Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Best Visual Effects" To Be Determined by Re-weighted Range Voting

We've occasionally talked about the voting procedures of the Academy Awards for Best Picture. In short, they recently changed to using instant runoff voting, and I think that was a pretty poor choice; they should use range (AKA score) voting. So imagine my delight when it was pointed out to me that the nominees for this year's award for best visual effects will be determined by re-weighted range voting! (Rule 7b.)

I'm not entirely sure that a method of proportional representation in the best way to pick nominees for a single-winner election, but this is sill fantastic news. I wish I knew how the idea of RRV made its way into Hollywood, but regardless of how it happened, I'm ecstatic that it has.

Re-weighted Range Voting uses the same ballot as normal range voting, namely, each voter can give each candidate any score within a given range. The first winner is determined the same as well, it's simply the candidate with the highest score. The next step—and the way in which the method becomes proportional—is that each voter who voted for the winner has all of the scores on their ballot re-weighted downward, based on how highly they scored the winner. If you gave the winner the maximum score, the rest of your ballot's weight is cut in half, and the lower the score you gave them, the more strength your ballot retains. And then the second winner is whichever has the highest re-weighted score. Each additional winner further re-weights every ballot (if you gave the maximum score to the first two winners, the rest of your ballot is cut to a third, and so on) so that each time a voter gets their way, they have less say on the following rounds.

RRV is, of course, perfectly compatible with an approval-style ballot, since approval is equivalent to range, with a "range" of just 0 and 1. Re-weighted approval could therefore be a very easy and effective way to implement proportional representation.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pendulum Or Plumb?

An engineer, a mechanic, and a statistician go on an African hunting safari. They spot a lion in the distance, and the engineer aims, and fires... but misses five feet to the left. The mechanic scoffs, takes aim, and fires... but misses five feet to the right. So the statistician jumps up and shouts "We got 'em!"

Since about WWII, congressional polarization has steadily increased. Over the last election cycle we've seen another wave of incumbent moderates forced from office, either by successful primary challenges (e.g. Richard Lugar), or via replacement with a more partisan candidate that's more in-line with the area's political leanings (e.g. Scott Brown or Ben Nelson). As a result, this month's election continues that trend and makes the US Congress yet more polarized than it already was.

With moderation virtually impossible to find in any one member of congress, many Americans have resigned themselves to the hope that, while political power will swing like a pendulum between too-far-left and too-far-right, the results will average out to be somewhere in the middle. (Or worse, they've resigned themselves to the despair that politics has become hopelessly and irrevocably polarized.)

But what if there's a better way? Plurality voting (as well as instant runoff voting) suffers from a problem known as "center squeeze", where if three candidates are running for office, the one in the center is at a significant disadvantage. And so overtime, despite the honest intentions of every voter, the political center is emptied of elected representation. But if we use a voting method that does not suffer from "center squeeze", such as approval voting, then we would see the opposite effect: Over time, more members of congress would be found in the center.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Alternative Voting Methods Experiment by OWS

The Political and Electoral Reform working group, a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, performed an exit-poll survey experiment on alternative voting methods. It was conducted at a very Democratic-leaning precinct, but the results are still quite informative. By all three methods tested (approval, score, and instant runoff voting), the Green party won, and only under IRV did the Democrats even come in second. In the actual election, the precinct went heavily to the Democrats, of course.

Four More Years

My first entry to this blog was four years ago today, the day after the election, arguing that Mike Huckabee may have been a spoiler for Mitt Romney in the 2008 Republican primary election. Back then I was arguing in favor of Condorcet ranked pairs. It wouldn't be until January, after reading Gaming the Vote, that I would jump away from ranked methods entirely to support evaluative methods like approval voting. I have been constant on some things though; I've always been against IRV. (Mostly.)

Support for third-parties has also been a constant undercurrent here. Mostly, I think, because third-party supporters are the ones with the most to gain from, and therefore the most likely to listen to, what I have to say. But be sure to read up on your history, and to disabuse yourself of spurious arguments, if you want to be ready for what comes next.

I try to always argue from a logical—rather than emotional—perspective, but I find I sometimes have to tap into a bit of esoterically academic minutia. Still, I try my best to keep my points accessible, and I hope the steady gain in my audience over these four years means I've been successful on both fronts.

Thank you for reading. Here's to four more years!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Quick Note: Donate to CES

The Center for Election Science, the premier advocacy group for approval voting, is now a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Which means donations are now tax-deductible.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Jill Stein is Shooting Herself in the Foot with Instant Runoff Voting

Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein recently gave an interview where she was asked, among other things (you should read the whole thing!) to talk about instant runoff voting. Her response parroted many of the incorrect claims we hear about IRV, but it's a more disappointing to hear it from Stein, since she is trying so hard, has so much against her and her party, and has so much to gain from picking a more-effective voting reform. Doctor Stein, this one's for you:

[If] you really wanted to vote for me, but you weren't sure I was going to win, it lets you go ahead and do that[.] Because it lets you vote for me as number one, if that's what you want to do, and it lets you vote your fallback, maybe your lesser evil choice, as number two. And what it does is set things up so if I don't win, your vote gets reassigned to your number two choice.

It's a win-win. It ensures there will be no splitting of the vote, that your vote might have unintended consequences, all these things that people are told to be afraid of[.] Instant runoff voting [...] ensures that the candidate that gets elected is the one that the most people can actually support.

The first paragraph contains a fair description of how IRV works, but every claim from the second one about the implications of IRV is false. An example similar to one I've used frequently:

  • 45%: Romney > Obama > Stein
  • 10%: Obama > Romney > Stein
  • 15%: Obama > Stein > Romney
  • 30%: Stein > Obama > Romney

This example (I hope obviously) doesn't reflect a likely outcome, I'd just like to use names, instead of bland identifiers (like A, B, C) to highlight what's going on here. First, let's take note that, in the example, 55% prefer Obama over Romney, and 70% prefer Obama over Stein; so, the candidate that "most people can actually support" is Obama. Second, note that the winner, by IRV's rules, is Romney. However, if Stein would have withdrawn from the race, then Obama would have won instead. That means there was a "splitting of the vote" (between Obama and Stein) which had "unintended consequences" (electing Romney).

I understand how Dr. Stein is able to come to these erroneous conclusions. If a third-party is small (as our third parties are now) and remains small (as our third parties do now) then under IRV it will always be eliminated from the election, well before it is able to act as a spoiler. That makes it easy—although incorrect—to conclude that they would never be spoilers. But, Dr. Stein, wouldn't it be nice if your party were to grow? And wouldn't it be nice if growing meant it could eventually win? That won't happen under IRV though, because if it grows, it will eventually become a spoiler, and the voters hate spoilers. Even the accusation of being a spoiler (I don't want to start a Nader/Gore argument) is enough to ruin a party's votes in subsequent elections for years.

A better voting reform target for the Green party (and indeed, all third-parties) is approval voting. With approval voting, there really are no split votes, no spoilers, and parties can grow, and grow until they win.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Untied Alternatives

C. G. P. Grey has another election-themed video out and, like the last one, I have one tiny nitpick from the very end of the video. First, the video:

Right near the end, Grey suggests using a preferential vote as a way to avoid the ridiculous series of ties and tie-breakers he discusses, and by preferential vote I presume (since he made a video arguing in favor of it) the "alternative vote," AKA, instant runoff voting.

The problem I have is that IRV is actually more likely to run into problems with ties than most other voting systems; including plurality. This is because each elimination done under IRV, even the ones far down the list who received very few first place votes, could potentially be a tie, and effect the final winner. As always, a quick example:

  • 45%: A > (others)
  • 25%: B > C > (others)
  • 15%: C > A > (others)
  • 15%: D > C > (others)

Candidates A and B lead, but candidates C and D tie for third place. But how you break that tie determines who wins the election. If you eliminate C first, then A wins, while if you eliminate D first, then C wins. And it can get much worse; if A and B were instead at 40% and 30%, then after the first tie-breaker, we could have had another tie. Since each tie—or near tie— result can require a recount and potentially a series of lawsuits, IRV has the potential to be a total nightmare as the elimination of each minimally-supported candidates is fought out in court (supported by whichever candidate up the chain benefits.)

This is all, of course, extremely unlikely. A near-tie in a Presidential election has only gone to the Supreme Court for review once (in 2000) and that hopefully won't happen again anytime soon. But we can say, thanks to computer simulation, that IRV elections are about 1.8 times more likely to have a results-effecting tie than plurality elections, even with just three candidates.

So yes, the electoral college is kind of silly, and the tie-breakers for it even more so. But IRV wouldn't help with that.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

CES Interviews Dr. Kenneth Arrow

Hey folks, I've got a treat for you. Nobel-prize winning economist Dr. Kenneth Arrow, after who Arrow's impossibility theorem is named (and on which much of my writing has been based) has been interviewed by the Center for Election Science.

You can read the transcript, or listen or download here:

Thursday, July 12, 2012 Petition in Favor of Approval Voting

There's a petition up at—a spin off of MoveOn—to push that group to advocate for approval voting. I'd ask any supporters and regular readers out there to add their names. (And no, I didn't create the petition.)

There's also a similar petition for score voting. Spread the word!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Texas Libertarians and Greens Use Approval Voting

A quick news item from Texas. Last week, both the Libertarian Party of Texas and the Green Party of Texas made use of approval voting at their state conventions. The Libertarians used it to vote for their US Senate candidate, while the Greens voted to use approval voting in all internal elections, both for officers and for candidate selection, and including requiring its use by county-level parties (no link available yet, but I will update this story if I get one.) These state-level minor parties join the Libertarian Party of Colorado in the use of approval voting, which they first endorsed in 2010.

This is a great step forward for voting reform advocacy. Every large group of people is hesitant to be the first to try out a new idea, but these brave steps—start with the primaries!—will, I suspect, continue to provide evidence for the effectiveness of better voting methods. I'm especially excited by the Green Party of Texas move, as many state-level Green parties (particularly California's) have advocated for instant runoff voting, which would not be nearly as effective as approval voting in helping minor parties get elected.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Two New French Voting Studies

In the last couple days, two new voting studies have come out of France, following the Presidential elections there. One (translation to English) and two (and also in English.) The first included a look at approval voting, and the second score voting, with a range of -2 to 2, and both suggest that France would have gotten a different, and probably better, result if they had used either of these methods.

Specifically, the first study found that, if approval voting had been used in the first round, that the two candidates to advance would have been Hollande (the Socialist leader who advanced in the real election, and went on to defeat incumbent center-right President Sarkozy) and the original fourth-place finisher, Fran├žois Bayrou. Bayrou is an interesting character; he came in third in the previous election, and his Democratic Union party is considered a centrist group. The study also showed that, in a head-to-head match up, Bayrou would have beaten Hollande. This is some real-world data supporting the theory that approval voting does a better job of electing centrist candidates than plurality. They examined instant runoff voting as well, but got the same result as the plurality election, supporting that theory as well.

The second study looked at score voting. Again, Bayrou and Hollande led (and were the only candidates with net-positive scores!) while Sarkozy slipped back to fourth place. Their head-to-head challenges also found Bayrou to be a beats-all winner. They also found very little bullet voting.

These studies build on previous, smaller ones from the 2002 and 2007 elections, which found similar results. All told, this is some excellent real-world data adding further evidence to our theoretical expectations of approval and score voting.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

One Person, One Vote, Many Methods

Just a few years ago, there was a federal case brought in California against the use of instant runoff voting (IRV), claiming its use was unconstitutional. Unless this is your first day here, you know I'm not a fan of IRV, so you may be surprised that I was happy when IRV was found to be perfectly acceptable. That's because the argument used against IRV was that it violated the principle of "one person, one vote" based on the fact that an IRV ballot can indicate support for more than one candidate. If this argument had been successful, then the only allowable voting method would be plurality.

The irony is, "one person, one vote" doesn't have anything to say about the definition of either "person" or "vote", but rather speaks to equality. In the US, the slogan is most-closely tied with requiring states to re-draw their congressional districts to keep those districts roughly equipopulous. The goal of that being for each voter's ballot to have as much influence on determining the membership of the House as every other's.

You surely know that we've expanded the definition of "person" many times in this nation's history. You have to be a US citizen and white and male and a property owner and pay a poll-tax and not be a felon and 25 years old and 18 years old. Every time, there were people who insisted we had to cling to the old definition, and in many cases, they were able to delay these improvements for years at the state level, before the federal government stepped in. But you may not know that a similar version of this story has happened with the definition of "vote".


In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt, convinced that the Republican party—and current president Howard Taft in particular—had strayed from its values, decided to run for the office again. Unable to wrest the Republican nomination from Taft, Roosevelt ran his own ticket, creating the "Bull Moose" or "Progressive" party. Roosevelt and Taft split the vote, leaving Democrat Woodrow Wilson the winner—the first Democrat to do so in 20 years—with just 41.8% of the vote. Roosevelt would eventually return to the Republican party, but his strong showing on a third-party ticket inspired other third-party hopefuls, while also highlighting the shortcomings of the electoral system with respect to third parties. Coming at the height of the progressive era, Roosevelt's loss preceded a raft of experimentation in election methods, particularly in the upper midwest.

One method which caught on in several states was Bucklin voting. Bucklin uses a ranked ballot. At first, only the first-ranks are counted. If this does not result in a majority decision, than every voter's second-ranked choice is added to the totals, and so on, until a winner is found. You may notice similarities to instant runoff voting (in the repeated rounds and the search for a majority winner) and also to approval voting (in that a simple sum is used to determine the winner and that a single voter's ballot can count toward more than one candidate at a time); indeed, some have referred to Bucklin as "approval runoff".

Bucklin voting was used in an April, 1915 judicial election in Duluth Minnesota, and W. H. Smallwood was certified the winner. However, a voter in that election, John Brown, Jr., contested the election, on the grounds that, in the first-round results, William L. Windom had the most votes. Brown was essentially arguing that, according to the Minnesota state constitution, plurality was the only legal election method. And Brown won the case! Smallwood was removed from office, Windom was appointed in his place, and Bucklin voting became illegal across the state.

Bucklin voting was quite popular among voters, but not always with the organizers of major parties. In San Francisco, the first nail in the coffin for Bucklin voting, was when its use led to an upset in which the candidate initially in third place became the eventual winner. The fact that this candidate was "affiliated with the Socialist party" was used as an argument to eliminate the method, not only in San Francisco, but in in other cities as well.

In all cases, the rhetoric of the anti-Bucklin crowd insisted that our forefathers had never intended for a "vote" to be anything other than the selection of a single choice; that "election" had always meant to them, "plurality election", and that it should mean the same to us. But history shows us this isn't so. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson corresponded with the Marquis de Condorcet, the French intellectual for whom the Condorcet method is named, and were so excited about his work that they sent copies of his writings to others of America's founding fathers. These two, at least, would have been disappointed to hear that such experimentations of democracy were cut short.


As World War I ran its course, and led into the 20s, the progressive era lost steam. It wouldn't be until the civil rights era that the issue of "one person, one vote" would again be looked at in detail. And while that era rightly focused on the definition of "person", the judicial opinions that came out of it would greatly clarify that the intent of the phrase was, indeed, on equal consideration, not a description of ballot design. However, since that time there has not been the same sort of urgency to experiment with voting methods... until perhaps now. Regrettably, much of that effort has been expended on instant runoff voting, which is notably less well-performing than Bucklin (and neither performs as well as approval or score voting). But regardless of that, I applaud these decisions finding that non-plurality methods are permissible.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

C.G.P. Grey is Wrong (on One Important Thing at the End of His IRV Video)

You've probably seen a couple of the snappy, well-enunciated videos produced by C. G. P. Grey; he's done pieces on the evil of pennies, the problems with copyright, and various aspects of British history, as well as a number of videos on political theory. I want to talk about his video The Alternative Vote Explained. The Alternative Vote is the British name for what Americans may better know as instant runoff voting, or perhaps as ranked choice voting, which are all mechanically identical; I will refer to it as IRV here. The first three minutes of the video are an excellent explanation of the method, including cute fuzzy animals in an easy-to-follow example. But right at the 3:00 mark, Grey makes an egregious mistake.

Grey claims that IRV's crowning achievement is that, unlike plurality voting, IRV doesn't have spoilers, but that isn't true, and it's very easy for me to show it. Consider first his "spoiler-proof" example. Gorilla and Leopard are running for office; Gorilla is about to receive 45% of the vote, and Leopard 55%; Leopard is going to win. But at this point, Tiger enters the race, and 15% of voters move from Leopard to Tiger, making the vote totals Gorilla 45%, Leopard 40%, and Tiger 15%:

Under plurality, that makes the winner change to Gorilla, and that's bad. Grey's claim, and this much is true, is that under IRV, those 15% of Tiger-favoring voters can have their votes reassigned to their second choice, Leopard, putting everything right with the world by making Leopard the winner again.

Persuasive Tiger

But what happens if Tiger is a bit more convincing? Consider the case where Tiger convinces not just 15% of Leopard voters to rank him first, but 30%. That makes the standings Gorilla still at 45%, Leopard 25%, and Tiger 30%:

This leads us into some uncharted territory, because now it's Leopard who is eliminated, and we don't know where Leopard's voters would now go for their second choices. But we can make some educated guesses. Taking a look at the video's earlier example (at the 1:47 mark):

We can see that there is a large contingent—amounting to 25%—of Owl-loving voters, who find themselves torn between Gorilla and Leopard. (Pedantic aside: You can imagine that Leopard gets 15% and Tiger 30% if you want to align this example with our alternate "persuasive Tiger" scenario.) If Owl were running in this race, those 25% of voters would have listed him first. But since he is not, they instead voted for other candidates. It seems that 3 out of 5 owls chose to vote for Gorilla (Turtle's 5% plus Gorilla's 25%, plus 15% from Owl, equals the 45% Gorilla is currently enjoying) while the other 10% are supporting Leopard. There is clearly a split in the Owl community about who the best non-Owl choice is. Suppose that the remaining 10% of Owl supporters, after the elimination of Leopard, re-join their brethren by supporting Gorilla as their second choice in this election, while the other Leopard voters all throw in with Tiger:

That would be a logical assumption. And it means that the final standings are now Gorilla 55%, Tiger 45%:

Let's take a look at that again: If just Gorilla and Leopard run, then Leopard wins. But if Tiger chooses to run, and is able to convince a few more Leopard voters to vote for him, then not only does Tiger still fail to win, he makes it so that Leopard doesn't win either. He actually makes it so that Gorilla wins, which is the exact same problem that we saw with plurality. In other words, we have a candidate who doesn't win, but by entering the race, can change the winner. This is the very definition of a spoiler and it (yes, once again) shows that IRV does, in fact, have spoilers.

Calling C.G.P. Grey

Let me thank Grey for his enlightening videos and his clearly-superior-to-my-own abilities with graphic arts (images not used with permission, but I assert that my usage would qualify as Fair Use.) But this portion of his video is promoting a demonstrably wrong version of the facts, but one which has nonetheless gained a large amount of mindshare and garnered a frightening number of repetitions, both before Mr. Grey's video and more so since. I call on Mr. Grey to address this error, and if he is interested in creating videos to promote actually spoiler-free election method reforms, I would like to point him to approval voting.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Gaming The Vote" Now an E-Book

I'm not sure how recent this is, but it's the first I'd noticed it: William Poundstone's "Gaming the Vote" is now available in e-book format from Amazon.

"Gaming" is the book that changed me over to being an approval voting supporter. Before reading it I was still stuck on ranked-order methods (Condorcet ranked-pairs in particular). It's a quick and surprisingly fun read, so if you haven't already picked it up, I heartily encourage you; and if you have, maybe now is the time to buy a gift copy for a friend or local legislator.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Tyranny of the Majority Weak Preferences

Suppose you and a pair of friends are looking to order a pizza. You, and one friend, really like mushrooms, and prefer them over all other vegetable options, but you both also really, really like pepperoni. Your other friend also really likes mushrooms, and prefers them over all other options, but they're also vegetarian. What one topping should you get?

Clearly the answer is mushrooms, and there is no group of friends worth calling themselves such who would conclude otherwise. It's so obvious that it hardly seems worth calling attention to. So why is it, that if we put this decision up to a vote, do so many election methods, which are otherwise seen as perfectly reasonable methods, fail? Plurality, top-two runoffs, instant runoff voting, all variations of Condorcet's method, even Bucklin voting; all of them, incorrectly, choose pepperoni.

The Tyranny of the Majority

The answer is simple: All of these methods obey the majority criterion. This criterion seems so reasonable: If a majority of voters prefer one choice over all others, then that choice should be elected. And that's the case here. A majority, 2 out of 3, prefer pepperoni to all other options. Therefore, pepperoni must win. It's completely reasonable. And it means you're willing to send your friend home hungry.

If we examine the ballots these three friends would submit to the pizza-topping election, we can see the problem. Even though you and your one friend both really like mushrooms, the ballots don't show that. They only show that you like them less than pepperoni. There's no way for you to indicate the importance of that preference, and no way to mitigate it. You can't say, as you would if you and two friend were actually face-to-face and making such a decision "I like pepperoni better, but, dude, since you couldn't eat it, I'd totally be alright with eating mushrooms." Well, almost no way: You could choose to rank mushrooms above pepperoni, making a deliberate action to, after considering the thoughtful dialogue of the other voters, submerge your own narrow self-interest by voting for the choice you have determine is the one that would deliver the best result for society at-large, despite your own personal preference....

Or we could use a voting method that already knows how to do that, and lets you express your personal preferences in the same natural way that you would among your friends.

The Tyranny of Weak Preferences

The problem here is that these majoritarian methods have no way to indicate strength of preferences. Your weak preference between pepperoni and mushrooms is given as much importance as a your friend's overwhelming preference between pepperoni and mushrooms. And yet, the ability of approval voting and score voting to cleverly subvert the majority criterion in this way has been used as an argument against it. The detractors argue that it is horrible, absolutely horrible, that a candidate could be preferred by the majority of voters but that the election method would pick someone else. But is it really so horrible? After all, didn't you say you really liked mushrooms?

The truth is, under the voting methods for which I argue, voters have the power to express a willingness to compromise, and if they choose to express that desire, then these voting methods have the ability to honor it. And conversely, if the voters do not have an interest in compromising, then they can express that too.

Now, I know that, in the voting booth, we're not all friends. But that only makes it more important that we use election methods which strive for consensus, instead of divisiveness. You don't have to vote on pizza toppings with your friends, because it's a mostly unimportant decision with only a few people affected, none of which are especially invested in the outcome. You trust each other, and can quickly talk out all possible outcomes and come to a mutually-acceptable agreement. That's harder to do with 100 million angry people deciding on their government. But you still want—no, you still need—a consensus result. The majority criterion is detrimental to that goal.

Arguing Both Sides

What I find especially funny is that the other common argument used against approval and score voting is that they will degenerate to plurality voting, because voters will only vote for their single favorite choice. We know that's not true, but it's also contradicted by their arguments favoring the majority criterion. Because, for an approval or score voting election to actually exhibit majority failure, a substantial number of the voters would have to vote for multiple candidates; while, for accusations of bullet-voting to carry any weight, nearly all voters would have to vote for just one candidate. And yet, detractors argue that both of these things will happen, which is logically inconsistent.

The truth is, sometimes voters will bullet-vote, but only when it suits them to do so. And sometimes (rarely) a majority candidate won't win, but only when the voters who prefer that candidate have made the decision to express that preference as a weak preference, and defer to the whims of the minority. In other words, only when they have said "I like this other candidate better, but dude, if you really hate him, I'd totally be alright with one of these other guys."

It's called a compromise. It's how friends stay friendly, and how civilization stays civilized.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Better at the State Level?

Many pro-third-party and pro-independent voters resign themselves to the difficulty of winning a federal congressional seat. There are, after all, just two, assuming you count Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, who lost a reelection primary after three successful bids as a member of the Democratic party before deciding to go it alone. A strict count might only include Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who never once ran for office as a member of either of the major parties. Counting both men, out of the 535 House and Senate members that's only about 0.37%. Meanwhile, there are 7,442 state legislators currently serving in the 50 state legislatures. Some believe that at the state level, since it's a smaller and less rancorous market, third-party and independent candidates can have more success.

So, out of those 7,442 seats, how many do you think are not currently filled by Republicans or Democrats? Write your guess down before reading on.

Did You Write it Down?

Good. Now, if state legislatures had about the same percentage as the US congress, we could expect about 27 or 28 independent and third-party members. The truth? It's actually a little bit lower than that. There are, according to Wikipedia, just 24 such legislators. And about half of them are independent more in the Lieberman sense than in the Sanders sense.

Consider members like Harri Smith of the Alabama Senate, who lost a Republican primary and endorsed the Democrat. She was expelled from the Republican party for doing so, and ran as an independent in the subsequent election, in which the Democratic party did not field a candidate; Smith won. Or New York Assembly member Fred Thiele, who was originally elected to his seat as a Republican in 1995. After a decade and a half of reelections, Thiele joined the Independence Party of New York in 2009, and held on to his seat. Or you can find a hybrid version of those two stories in what Kent Williams did. Elected to the Tennessee House in 2006 and 2008 as a Republican, in his second term he was elected speaker—via the unanimous votes of the Democratic members of the body, and a lone Republican vote from himself. Promptly expelled from the Republicans, he decided to make his own party.

These politicians, like Lieberman, seem more opportunistic than truly independent. But there are some independent state legislators about whom, like Sanders, there is no such doubt. And like Sanders, most of them are in the state of Vermont. In fact, of the 24 legislators, ten of them are from that one small state. That's over 40% of the non-Democrat non-Republican state legislators in the country, from a state with just 0.2% of the nation's population. Of the ten, three list themselves as independents, while the other seven are members of the Vermont Progressive Party, making it the only third party with a substantial (>2%) presence in any state legislature.

Progressive Success

Why has Vermont's Progressive party been so successful? Not because of an advanced voting method; despite the party's support for instant runoff voting (which doesn't even help third parties) the Vermont legislature is elected by plurality, just like the other 49 states. We get an interesting piece of information by looking at the state wide voter totals. Despite taking 3.89% of the legislative seats, the party only received 2.96% of the votes. It's very unusual for a third party's seat-percentage to over-perform its vote-percentage like that, and it happens because, as they say on their website, "We pick the races we enter strategically." Sometimes this means a fusion ticket with the Democrats, or sometimes it means that there's enough political space to the left of the Democrats for the party to succeed on its own. This is possible because parts of the state have a significantly-more than 2:1 voter preference imbalance between the Democrats and the Republicans, leading to the unlikely situation where two left-wing candidates can run without concern of splitting the vote, effectively making the Republican party the "third party" in those elections.

But other states have pockets with similar imbalances, and other states allow fusion tickets, so make no mistake: the Vermont Progressive party's success isn't based strictly on those elements of their voting environment. They're doing something right.


Third party and independent legislators are no more common, overall, in state legislatures than in the national legislature. But an astounding number can be found in Vermont. Third party supporters may want to take a close look at what the Progressive party is doing there, and try to emulate it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

IRV a Uniquely Poor Choice for Centrists

The other day, I noticed that the number-one referrer to this site recently has been Rise of the Center. So, first of all, thanks to them and everyone who's found their way here through them. Second, I have an important observation to share with you: instant runoff voting is a uniquely poor voting reform option for centrist. I was reminded of this fact while playing with Ka-Ping Yee's Voteline simulator, in order to respond to points made in the comments of my previous post on the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives. And while it's something I've alluded too before, I don't think I've ever stated it this bluntly.

Model On Line

The Voteline simulator uses a very simple model. Voters are smoothly distributed along a left-to-right spectrum. Candidates occupy one point on that spectrum. Voter preferences are based on the linear distance from themselves to the candidates; closer candidates are preferred. The meanings of the colors may not be obvious though. The represent who the winner of the vote would be if the entire electorate were shifted, together, so that the median voter was at that point on the line. The relative distances between the candidates don't change, nor does the distribution of voters.

If you believe the winner of an election should be the candidate closest to the center of the political distribution, you would want an election method that always has a nice broad swath of matching color around each candidates' place in line, and 3 of the 5 methods used in Voteline do precisely that. The two that don't are plurality and "Hare (IRV)", AKA instant runoff voting. Instead, a candidate's place in line can easily be taken up with other colors, meaning that even if they are the most-centrist candidate, a different candidate would win the election.

It's not even that hard to squeeze a centrist candidate completely out of the running.

I've talked before about why we use models in these arguments. All models have their shortcomings though, and the one used here certainly contains some exaggerations; not all voters fall neatly on a single axis for instance (but see Yee's two-axis simulations) and we only have symmetrical voter distributions to play with here and so on. And there are other models in which IRV doesn't look quite as bad. But those models don't have any way of defining a center, so if you're buying into the idea of centrism, you don't have many other places to turn to for data.

It is certainly the case that voting method reform could help centrist. But, what these models suggest is that IRV is probably the least helpful voting method reform for that.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Declaration of Independence (of Irrelvant Alternatives)

You're finishing up a nice dinner, when the waiter lets you know about their dessert options. They have apple pie (A), and blueberry pie (B). You order a nice hot slice of all-American apple pie. A minute or two goes by, and the waiter returns. "I forgot," he says, "to mention that we also have cherry pie" (C). You consider it a moment and decide, "In that case, I'll have the blueberry."

Just Dessert

Ridiculous, isn't it? If you think A is the best out of A and B, then there's no logical reason you would think that B is the best out of A, B, and C. But what if pies are parties, and you are the American voting public? Official results don't collect voter's full preferences on candidates, but (please, hold off on your Gore/Nader (or Bush/Perot) comments for a bit, thank you!) there's no shortage of people claiming that this new third option, even though they didn't win, changed the outcome. (Keep holding it.) What we're talking about is usually called the spoiler effect, or more broadly and academically, a failure of the independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA).

In the absence of 100%-completely-non-controversial data, it's easy enough to construct a plausible example to showcase the theory:

  • 30%: A > (all others)
  • 45%: B > (all others)
  • 25%: C > A > B
If only A and B run, A wins 55% to 45%. But if A, B, and C run, then by plurality voting rules, the winner changes to B. We can vary the percentages pretty widely (we can even throw in in some C > B > A voters) but it doesn't vary the results: C doesn't win, but they do change the winner.

This isn't C's fault. Maybe C was making a statement. Maybe A should have dropped out of the race. Maybe C's voters valued their honest vote over the practicality of supporting a "lesser evil." (Okay, now you may comment.) All of these could be true, or none of them could be true, but the fault lies not in our candidates or our voters, but in the way we have agreed to count our elections. We have decided to use a voting system which fails the independence of irrelevant alternatives. And IIA means spoilers, which means "the lesser of two evils" is an effective voter strategy, which means we will have a two-party system. In other word, not only will C lose, but C will always be feared by voters of potentially causing the election of the worst candidate.

Declare Your Independence

This is not a new revelation; this is a problem we've been aware of, and trying to fix, for at least a few hundred years. But, in 1951, Kenneth Arrow proved--on his way to a Nobel prize--that no (single-winner) voting system can pass IIA if it is both deterministic and based on ranked-order ballots. That leaves us with precisely three options.

I chose option three. And if you're the sort who likes 3rd options when you go to vote, then option three is the most important political stance you can take. Because we cannot even fairly consider more than two options--we cannot even rationally think about cherry pie--without it.

Declare your independence from irrelevant alternatives! Support approval voting and other third-party supporting voting systems.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Other Good Ideas: Proportional Representation

(Note: This post was going to go up sooner, but with Wikipedia going down to protest SOPA, I put it off for a bit.)

Before disappearing for a third of a year, I was asked a simple question in the comments: Would I support an effort in favor of proportional representation (PR), even if it were for single transferable vote (STV), the PR method on which instant runoff voting (IRV) is based. And yes, I would. I often refer to Duverger's Law, the observation that single-winner plurality elections tend toward two-party dominated government, and PR effectively attacks one of the two legs of that problem.

What is Proportional Representation?

The familiar method for electing a legislature is to divide the region into districts, and elect a single representative from each one, the idea being that someone from where you're from, will want what you want. In practice, this isn't always true. There tend to be factions in each district that split along similar lines, and these ideological splits may be completely independent from the geographic split of the districts. It's possible (by accident or by design) for the narrowest of political majorities to win every single seat in a legislature, or for a group that is a minority in the electorate to have a majority of legislative seats. If the legislature is intended to represent the viewpoints of the whole electorate, only with a smaller number of participants, then these single-winner districts often fail.

The goal of PR is to fix this deficiency. Rather than each district electing a single winner, they elect multiples, and in proportion to the number of votes they have received. In this way, the diversity and popularity of viewpoints among the people will more-closely match the diversity and popularity of viewpoints among the representatives.

Variations and Usage

There are many different variations of PR. The most basic is changing the number of winners elected from each district. This number may be as small as 3 or 5 (usually, but not always, the number is odd) or as large as the 120 used for the Israeli Knesset, which is elected from a single, nation-wide "district". The other major point of variation is whether the system is candidate-based, like our current single-winner elections are, or whether it is explicitly party-based, so that voters do not vote for individual candidates but rather for a party or a list of candidates they have supplied; there are also mixed systems, like the one used in Germany, which provide for both simultaneously. There are also different ways of dividing the votes--basically, which way to round fractions--which can favor having fewer, larger parties or more, smaller parties. Depending on the precise method used, a PR ballot may look just like a plurality ballot, like a pair of plurality ballots (one listing candidates and one listing parties), or it may ask you to rank several choices (candidates or parties), or it may even look like an approval voting or score voting ballot

Most of the worlds democracies use proportional representation, which may come as a surprise to those of us in the United States, but that's because some of the largest exceptions--the United Kingdom and Canada--also happen to be some of the countries we Americans are most familiar with.

Criticisms and Difficulties

Since multiple winners are elected in each district, some critics have said that PR severs the connection between a voter and "their" representative. However, since each district elects multiple representatives, it is more-likely that you'll be in political agreement with at least one of "your" representatives. I also have commonly heard complaints about the party-centric aspects of party-based PR, but usually this is from people who don't realize that there are PR methods that are not party-based. Candidate-based PR tends to become somewhat unwieldy as the number of winners increases, as it becomes more difficult for voters to determine and remember which candidates they prefer. The counting procedures, regardless of the specific form of PR used, are also more complex than plurality voting is. Finally, there are people who legitimately believe that it is best to have as few large political parties as possible, in order to best guarantee the existence of a cohesive majority government, although this is less-significant in the US since we have less expectation of party-line voting, as well as extra veto-points in the President and in one chamber of congress acting more-and-more often under super-majority rules via the filibuster.

Also particular to the US, it is currently federal law that the states elect their representatives from single-winner districts (the law was enacted because some states had chosen to elect all their representatives at-large, guaranteeing that 51% of the voters would choose 100% of the representatives, eliminating representation for minorities) and that law would have to modified in order for any form of PR to be usable for House elections. Furthermore, the constitution requires that House seats be apportioned to the states, so no cross-state proportionality would be possible without a constitutional amendment, making the system rather moot for the 7 states who have a single representative.

This hasn't stopped PR from being used in several US cities, even, at one point, New York City; although most of these later returned to single-winner elections, so that, as of today, Cambridge, Massachusetts has the only governing body in the nation that is still elected via proportional representation.


For those who favor a diversity of opinions, proportional representation can be an effective way to achieve it. It has shortcomings and legal hurdles standing in the way of its use, and obviously can't be used for single-seat offices like a governor or the president. I won't stop pressing for approval or score voting, but there's no reason these advances can't be pursued in parallel. Although, anyone who sought to do so should familiarized themselves with how and why PR elections were rolled-back in recent US history, in order to avoid running into the same mistakes again. But that's a blog for another day...

Now, why would I support STV, but not IRV? It's a known property of STV that, the fewer winners it elects per district, the less proportional it is (and the balancing act becomes ballot complexity versus proportionality.) Since IRV is precisely equivalent to STV with one winner, we know that it loses all proportionality (in other words, IRV is not a PR election method.) This, combined with the other deficiencies of IRV make it an unacceptable alternative to my mind.