Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bring Approval Voting to Oregon!

In the last few years, legislative efforts to enact approval voting have been stymied in Arizona, Colorado, and New Hampshire. But there's an exciting new possibility opening up in Oregon, where there's an effort under way to get approval voting up through a ballot initiative.

Actually, it's an approval top-two-primary, and I've never been a fan of top-two primaries, but since it will be carried out using approval voting, this will still likely be a huge boon to the people of Oregon, if the initiative proves to be successful. If you're in Oregon, please get involved (or if you're willing to go visit; out-of-state petition circulators are legal in Oregon.)

So visit their website, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and get the word out. I'm hoping there will be a lot less friction moving this through with an initiative process rather than with a legislative process, so fingers crossed!

In an entirely unrelated personal aside, this marks my first success with managing to post something at least once per month for an entire calendar year. Next year's resolution will be for at least two per month.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Minneapolis Results

Way back in June—almost 5 months before the voting took place—I made a prediction about the outcome of the mayoral race in Minneapolis. Specifically, I predicted that the winner of the election would not get 50% of the votes cast. For this, I was told, among other things, that I didn't understand how ranked choice voting works, and that I was a troll. I was also right.

As you can see on the election results page, Betsy Hodges was elected the new mayor of Minneapolis with 48.95% of the votes cast. Close, but not quite, 50%. (And I'll argue below that she actually got a slightly lower percentage than that.) I should point out that I know absolutely nothing about Minneapolis politics; I've never even ever set foot anywhere in Minnesota. All I knew was that RCV was going to be used and that the DFL failed to choose an endorsement for the race, so there would be 6 DFLeres along with 29 other candidates on the ballot.

The Stakes

It's not actually important that RCV is able to elect a winner with less than 50% support. What's important is maximizing expected voter satisfaction, and RCV (AKA "Instant Runoff") is not particularly good at that. But plurality is terrible, so a lot of people are looking for something to replace it with, and they have been plied with stories from certain less-than-reliable organizations that RCV "upholds majority rule"—along with other, less-easily-falsifiable claims. And it's the easy falsifiability that makes this important... or at least useful. Since RCV is a poor target for reform, my hope is that disproving one of it's selling points will get activist to take a closer look, and discover the superior (single-winner) election method reform choices of approval and score voting.

Side Bet

But the mayoral winning percentage wasn't the only prediction I'd made about the Minneapolis election results. I'd also claimed that there would be more spoiled ballots in this election than there had been in the 2005 election (the last one before RCV.) But what I didn't know (remember: I know nothing about Minneapolis) was that the city had invested in new machines to immediately check ballots, and give voters the chance to try again if they made a ballot-invalidating error. And it worked really well! Almost all voters successfully cast a valid ballot, so Kudos to Minneapolis. But with this new check, we're no longer comparing apples to apples. Luckily, the Municipal Canvassing Board still accounts for spoiled ballots, and their report provides the number we need to make a fair comparison. Recall that the ballot spoilage rate in 2005 was a hair over 1.0%. According to this year's report, there were 3,358 spoiled ballots, and 80,099 ballots cast (note: I'm not sure where the two ballot difference between the report and the results webpage comes from.) That works out to just under 4.2%, closely matching the 2009 results and, again, more than quadrupling the pre-RCV rate.

There's been more than a little bit of confusionsome of it caused intentionally—about RCV's effect on ballot spoilage rates in Minneapolis, so this is another RCV-advocate claim whose falsehood I find is important to point out.

Odds (and Ends)

I downloaded the full mayoral election results spreadsheet to play around with, but it turns out that, despite all the ink spent on it, this was a really boring and, honestly, kind of predictable race. But if you're curious, here are a few other numbers I pulled out:

  • Total Ballots: 80,101
  • Non-Blank Ballots in Mayoral Race: 79,462
  • Valid Ballots in Mayoral Race: 79,415

That means there were 47 voters who tried to vote in mayoral race, but who weren't counted because, in each rank, they either undervoted (listed no choice) or overvoted (listed more than one choice). And these 47 voters are separate from the 639 voters who voted on something in this election but who completely skipped the mayoral race (i.e., undervoted in all three ranks.) This is why I think Hodges actual winning percentage should be reported as 48.92%, instead of 48.95%: Those 47 voters deserve to be counted towards achieving a majority.

  • Valid Ballots with an Overvote in Mayoral Race: 142
  • Valid Ballots with a Skipped Rank in Mayoral Race: 292
  • Valid Ballots with Duplicated Candidates in Mayoral Race: 11,673

These groups of ballots were all counted toward the majority by the official count, since they had at least some valid information. However, they also illustrate a lack of understanding by the electorate for how RCV actually works. Skipping a rank (i.e., filling in only ranks 1 and 3, or 2 and 3) or duplicating a candidate in multiple ranks, can't change the outcome, but apparently over 15% of voters think it might; that's not a good sign. The overvotes are even more concerning, since they could theoretically change the outcome (and should have all been caught by the fancy new scanners.) Thankfully, they were rather few (probably because of the fancy new scanners.)


This makes two consecutive elections where RCV didn't screw up, at least not on the same scale as it did in Burlington, VT. On the one hand, that's good for the people of Minneapolis. On the other, since RCV is not an overall good election reform, it's probably bad, since it means there isn't going to be a strong motivation to change away from the system before people get accustomed to it... unless someone takes this "less than 50%" outcome, and all the other arguments against RCV, and runs with it. Minneapolitans (I had to look that up!) let me know if I can help.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October Op-Eds Weave RCV Spell over Minneapolis

Minneapolis is conducting their local elections by ranked choice voting (AKA instant runoff voting) for the second time this November. I've already written about this a number of times. But with the election drawing closer, RCV proponents are getting op-eds published in an attempt to hype the systems purported advantages.

Please indulge me while I reiterate my refutations of these common, and false, RCV talking points.

  • RCV does not "ensure majority outcomes": With the large number of candidates running for mayor, and the inability of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party to settle on an endorsement, there is an extremely high likelihood that the winner of that election will not have a majority of the votes cast, since a large number of votes will be exhausted. But be on the lookout, because reported results will likely conceal the total number of ballots cast, as they did in the 2010 Oakland mayoral election, giving only the number of "continuing ballots" in the final round.
  • RCV does not "encourage more respectful campaigns": We know this because of experience in California. It does seems that the first couple RCV elections are more respectful, but this is solely because of RCV advocates' claiming this to be true, and uncertain politicians being afraid that they might be right. But after having some experience with the new system, trying some negative ads, and seeing the effect on their polling, the politicians realize they've been tricked, and go back to their old ways.
  • RCV does not eliminate "fear of a wasted vote": This is the most persistent RCV myth, because it appears true at first glance. And it is true... when there are only two significant candidates. Since most elections have only two significant candidates, it can take quite some time for the truth to come out. But we only need to look at Burlington, VT to remind ourselves. It's unclear if we'll see it in Minneapolis this year though. I give it about 1-in-5 odds of occurring.

I do agree with the op-ed authors that this is perhaps the most important test of RCV yet. And I've already made one testable prediction about the outcome of these races: That the mayoral race winner will not win a majority of the votes cast. And now, I'd like to add a second testable prediction, one for which I have even higher confidence: There will be a higher percentage of spoiled ballots for this election than there were in the 2005 election (the last one before the change to RCV). This op-ed didn't repeat the claim, but previous ones had implied (falsely) there was only one spoiled ballot in the 2009 election. The actual rate was over 4.1%, while the 2005 rate was less than 1.1%. I expect similar performance this year.

Those are my claims. If any RCV proponent would like to make a friendly wager of it, you can step up in the comments.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Defined Measures

I give a lot of guff to FairVote and their Executive Director, Rob Richie, because of their stance on instant runoff voting. (They love it. I hate it.) But there's a lot more topics in the sphere of technocratic election reform, and on almost all other issues, we agree vehemently. But I especially want to call out Richie's (and Andrea Levien's) latest in the Huffington Post, on the topic of voter ID laws.

Richie and Levien point out something I hadn't even noticed: That voter ID proponents play fast-and-loose with measures of voter turnout, in order to minimize the apparent problems with it. In short, ID proponents cite measurements of turnout among registered voters as evidence that voter ID isn't problematic, when measurements of turnout among eligible voters tells a very different—and probably more truthful—story.

Read the whole piece, and remember two things. One, that you always need to be precise when defining what you're measuring. And two, that, despite the things we disagree about, election reform advocates still have a lot that we can agree on.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alaska Statute 15.15.360(a)(4)

I moved to Alaska a little over 3 and a half years ago, about a year after I decided to take up Poundstone's challenge and work to enact approval (or maybe even score) voting in my city. Needless to say, changing localities tends to disrupt those kind of local efforts, and I've been hesitant to start, from scratch, again. But it's time I stop making excuses.

Alaska statute, section 15.15.360, part a, line 4. This is my enemy:

"If a voter marks more names than there are persons to be elected to the office, the votes for candidates for that office may not be counted."
These 27 words are the greatest legislative obstacle standing in my way for fairer electoral outcomes. All I would need to do in order to make approval voting the law of the land for elections across my entire state, is to change that line to something like:
"If a voter marks more names than there are persons to be elected to the office, a vote shall be counted for each candidate properly marked."
...which is copied, word-for-word, from the preceding sentence of the statute, about what to do if a voter marks fewer names than there are persons to be elected to the office.

It's such a small change. But it has such profound implications, and will (I'm sure) see so much resistance. Time to get to work.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Typical "Voter Fraud" Example

Today, the 28th of August, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech, which contains this line:

We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
The movement this speech came from and drove onward eventually led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which in large part dealt with ensuring the right of all American citizens—especially minorities, and African Americans in particular—to vote.

Everyone knows this, and today, everyone is celebrating this. And yet, on this very day, the states of Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina are in court trying to defend the removal of these same rights, from these same citizens. The states claim, of course, that undoing half a century of progress isn't the objective of these laws. The laws being challenged in court are instituting requirements for photo identification at the time of voting, and the justification for them is to prevent fraud. So today I'm going to walk you through an example of exactly how accurate these claims of fraud are, from a state that isn't—yet—in court: South Carolina.

We're using South Carolina because advocates for this sort of law made a specific claim, made it very publicly, and it was investigated very extensively. We begin with Department of Motor Vehicles Director Kevin Schwedo, and Attorney General Alan Wilson, who claimed that they had a list of 953 deceased individuals whose names had been used to fraudulently vote in the 2010 election. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) spent nearly 7 months examining the list, and this is what they found:

  • -746: Hadn't voted in the 2010 election. Only by including 74 elections over a 7 year period could that number be reached. SLED wasn't going to go digging that far back, but was happy to investigate the remaining 207.
  • -92: Junior/Senior name recognition errors. In other words, John Smith Sr. had died, and John Smith Jr. had voted, legally.
  • -6: "Clerical errors," where the poll worker had marked the wrong person in the poll book and not fully erased their mistake.
  • -56: "Bad data matches," where the state had the wrong social security record on file for the voter. The owner of the SSN had died, but the vote was legit.
  • -5: Cases where election workers incorrectly marked the wrong person as having voted absentee.
  • -3: Absentee ballots which the state had issued in the wrong name, but the (legal) voter who requested it filled it out anyway.
  • -32: Scanner errors. The machine screwed up.
  • -3: Voters who were alive when they requested their absentee ballot, but died before the day of the election.
  • That left -10 cases that needed further scrutiny:
    1. Jr. voted, father deceased. (Although Jr. hadn't registered to vote.)
    2. Agent exhausted all leads, no further information.
    3. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    4. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    5. Agent exhausted all leads, no further information.
    6. Agent exhausted all leads, no further information.
    7. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    8. Unrelated individual with the same name, who was a registered voter, voted. (Although in the wrong precinct.)
    9. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.
    10. Jr. voted, legally; father deceased.

All told, that's at most 4 fraudulent votes, 5 if you count the guy who went to the wrong precinct, but saw his name in the book and voted anyway. And statistically, the 3 inconclusive cases were probably not fraud either. The only certainly fraudulent vote was the guy who never registered and voted under his dead father's name. (Which I guess they let slide, because SLED didn't file charges against anyone; I'm sure Jr. will either register or stop voting now that he's been investigated and let off with a warning.) That's 1 out of 207, or less than half of a percent, or 1 out of 953 if you use the initially very-well-advertised and very-inflated number, which is hardly more than one tenth of a percent. And this in an election where 1,365,480 votes were cast. Meaning this "huge" example of voter fraud resulted in, literally, less than one fraudulent vote in one million. And this is how it always goes with these cases.

Further more, I would like to point out that many of these claimed cases of fraud were by absentee ballot, which voter ID laws would not be able to prevent. A great many more were cases where the voter would have had photo ID with the correct name, including the one and only certainly fraudulent one, so a voter ID would not have stopped these either. Almost all the rest were errors on the part of the state, which voter ID also can't stop.

But maybe you're thinking "Okay, none of these cases were fraudulent, but there's surely some other cases that were. And even one vote, one fraudulent vote, is worth stopping; we're talking about our democracy after all!" And now we're into cost-benefit analysis. Because voter fraud does—rarely—happen. But if stopping one fraudulent vote is good, not incorrectly preventing thousands of legitimate votes must be even better. The ACLU of Pennsylvania was able to, almost instantly, find 5 voters just in the Philadelphia area who would be unable to meet the state's voter ID requirement, even though they are clearly legitimate voters, and South Carolina has 3 times as many people as Philly. Imagine how many such voters must be in South Carolina, if you look even a little bit harder. If it's just two, then the voter ID law is a net-negative. And it is certainly more than two, and possibly as high as 100,000.

I know that this issue has become a partisan one (although some Republicans have defected from the party line) and it pains me to bring a partisan issue to a blog that I want to be welcoming to all advocates of democracy; left, right, center, and off-axis. But I can't look at the arguments being made by the other side and see anything other than barely-concealed discrimination, because those 100,000 voters who will have difficulty getting an acceptable ID are not evenly distributed across the population, they disproportionately come from minorities, and African Americans in particular. And I will not let that go unmentioned on this golden anniversary day. We should, at all times and in all ways, do everything we can to get as many people as we can to vote. That forms the bedrock of our electoral system; without that, the calls I make for better voting methods are pointless.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Tweet of all Evils, or The Least of all Tweeters?

I'm a huge RSS fan, but with the death of Google Reader last month (I'm using Feedly now, by the way) it's well past time that I actually put this blog through to Twitter (which I guess is how the cool kids do everything these days?) If you've been with us long enough (long enough that you recognize where the user icon came from) you'll remember that we tried this once before. But this time I've set things up (through TwitterFeed) so that new post will automatically be tweeted (one has already gone through, so I guess it's all set up correctly; yay!)

So if that sounds like fun, you can easily catch all the new posts to The Least of All Evils by following @LeastOfAllEvils. I don't expect to be much of an active Twitter conversant through that account though, so if you want the full experience (which is to say, a bunch of stuff about politics, but also stuff about programming, random science, board- and video-games, and life in Anchorage) you can catch me at @Mudlock.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Egypt Didn't Want This

It sounds ridiculous to have to say it. Of course Egypt didn't want this. No one wants death and violence in the streets. But it does seem that a majority of Egyptians support the military coup that recently removed their first democratically-elected president, when hardly one year ago a majority of Egyptians supported the election of that same president. Or did they? I'm not suggesting nefariousness, I'm not suggesting ballot-stuffing, election fraud, vote buying; nothing like that. No, Morsi won the election completely within the rules. But despite that fact, a majority of Egyptians did not, in fact, support him. The problem was, the rules were incredibly stupid. Un-democratically stupid. Self-defeatingly stupid. And we could shrug and say "I guess that was dumb of Egypt," except that we use the same rules in much of the United States.

The rules for Egypt's 2012 presidential election (and for most seats of the preceding parliamentary election) were simple: plurality, and if no candidate receives a majority, the top-two candidates head to a runoff. Now, there were five candidates who received more than 2% of the vote in the first round of the election. And it is entirely possible—and I would say it's probably—that the first- and second-place candidates were the two least liked candidates of that group, by which I mean, either one would have lost in a runoff election against any of the other three. In other words, in 2012, Egyptians elected their second-least-preferred choice to be their president. In such a revolutionary time, with years of political oppression finally released, and with several vastly different ideas of where to take the country politically, is it even a surprise that such a candidate would be removed less than a year later?

I've constructed a simple example using Yee's Voteline simulator that roughly parallels the results in Egypt. Beginning with Morsi (a Muslim Brotherhood leader and the election winner) on the left, then Abou al-Fotouh (a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood), followed by Sabahi (a secularist and opponent of the Mubarak regime), Moussa (one time Minister of Foreign Affairs under Mubarak, but also something of a rival of his), and finally Shafik (named Prime Minister by Mubarak on the eve of his expulsion.)

When the middle three candidates are removed, the result mirrors the outcome of the runoff election. It's a very approximate recreation, and I'm not entirely comfortable with Sabahi and Moussa's positions in particular, but there's a rough line from most-recent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to most-recent member of the Mubarak government, with Sabahi (having not ever been a member of either) in the middle. Now, I'm no expert on Egyptian politics, and a one-dimensional simulation like this must necessarily leave out some details, but I believe my result to be at least illustrative if not entirely accurate. You're more than welcome to play around with Yee's simulator yourself to see if you can find something better.

I found it interesting, while I was reading up on the candidates, that most Egyptians voted for a secularist candidate (Sabahi, Moussa, or Shafik) and also most Egyptians voted for a candidate unaffiliated with Mubarak's government (Sabahi, Abou al-Fotouh, or Morsi) but the runoff election pitted the most-religious candidate against the candidate closest to Mubarak. In other words, the 3rd-5th place candidates split the middle of the electorate, dooming the runoff to extremism. You can also see that most other election methods, including approval voting, Borda count, and any Condorcet method, would all have elected Sabahi (however, this is where I lose some faith in the model, as I think Moussa may have proved to be the true winner under some of those methods, but it would take a multi-dimensional model to see it. A Sabahi/Moussa runoff would have been a good election.) Interestingly, instant runoff voting ends in the same Morsi/Shafik showdown as plurality plus runoff, and ends the same way, further condemning that method.

The moral of the story is: Winning an election, if that election has stupid rules, doesn't necessarily get you the best result. In a developed democracy, we can roll with it, wait four years, and try again. In a high-stakes post-revolutionary environment, getting it wrong this way leads to violence, death, and an irrevocable (if unfair) stain on democracy itself. But democracy didn't fail in Egypt. Democracy didn't kill 600 Egyptians last week. Plurality voting did.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Yee Paper on Visualizing Voting Methods

Just a quickie (I know, I haven't posted that Egypt piece I promised; turns out, just because you don't know a lot about a foreign country's politics, doesn't mean they're simple) and not something that's new if you've been following us closely, but Ka-Ping Yee has a nice, simple, short paper based on his previous work, titled "Disadvantages of Transferable Vote Systems". This one is restricted to just plurality, IRV, and approval, and comes out strongly for approval. Also, the pictures look pretty sweet, so check it out.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Lessons From Egypt: The Voting System Matters

I'm writing a longer piece on this same topic, but I want to get something out while it's still in the news.

  • First, David Rea writes "Egypt has not rejected Democracy," which lays out the problem and a possible solution. Short version: when an organized but disfavored minority wins an election, that's bad; for the nation, for the voters, and for the reputation of democracy itself. Use approval voting.
  • Second, Warren Smith provides the numbers to back those claims up. A better voting system (such as score voting) probably would have chosen Amr Moussa, who came in 5th(!) in the actual election.

Elections matter. Getting them right, matters. Getting them wrong can lead to violence, war, and death.

Monday, July 1, 2013

LoAE Mascot: The Least of All Weasels

Too much serious business last month, so it's time for some relaxation. I've been lying in wait with this post for a few weeks now, waiting for the perfect time to pounce. You see, all the world's great organizations—sports teams, political parties, even nations—have something in common, and that's mascots. So after careful consideration of several possibili... oh, who am I kidding? It's a silly pun, plus look at how cute this little guy is!

This is Mustela nivalis, or the least weasel. Found in North America from the U.S. eastern seaboard to Alaska (much like myself) as well as across northern Asia, all of Europe, and even into northwestern Africa, the least weasel is astoundingly prolific, but rarely noted, possibly because of it's small stature (weighing just 1 to 9 ounces (30-250 grams.)) Which is a mistake, since this tiny carnivore can take down prey five times its own size, and more! Legends even say that the weasel is the only creature capable of defeating the basilisk. Basically, they're fuzzy little magical four-footed ninjas, and who doesn't love ninjas?

I know who has my vote for next King of the Animals.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Red Crayon Statistics

I know, I implied the previous post would be the last one about Minneapolis. But I can't help it. My first post on the subject implied that former interim elections official Patrick O'Connor was lying about the 2009 ranked-choice-voting-powered election in Minneapolis, as the official report (which he commissioned) contradicts his claims. But today, the exact same lie is being propagated by the author of the report!

I started to question my own sanity here. These guys really should know better, and no one could really expect to get away with such an obvious lie. Is it possible I'm the one who's wrong? But then I remembered how absolutely ludicrous it is to suggest that only one ballot out of nearly 50,000 could be spoiled. No system has ever been that accurate, and anything under 1% is considered a triumph of electoral vigilance.

But then I noticed the subtlety they're using here. Both O'Connor and Schulze talk about spoiled ballots earlier in their articles, but when they try to counter the complaints of excessive ballot spoilage under RCV, their specific claim is that only one ballot was "uncounted". Now, given the context of that claim, you might assume that "uncounted" and "spoiled" are being used as synonyms for each other. Nope! Let's check the report again!

Of the 45,968 total ballots cast, there were 1,888 spoiled ballots and 2,958 voter error ballots (2009 Election Statistics, n.d.), which indicates ballots with voter errors specific to Ranked Choice Voting, including overvote, repeat candidate, skipped ranking and undervote (Minneapolis Method for Hand-Counting RCV Ballot Sorter & Counter, n.d.). Comparatively, during the general municipal election in 2005, there were 755 spoiled ballots of the total 70,987 absentee and in-person voters (Voter Turnout and Registration, 2005). In 2009, there was only one ballot cast that was totally defective and not counted. This was a ballot where no ovals were filled in and a handwritten essay written in red crayon on it. Excluded from this analysis are any ballots not counted due to failure to comply with the rules regarding absentee ballots. These ballots were not opened to ascertain voter intent.
That is the "one ballot" they're talking about. There were 1,888 spoiled ballots, a more than 380% increase in spoilage rate over the previous election, but never mind that! Because only one guy wrote on their ballot in crayon that year, that means those 1,888 don't really count against anything.

The truth is, RCV nearly quadrupled the number of spoiled ballots in Minneapolis, and there would have been a ten-fold increase had the election been machine-counted rather than hand-counted. That alone aught to be enough to disqualify RCV as an election method, but there are plenty of other reasons for it, too.

I'm upgrading O'Connor's and Schulze's "damned lie" to "statistic".

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Minneapolis Prediction

One more thing about Minneapolis: apparently, despite multiple ballots, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party wasn't able to decide on an endorsement among the six candidates interested in running for mayor under its party label. So all six will appear on the "choose three" ranked choice ballot, along with four other candidates. This makes it very likely, like in Oakland before, that the winner of this vote will not end up with more than 50% of the ballots cast, despite the claims of ranked choice supporters that it guarantees a majority win.

The way this happens is that many ballots will have all of their listed candidates eliminated, at which point the ballot is no longer considered to count towards determining a majority. This occurred for about 11% of the ballots in Oakland, except the final results weren't reported as "45%/44% with 11% exhausted", they were reported as "51%/49%". In other words, the final results were reported as if 13,000 voters didn't exist.

We'll see what happens, and how it's reported, in Minneapolis this November, but my money is on a similar outcome.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

In Minneapolis, Someone's Not Being Truthful

UPDATE: I've figured out where O'Connor is getting his number from.

Way back in 2010, I wrote a post about the final, official, report for Minneapolis' inaugural Ranked Choice Vote, conducted in 2009. It was an entirely boring election with entirely predictable results, and RCV did no worse or better than any other election method would in such a situation. The most-damning part of the report though, was how RCV seemed to have caused a quadrupling in the percentage of spoiled ballots, from 1.06% to 4.1% (see page 18 of the report.)

So imagine my surprise when I see in my RSS feed an OpEd from the Minneapolis StarTribune claiming that only one single ballot was spoiled. And imagine my further surprise when I see that it was penned by Patrick O'Connor, Minneapolis' interim elections director during that 2009 election, the same Patrick O'Connor mentioned by name (on page 1) of the very report that so grandiosely contradicts his statements published today.

Did Mr. O'Connor simply not read the report he commissioned four years ago? Or is he intentionally spreading falsehoods about it? I think Minneapolis deserves to know.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Congress is Too Small

And now, a brief tangent from election methods...

Stop me if you've heard this one: Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 states that each representative should serve no less than 30,000 people, and therefore the House should have over 10,000 members. That probably sounds a little crazy, and it probably is. And yet, Congress is too small. What would a better number be though? This is actually a difficult question, as well as a surprisingly touchy subject, one which has caused so much anger and vitriol in the past, that Congress has actually been afraid to re-examine the question. And so, we've had the same number of representatives—435—for over one hundred years. The House has stayed the same size for a century, even though our population has more than tripled in that time.

Ahh, you may be thinking, if our population has tripled, then we should triple the size of the House too! Right? Well, no. A linear increase (X times as many people = X times as many representatives) is the same pitfall that led to the 10,000-member House. Rather, political scientist have done a little bit of math, and their best suggestion is that the size of any legislature should be proportional to somewhere between the square-root and the cube-root of the population it represents. X times as many people = √X times as many representatives. There are a couple different specific recommendations I was able to dig up, and both fall within that range. If the population is P, they suggest (2×P)1/3 and 0.37×P0.4. Let's throw a square root example in here too. First, let's assume the Constitution is perfect; that implies 0.047×√P. Now, for a population of 308,745,538, these equations give sizes of 850, 919, and 825. Let's not forget to subtract the Senate though! So we're looking at a House of 750, 819, or 725 members. Quite an increase from 435.


It looks like the founder's initial estimate was a little low-balled. On the other hand, the number of citizens eligible to actually vote was also a lot lower than the census would suggest, so perhaps it is—in addition to being a reminder of our horrible past—at least consistent. But each equation suggest that the 1910 number was in about the right ballpark. Today? The House needs to be at least two-thirds again as large as it is now, probably even a bit larger. As a nice side-bonus, the rule about each state having at least one representative becomes redundant; even Wyoming's residents "earn" theirs just by virtue of their population and the application of the Huntington-Hill method.

These guidelines can be applied to parliaments, congresses, committees, boards, councils; any representative body. And, in practice, most organizations are pretty close. People have a pretty good gut feeling about when a representative body, isn't. When it's too small, as our congress is now, people can just feel that there's corruption. When it's too large, people can just feel that it's inefficient and full of weak candidates.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Looking@Democracy Step 2: Vote with your Vote

Thanks again to all of you who contributed funds to have CES make their approval voting video. Now for step two! Voting for the public choice award for the Looking@Democracy has now opened, so please visit the page for CES's approval voting entry and vote for us!

Honestly guys, we may have an unfair advantage. The video is about approval voting, and the contest is being decided by approval voting! Not plurality, not instant-runoff (can you imagine having to rank all 347 entries?), but approval. How is that even fair? But who cares, go vote us up!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Video: What Is Approval Voting?

It's been just about 5 weeks since the end of The Center for Election Science's successful fundraiser, and the video is ready!

It will now be entered in the Looking@Democracy contest. But in the meantime, spread the word!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fundraiser: 24 Hours To Go

UPDATE: Success! Thanks everyone for your help, now CES has about 6 weeks to get their video made for the Looking@Democracy contest. I'll continue to keep you updated on this exciting(?) process, but for now, I'll stop spamming you.

Hey folks, we've been doing great and are within site of our goal! Only a little over $1,000 remains, and you can put us over the top. As I write this, the reprint of The Journal of Political Economy Vol. 58 No. 4, signed by Dr. Kenneth Arrow and featuring the publication of his impossibility theorem, is still available for $3,500. If no one lays that down in one go, it goes to whoever gives the most to the campaign. Last I heard, that stands a $1000. Even if you didn't want the book, you could probably turn around and auction it off for more than that!

Thanks to everyone who's already contributed, but keep spreading the news in these last 24 hours.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

From the Top

Cross-posted to my lovely wife's Web Librarian blog. The American Library Association is currently having a discussion about how they elect their Council, and she figured "Hey, I know a guy who loves to talk about election stuff!" This is a good back-to-basics introduction to our topic:

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. And the essential component for democracy is voting. So it seems reasonable that a better way of voting would lead to better democracy. That’s the motivation behind the Center for Election Science, the book Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It), and this post.

Let’s break voting down. You have 1) a group of mutually-exclusive options to choose from. We don’t have to be talking about candidates for office; we could be deciding between different pizza toppings, or names for your new band. You have 2) a group of people with opinions about those options. Finally, you have 3) a system which takes those opinions and uses them to select one of the options. Actually, you have a whole lot of different systems, and you get to choose one. Your system could be “pick one of the options at random.” That’s not a good system, since you could end up with an option that everyone hates. Or, you could pick one of the people at random, and let them choose. That’s a little better—you know you’ve picked an option that at least one person thinks is the best—but what if everyone else thinks they’re wrong? Shouldn’t we consider everyone’s opinions?

Okay, so what if we let each person name their favorite option? And then, whichever option the most people choose, that’s the one we go with. This is the system you’re probably most familiar with. It’s called “plurality” or sometimes “first past the post.” And since you’re familiar with it, you’re probably also familiar with some of its shortcomings. For example, sometimes you might really like one of the options, but you also know that there are two other options where almost everyone else thinks one of them is the best. If you also have a strong opinion between those two, you need to decide if you’re actually going to support your real, no-hope favorite, at the risk of getting something popular that you don’t like. Or perhaps, there are two options which both seem equally good to you, and another popular one that you think is terrible. It can be difficult to determine which of the two good ones to get behind, and if people split evenly between them, it’s quite likely both will lose. You shouldn’t have to distort your opinions in order to vote effectively. Instead, you could use a voting system which collects more information about the voters’ opinions on the options, and incorporates as much of that as possible into the process.

It turns out, there are many other systems to choose from that are better than plurality. Some of them ask you to rank the options in order from your favorite on down. However, every single one of those methods suffers from at least one of the same shortcomings we identified for plurality: either there will be situations where you have a compelling reason not to vote for your real favorite first, or multiple too-similar options will stomp on each others’ support. Or both! This problem is a consequence of a very famous (and Nobel-prize-winning) theory from economics called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Arrow’s theorem is usually pithily summed up as “There is no perfect voting system.” The whole truth is, of course, much more complicated than that. And while actual perfection probably is impossible, there has recently been a push in favor of voting systems which achieve what Arrow proved to be unachievable. Arrow wasn’t wrong; rather, his proof simply—and intentionally—ignored another class of voting systems, a class that doesn’t ask voters to rank the options, but rather, asks them to rate them.

A (sort of weird) example approval voting ballot

Think of it like giving “stars” to products on Amazon, or “liking” comments on social media. You don’t consider each product by directly comparing it against all other products you’ve ever purchased, or each comment by directly comparing it against every other comment you’ve read today. Instead, the process is more indirect. This book was about a 4. That banana slicer was definitely a 1. You like your aunt’s comment enough to say so, or you don’t. What are the best products? Probably the ones with the highest scores. What are the best comments? Probably the ones where more of the people who saw it, liked it.

Approval voting is the simplest of this class of voting methods. It’s exactly like “liking.” For each option, each voter can either approve of it, or not. The option with the most approvals wins. You can expand on the idea by using an idea like “stars.” Each voter gives each option as many points as they like, up to some limit, often 5 or 9 or 99. This method is called score voting. (And you can think of approval voting as score voting with a limit of 1.) Because you rate each option completely independently, similar options don’t ruin each others’ chances, and you can always give top mark to the choice that’s your true favorite. By fixing the problems that encouraged people to distort their opinions, by collecting more information from people about their opinions, and by incorporating it into the process in an intelligent way, a group is better-able to select the option that is the best choice for it. Approval voting is better democracy.

Further reading: What Do You Mean By "Best"?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fundraiser Update

Lots of exciting news for the ongoing Approval Voting Video Fundraiser! The campaign has surpassed $5,000, and is now #1 for non-profits, #1 in the politics category, and #1 in San Francisco. Out of over 4,000 active campaigns on Indiegogo, we're in the top 10, and rapidly approaching the top 5.

With just a little more help from you, we can keep moving up, and reach our goal. Toward that end, this has been declared "$1 weekend," and we're pushing to get people—new funders as well as people who have already given—to donate just $1. So if you're reading this, please, head over there now, and give us a buck.

Participation is wonderful, but if you're in it for the perks, I have some news for you, too. First, you can now earn yourself some free books via referrals. Create an account at Indiegogo, and when you use the social sharing links on the project page, click-throughs get credited to you. Second, since the $500 level and its "special mention" perk have sold out (wow!) so quickly, three more "special mentions" have been put up as prizes, at the anti-discounted rate of $625. So if you, or your organization, want to see their name on this project, you can still do that.

Finally, Indiegogo is making the Approval Voting Video project its Twitter Campaign of the Day this coming Wednesday. Follow @indiegogo or @electionscience (or me @mudlock) and let all your friends know about this project by retweeting us this Wednesday.

Thanks for all your help so far. Spread the word, help us reach our goal, make this video, and get the word out about the dangers of plurality and the advantages of approval voting.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Approval Voting Fundraiser

This last weekend, the Center for Election Science—the world's largest (only?) approval voting advocacy group—launched a fundraiser through Indiegogo. The goal is to raise $12,375 (a very precise amount; don't you love an organization run by math geeks?) in order to have a professional, high-quality video produced about the advantages of approval voting, which will then be entered in the MacArthur Foundation's Looking@Democracy contest. Or, in short, please watch this video for a fundraiser for a video for a fundraiser.

There are a number of perks available for different funding levels. I put in $100 in order to get a signed copy of Gaming the Vote, the book that first convinced me of the benefits of approval voting. I must have bought the book three or four times by now, but I keep giving my copies away to friends and local politicians. I'll definitely be keeping this one though!

Even if you can only contribute $1, it would be warmly welcomed, and it would mean a lot to me, personally. I've been at this for four years now (some CES supporters have been working towards this much longer!) and although one little video may not seem like much, it marks the difference between being just a bunch of people complaining about politics on the internet, and being real advocates for change. Help us do something important.

Maybe you haven't heard the advantages of approval voting, or maybe you could use a recap. Approval voting:

  • Always lets you vote for your favorite
  • Never has spoilers
  • Is simpler than any rank-based voting method
  • Encourages consensus winners
  • Lets 3rd parties earn their true level of support

We have real-world and theory-backed evidence to support all of these claims. We just need a little bit of help from you to get the word out.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Approval Voting Bill in Colorado

A bill to allow approval voting in local elections has been introduced in the Colorado senate (SB13-065) If you're a Colorado resident, now is the time to contact your senator, especially if they're on the "State, Veterans, & Military Affairs" committee. I'll keep you updated for how this proceeds.