who feel they've been sold a false bill of election-reforming goods. (Expect the repeal movement to peak after two or three elections have passed under AV.)

But even if we follow the naive notion that every voter would choose honesty, and that the marginal improvements are worth the new paradoxes (and that the inevitable repeal movement can be fought back), then AV still comes at a steep cost. Ballot-spoilage rates are four to seven times higher with AV. Not, as the "No" campaign has said, because voters can't understand the process, but simply because there are so many ways to make a ballot-invalidating error when filling out such a ballot. Perhaps related, the counting process is notably more expensive; not astronomically so, as the "No" campaign has claimed, but it will require either the purchase and maintenance of more complex, and therefore more costly, voting machines, or a more time-consuming, and therefore more costly, amount of hand-counting.

The UK does have a few points in its favor that would make AV less of a wasted effort than it would be, for instance, in the US. The relative lack of effective political polling in the UK leaves voters with less information with which to make informed tactical voting decisions, so "honesty" may be a somewhat more-likely default than it would in the US. And since UK voters do not directly choose the head of government, a unitary office, there is less of central figure for voters and parties to rally, and become divisive, around. Both of these aspects increase the likely amount of improvement in outcomes due to AV, from "minuscule" to "tiny". However even these mitigating trends are on the wane, with political polling catching on and party heads taking a more active role as the faces of their parties.

Finally, there is the notion that a vote on this (non-)reform sends a message. The "Yes" campaign says that a yes vote sends the message that you want something to be done and this is the first step towards proportional representation, while the "No" campaign says that a no vote sends the message that this is not the reform you want and that you would rather have proportional representation. Uh huh. My advice is that your vote for or against AV should be based solely on the (lack of) merits of AV, irrespective of what better "sends the message" that you really want proportional representation (PR). The fundamental prerequisite for PR is multimember districts, and no government anywhere has ever enacted AV and then later been convinced to add multimember districts. The two reforms are essentially unconnected.

AV isn't worth the effort. I would encourage UK voters to vote no on AV, and to campaign for PR.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Power of Organizing, The Folly of Top-Two

A group of people working together can accomplish greater things than any one of them working alone. We see it all around us as people rise up against tyranny, or dig each other out from terrible disasters. Cooperation is a force-multiplier.

Which is why top-two primaries (or, as they've erroneously come to be called recently, "open primaries") are a doomed and useless gesture.

First, some vocabulary. If a few years ago you asked anyone what an "open primary" was, invariably they would have told you "A primary election that does not require voters to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote for partisan candidates," [Wikipedia] or something to that effect. But somehow, in the last year or two, the name "open primary" has been applied to what used to be known as a "top-two" or "jungle" primary. In this sort of primary, rather than each parties nominees appearing on separate ballots (and the winner of each party's vote continuing on to the general election), all the candidates of all parties appear on a single ballot, and only the first- and second-place candidates compete in the general election. While all "top-two" primaries are also "open primaries," it is not the case that all "open primaries" are "top-two."

The problem (make that "a problem," but we'll just focus on this one for today) with top-two is, if there are a large number of good candidates from one party (let's call them the "A" party), and relatively fewer good candidates in the other parties, then the A-party candidates could split the A-vote, potentially making it so that none of the A-party members get into the general election, even if one (or more of them) could have defeated candidates from the other parties in the general election. When I wrote about this last May in the lead-up to the vote on California's top-two primary proposal (Proposition 14), I said that "it would be really nice if we could have a party primary before the open primary." I was at least half-joking: such a response is absurd, meant to show that the original proposal is absurd.

Well, the absurdity passed, and now the absurd response has followed. The California GOP plans to hold a party primary in advance of the top-two primary in order to select their favored candidate. [Via Ballot Access News.]

Coordination is a force-multiplier. (So is repetition.) People will always seek to coordinate in order to maximize their effect on a situation. That's why we have political parties. That's why parties want to keep non-members out of the primaries. That the GOP has decided to go this route in California is a simple, logical, and inevitable response to the rules under which they operate.

Proponents of top-two try to claim that it would elect more moderate candidates, and would ease the stranglehold that the two major parties hold on the political system. It hasn't done so in Louisiana, nor in Washington, and it won't do so in California. But there is a change to the rules which we could make that would do those things: spoiler-free, consensus-seeking voting methods, like approval voting or score voting. These would actually change the incentives, for voters and for the parties they organize.

Friday, March 4, 2011

New Hampshire Approval Voting Bill Shot Down

HB240, the bill in the New Hampshire state house to enact approval voting, has failed to pass, having been deemed "Inexpedient to Legislate."

Apparently, some of the same state representatives who shot down Dr. Steven Brams' original push for approval voting in the state back in the 70s are still in the house, and did not find any of the research performed since 2000 persuasive.

I can only hope that this does not deter the approval voting advocates. Perhaps, given more time, they can persuade more of their colleagues of the system's benefits.

Monday, February 28, 2011

CES on Oscars

Following up on last year's effort, I was working on something in exactly the same vein, but the Center for Election Science beat me to the punch. Here's this year's Oscar for best picture (voted on by Academy members via instant runoff voting) versus IMDB's top films of the year (voted on by IMDBPro members via score voting): Should the Academy Awards Use Instant Runoff Voting?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

More on New Hampshire Approval Voting Bill

The story has made it all the way around my corner of the internet and found its way to Slashdot (which links back to how I ended up writing about this topic in the first place), so now would be a good time to summarize some of the arguments and counter arguments I've been having with people about this:

First, look over to the right and take note of the pink-highlighted link, What Do You Mean By Best?. There I talk about Arrow's Theorem, the debate over voting systems and voting system criteria, and how computer simulations can help us resolve it. Approval voting and range voting stand head-and-shoulders above other alternatives. This is especially important to the Slashdot crowd, because many Linux distributions, as well as Wikimedia, all perform their elections using a Condorcet method, and so many have come to accept that Condorcet methods are the way forward (although the Fedora project uses range voting). Regular readers will of course recall that Condorcet's ideal is better-met by approval voting than by any actual rank-based "Condorcet method".

The bill is having committee hearings next week; I'll continue to keep you posted.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Approval Voting Bill Introduced in New Hampshire

Longer pieces are in the works, but I have a quick link to share. A bill has been introduced in the state of New Hampshire to move all state-level elections to approval voting. But potentially even more interesting, the bill would move the chronologically-important New Hampshire presidential primary to approval voting as well. I'll be keeping an eye on this as it continues throughout the legislative session.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"I'm the Greatest!"

Sports metaphors are always popular when discussing politics. But is an election more like a boxing match, or a foot race? To answer that question, let me ask some more questions: Who do you think is the fastest runner in the world, and who do you think is the best boxer in the world? And how would you know?

In a foot race, the number of contestants is limited only by the width of the track; actually, since everyone runs against the same clock, even that isn't necessarily a restriction. And so there's no question who the fastest runner in the world is.

But boxing is different. If you put Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, and Joe Frasier together in the same ring at the height of their careers, which one would have won? And could you even be sure that the last man standing was the best boxer, and not, for instance, that #2 and #3 didn't just gang up on the "real" world heavyweight champion?

Sadly, elections seem more like boxing matches. Any third challenger either is forced out and not allowed into the ring (via ballot access laws), or drags down a better winner (by being a spoiler). But a little over 200 years ago (or perhaps quite a bit earlier) an improvement was discovered by the Marquis de Condorcet: if there are more than two candidates, have each of them compete, in effect, one-on-one; the truly best one will always beat any other challenger.

(This is done be examining every ballot for its expressed opinion on each pair of candidates; every ballot that list A above B, is a point for A over B. Rankings for any other candidates are inconsequential in the A versus B determination. Then we compare A versus C, and then B versus C, and so on, until we've examined every ballot while considering every pair of candidates.)

There's only one little problem: such a "beats all" or "Condorcet winner" doesn't always exist. Just like Foreman beat Frasier, and Frasier beat Ali, but Ali beat Foreman, so it can go when counting votes. This may not seem obvious, but it's true! Consider:

  • 40%: A > B > C
  • 35%: B > C > A
  • 25%: C > A > B

65% of these voters prefer A over B, and 75% prefer B over C... but 60% prefer C over A! (For this to happen, there would have to be more than a single topic over which voters consider the options. It couldn't just be "right versus left," for instance, but left versus right on "social issues" and "fiscal issues" would be enough to trigger this problem.) When a Condorcet voting method is used then, it's important to have a method to break these "Condorcet cycles," a sort of circular-tie-breaker. Over the years, different tie-breakers have been proposed and used, but they all run into one problem or another, especially when voters begin to act tactically; potentially even electing the worst possible candidate.

How can we improve on this? We can make elections more like a foot race. The problems that other election methods have, they have because they ask the voters to explicitly rank the candidates relative to each other; they ask "who would win in a fight?" But if we instead make the seemingly-minor change of rating every candidate against an independent scale--in other words, have them all race against the clock, so that they are ranked against each other only implicitly--then we discover some surprising things.

For one, we'd find that we can allow many more contestants to run simultaneously, without "spoiling" the election; any supporter of third-party or independent candidates should be excited by that. Of course, there would still be some interaction among candidates; I might rate a candidate lower not because I think they are worse, but because I think it will help my favored candidate win. That's tactical voting. So rather than a 100 meter dash, perhaps a marathon, where all the runners bunch together and pace each other (i.e., run faster or slower because of the presence of the other runners), is a better analogy. (Although we should point out that not even the 100 meter dash is immune to pacing effects.)

Although tactical voting is still present, what we find is that it is a much less significant factor in determining the outcome. The truly surprising thing though is that, when we allow our models to account for tactical voting, we discover that these rating-based methods--such as approval voting and score voting--are more likely to elect the honest Condorcet winner than any actual, rankings-based, Condorcet voting method! (Scroll down to the first chart; Condorcet methods are highlighted in blue; score voting is equivalent to range voting.)

Condorcet's insight is a powerful tool for evaluating election methods. And even though he only considered it in the context of ranked ballots, in practice, the most reliable way to achieve it is through rated ballots; through approval voting and score voting.