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 However, if Stein would have withdrawn from the race, then Obama would have won instead.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.


  1. Or if they did begin to grow, Obama/Dems cd shift to the left and accommodate them more, possibly leading to a merger.

    The problems with IRV typically come down to how it tends to continue to encourage a two-party dominated system, just one with less rope between the two major parties and the (moving) center.

    And I think Stein is a realist who sees that shifting the Democratic party to the left is a goal worth pushing for moreso than ending our system's tendency to have two major parties.

  2. True enough. The threat of a future 3rd party spoiler from the wings (such as a the generally further-left Greens threatening to spoil the Democrats) is certainly something that can encourage the major party to move towards them.

    But it has to be a real threat, not a bluff; the major party has to believe that, unless some part of their platform is integrated they WILL run and they WILL be willing to spoil the election, rather than their supporters buckle and vote for the lesser evil.

    But let me ask: Was any part of Ralph Nader's platform integrated into either Kerry's campaign or Obama's campaign or administration? Perhaps Obama's healthcare reform? But Clinton had tried for reform as well, and Obama's implementation was the most right-wing possible version of the left-wing dream of universal coverage, with some members of the Green party actually arguing that it wasn't worth pursuing because single-payer wasn't included.

    So while I agree in theory, I'm hard pressed to see an example from recent practice.

    Furthermore, this isn't how Stein (or most IRV supporters) present it; rather, they present it as "fixing the spoiler problem" and/or "giving 3rd parties a chance to win". And not as "being able to get more support, and therefore a larger voice, before becoming likely spoilers".

    I believe Stein is a realist as well, which is why I believe she could be persuaded toward approval voting rather than IRV.

  3. I'd argue that the real issue here is our democracy's long-standing malaise, in part due to the GOP's use of Nixon's Southern Strategy of pitting poor whites against minorities, and how far the FPTP, especially with the current Electoral College corruptions, has moved our prez-politics away from the center and immunized the leadership of the two major parties from lefty-dissenters(and somewhat from the right, at least in the general election).

    I believe the key antidote to that is to push for American forms of PR to make our system winner-doesn't-take-all. In a winner-doesn't-take-all system, disadvantaged minorities will have more exit threat from the center-left party and the center-right party won't have such a perverse incentive to engage in essentially a war of attrition with minorities who tend to vote for the center-right party. (See the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for examples of such.)

    I also believe a strong Obama/Dem win next week could lead to a civil war in the GOP that'd open up the possibility of serious electoral changes. The new center-right party, which I'm calling the GNP, would be weakened and disadvantaged in our current system. But they'd still have money and so they'd have the means and the right incentive of pushing for electoral changes. But they'd likely only push for electoral changes that do not change the tendency for our country to have 2 major parties. Their financial advantage should help surmount the need to sell electoral reform to the USA.

    Stein is marketing IRV by repeating the frames that have been developed already to appeal to her supporters. Marketing requires taking seriously people's existing frames for electoral reform. Electoral analysts like you and I are capable of seeing how misleading many of those frames are, but we're not quite capable in changing the frames of most people.

    The inability of 3rd parties to sway the major parties, apart from the tea-party faction's influence on the GOP, seems to be a matter of lack of scale and the difficulty in making a credible spoiler threat. If IRV forces both of the major parties closer to the de facto center and helps 3rd parties make modest gains then third parties would be able to make credible spoiler threats and thereby get the respect they deserve.

    Approval Voting has a marketing disadvantage in the USA, as shown by the failure of the petitions you pointed to early. Stein is reckoning with her limited political/marketing capital by not trying to reinvent the wheel in marketing the best known progressive electoral alternative to fptp.


  4. correction: I meant de jure, not de facto, center.

  5. no, I meant "real" center, which isn't the same as de facto, which is a product of the strategies of the two major parties.

  6. I have a question. Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't you said in the past that Approval/Range voting is inherently biased towards "centrists"? Given that Jill Stein is not running under a "centrist" (at least within the current context of the United States politics) platform, wouldn't this voting system actually hinder the success for her party to grow, not help it? Perhaps I'm misunderstanding something, and if I am, do please correct me.

  7. It's true that if politics is one-dimensional, and we presume the Green party is further left-of-center than the Democrats, then under approval voting, they will do no better.

    They will, however, be able to grow without the artificial limiter of being accused of being a spoiler (again). The only limit would be the popularity of their ideals. (And they'd certainly make the 5% mark for Federal funding.)

    What does political discourse look like with no spoilers? Would we have 3, 4, or more viable parties? Does it even stay one dimensional? For example, a majority of Americans (and a super-majority of Democrats) accept that climate change is occurring... and yet, nothing has been done about it, and it was not even discussed in the presidential campaign this year. In an environment with no spoilers, if Stein signed on to the entire Democratic platform but also added a pledge to confront climate change, would she do better? Maybe, maybe not; depends how voters are distributed on that issue, etc. etc.. But with approval voting, we'd be able to find out.

    Approval voting tends toward compromise, but a multi-dimensional compromise might look different than a one-dimensional compromise.

  8. Interesting points. It's worth noting though that the Democratic party (at least federally), isn't "centre left", it's centre right, at least when you judge by their policies enacted. They don't just care about climate change (though that's obviously a major factor) but the various issues that are essentially ignored since the realightment of the Democrats during the Clinton years.

    Regardless, Approval voting is looking more attractive to me, but I'd prefer to see it in action sometime before I throw my support at it.

  9. Personally, I would like something more-left than the Dems, and I suspect (but have no evidence) that two-party politics has knocked us "off axis" so that, as you suggest, the effective center is right-of the true center... so my hope is that approval voting would help bring things in a direction that I would find preferable.

    But I wonder what people who would prefer a more-right America think. Libertarians are making great progress in the use of approval voting, so I'd imagine they have an equivalent outlook, and while the overlap between my views and Libertarian views isn't zero, it isn't great. Or perhaps we'd all be better off by giving up small compromises which the Ds and Rs aren't able to even discuss because of plurality politics.

  10. I'm of two minds about the Libertarians myself, I have some considerable overlap with them on civic/social policies, but considerably less on economic policies. I'd like to see them get more clout regardless, if for no other reason to be a check on the Republican party, much like the Democrats need one on the (centre)left.

    Also I do think there's a lot of room for a genuinely centre left party to grow in the US, especially past the 5% national threshold. It's also worth noting that when ideas are given a fairer shake, they can very much become "not" fringe in not that long of a time period. I think I'm warming up to Approval voting even more now.