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.