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.