Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Election day, 2007:
a moment for ranked choice voting

Today's San Francisco election is such a bore that I never got around to marking my "vote by mail" ballot. I'll have to drop it at a polling place.

We face the usual array of propositions. I wrote about the most important -- "Yes on A; No on H" -- previously.

But this election is notable for me mostly because, for the first time, I'll actually be using the "ranked choice voting" system we adopted in 2002 and implemented in 2004. Instead of simply electing the candidate who gets the most votes (even if their total is under 50 percent) or going on to a run off between the top two candidates, we get to list our first, second and third choices. Here's a pretty good description of how it works:

... ranked-choice voting is a series of mini-elections based on voters' one-time marking of their first, second and third choices. Should no candidate get more than 50 percent of the vote after the first-choice selections are tallied, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. (In the past, there would have been a runoff election weeks later between the two top vote-getters.)

Now, a software program will review the second-choice picks of voters whose first preference was eliminated. Those votes are added to the tallies of the remaining candidates. The computer does another count and the process repeats itself until a candidate passes the 50 percent mark and is the winner.

Why haven't I used my ranking option before? Because I think it as a voting system designed for elections that don't matter. We have no real contest today about who is going to be elected -- no serous candidate was willing to take on our incumbent mayor. Gavin (the empty pretty boy) Newsom is never getting my vote, so I can play on this ballot by marking three of his 12 challengers. But it is all a bit of a farce, just the right time for an insubstantial gimmick like "ranked choice voting."

Let me be a little more serious here. Proponents of ranked choice or "instant runoff" voting seem to say three things about the merits of the system, only one of which makes the slightest sense to me.
  • Instant run offs save the city bundles of money we used to spend during the era when we treated November elections as a primary and required someone to get over 50 percent in a two person contest a month later. This claim is absolutely true. And as someone who worked in some of those run offs, I can testify that it is miserably difficult to keep a campaign going through Thanksgiving and almost into the Christmas season as we used to have to do. So I don't miss that long slog.
  • Some argue that ranked choice voting ensures that the winner gets elected with 50 percent of the vote. I say, so what? If this only happens because the winner picked up a lot of second and/or third choice votes, it doesn't mean that the majority of voters got the candidate they wanted. Such a victory seems no more legitimate to me than a victory with 42 percent when a majority of voters spread their votes among three or four other candidates. There's a species of innumeracy at work here that attributes magic efficacy to a formula that renders a 50 percent plus one victory, but doesn't force a candidate to win a true majority vote.
  • Finally, I've heard ranked choice voting enthusiasts, including candidates, say that the system reduces negative campaigning -- candidates have to hope to pick up some second and third choices from their opponents, so they can't risk alienating those voters by drawing a strong contrast between themselves and others in the race. Gimme a break -- democratic elections are not popularity contests for president of the Eighth Grade. They are the arena in which citizens of a democracy fight out, through proxies, the issues that determine the shape of our lives. We often disagree and have different interests. Making nice is not nearly so important as really debating those conflicts.
Ranked choice voting has appealed to progressives as somehow "cleaner" or "nicer" than good old, ordinary, messy ugly politics. But it is just a gimmick -- we'll get from democracy exactly what we put into the fight for the sort of city and society we believe in. No voting gimmick is going to bring out more poor and working people to demand their officials represent their interests -- that takes laborious, frustrating, base-building organizing, not a bright shiny voting system.

In particular, I fear this election is going to show us just how valuable those mayoral run offs in 1999 (Ammiano challenging Brown) and 2003 (Gonzales almost knocking off Newsom) were to San Francisco progressives. In 2000 and 2004, progressive candidates captured most of the Board of Supervisor seats we could ever hope to win. The experience gained and the coalitions assembled in the mayoral run offs the year before set the stage for those victories, even though our candidates lost. We'll be entering 2008 without that experience -- and with Newsom's handlers sitting on a huge war chest to aim at Board seats opened by term limits.

The progressive dream of a magic bullet to make winning elections easier attracted many to ranked choice voting. Magical thinking has been a contributing factor (among many, most more directly about money and power) in a weakening of progressive San Francisco politics.


Anonymous said...

While it's clear that our traditional "vote for one" (plurality) voting system is inexcusable, Instant Runoff Voting is not much better - and there are many better simpler solutions. There is also a great deal of public misunderstanding and misinformation surrounding IRV, largely the result of the IRV propaganda organization, FairVote.

One common myth is that IRV elects "majority winners". But IRV can lead to the election of candidate X, even when candidate Y is preferred to X by a huge majority. Consider this hypothetical IRV election.

#voters - their vote
10 G > C > P > M
3 C > G > P > M
5 C > P > M > G
6 M > P > C > G
4 P > M > C > G

C is the clear Condorcet (condor-SAY) winner, meaning he is preferred by a landslide majority over all his individual rivals. He is preferred over G, P, and M all by an 18-10 margin.

But... M wins, even though he also has fewer first-place votes (6 voters) than C with 8.


1. P is preferred to M by 22 of the 28 voters, yet he's the first candidate eliminated.
2. G also has more first-place votes (10) than M's 6.
3. So M either loses pairwise to, or has fewer first-place votes than (or both) every rival, but still IRV elects M.

Notice that the first group of voters could have caused C to win if they had only "lied", and put him first in their list. That would mean they'd get their second favorite instead of their fourth favorite. Statistical analysis reveals that this strategy is advised for all candidates who don't appear to have at least a 20% chance of winning. That means that, contrary to FairVote propaganda, IRV does not let you "vote your hopes, not your fears". And this means that IRV effectively degrades toward plain old plurality (vote-for-one) voting. This is explained in more detail here, by math experts:

Election integrity experts and activists, like computer science Ph.D. Rebecca Mercuri disapprove of IRV because it is conducive to the adoption of fraud-susceptible electronic voting machines. IRV is also more susceptible to fraud because it is not countable in precincts. That is, candidate A could win every individual precinct, but bizarrely lose when the ballots are all summed together - which enforces centralized tabulation, which is more susceptible to central fraud conspiracy. And IRV typically causes spoiled ballots to go up by a factor of about 7.

But FairVote is right about one thing. We need a better voting method than the incredibly terrible plurality system. The best combination of quality and simplicity is called Approval Voting. It's just like the current system, except that there is no limit on the number of candidates one may vote for.

While it may seem initially less intuitive than IRV, deep scrutiny shows that Approval Voting produces a far more representative outcome. This is shown through an objective economic measure called Bayesian regret, which shows how well a particular voting method tends to satisfy the preferences of the voters. The improvement gotten by Approval Voting relative to IRV is especially large if the voters are strategic, as was described above (although FairVote promoters will often falsely claim that the best strategy with Approval Voting is to "bullet vote"). See:

If we don't mind a somewhat more cluttered ballot, we can upgrade to Range Voting, which uses a ratings scale, like Olympics scoring. It is arguably more intuitive, and produces phenomenal Bayesian regret results, meaning more satisfied voters, and more competitive nominees!

For a look at how the major parties could become dramatically more competitive by merely adopting Range Voting or Approval Voting, see:

Election reformers must be diligent and do their research. Don't be misled by FairVote's clever marketing. Look at what Ivy League mathematicians and political science experts such as Steve Brams, who write entire books on this stuff, say. FairVote has an agenda, and it's definitely not in the pubic's best interest.

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA

janinsanfran said...

Voting isn't about complicated schemes. It is about people doing their best, through flawed candidates and flawed propositions, to indicate how they want to live. Organize majorities and you don't need any of this crap.

Anonymous said...


Voting is about maximizing social utility, or "society's net satisfaction" (at least, it should be). We can measure how well a given voting method does that via Bayesian regret. What we find is that Range Voting is much simpler than IRV and many other voting methods, and results in dramatically more democratic (more utilitarian) results.

The simplest form of Range Voting is Approval Voting, where we just use traditional "vote for one" ballots, but remove the limit on the number of candidates a voter may choose. In today's San Francisco mayoral election, a voter could have voted for one or several of the numerous (something like ten) choices for mayor.

It doesn't matter how well voters organize. If they use a bad voting method, they can easily end up getting a result that most certainly does not "reflect how they want to live". The example in my post clearly demonstrates such a case.

Approval Voting is an incredibly simple voting method that does a much better job at reflecting how the voters want to live. Implementing it would, perhaps counter to common intuition, do far more good than increasing turnout or eliminating election fraud.

If you'd like, I'd be happy to meet with you at the Starbucks in Noe Valley, and go over the details with you.


Related Posts with Thumbnails