Monday, February 08, 2010

Alternative voting -- ranked choice voting -- instant run-off voting

Every once in a while I write a screed against "instant run-off voting" (or as "ranked choice voting") as we call it in San Francisco. Here's a sample from 2007 that gets to the guts of my abhorrence of this voting method:

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.

Given that this is one of my hobby horses, I'm interested to see Renard Sexton at 538 reporting that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is supporting a referendum on "Alternative Vote" -- that country's name for this system. The object according to Sexton is to make nice with the Liberal Democrats in case Labour could cobble together a majority in coalition with them after losing seats in the upcoming election.

The article reminded me how different politics are in a place where there are more than two functioning political parties and those parties, at least ostensibly, stand for discernible policy platforms. I get to see and practice IRV in what are called "non-partisan" elections that are usually intra-Democratic party affairs with occasional Green, left or anarchist outliers. At our scale, these contests remind me of high school -- winning personalities count for a lot, policy only secondarily, though there are lines some candidates can't cross in some areas, for example failure to support tenant rights.

In the British context, IRV could enable Liberal Democrats and regional parties to win more seats, at least theoretically. But Sexton explains one likely result that is the best argument I've ever heard for IRV:

The main added-value of the AV (we'll use the British acronym for now) is that it allows voters to rank their choices, rather than just voting for one prospective MP. In effect, you can still cast that initial protest vote or two without losing the chance to cast your final lot with the lesser of the two remaining evils if your top choice candidate does not make it. In an American context, it would be like if in 2000 all the Ralph Nader voters in Florida could have had their votes switched to their second choice candidate in the case when no candidate reached a majority initially.

That's the best argument I've heard yet for this voting method. Since somebody is going to win, we do want to default to the least evil. But wouldn't it be nice to be able to vote for someone we thought expressed our actual inclination toward government without risking thereby putting in the most evil?

Take a hypothetical local example. Suppose, yet again, we're faced with the loathsome Diane Feinstein running for Senate in 2012. And it is a tough year for Democrats and she has a real Republican challenger, so we have to decide whether to hold our noses and try to ensure she gets back in, or just skip voting. It would feel better to be able to vote for Bozo the Clown as number one and only then list DiFi. Now there's a good use for IRV.


Brad said...

You can sum up the problem with IRV in this simple example:

80 people vote: A, C, B
50 people vote: B, C, A
35 people vote: C, B, A

Under IRV, C is eliminated and B is elected, which is strange as 115 over 50 people prefer C over B. This quickly illustrates IRV's failure of the Condorcet criterion.

Darlene said...

Instant run-off voting looks good on the surface, but is it fair for some voters to get two bites of the apple?

I still think one man-one vote works best even when we have to hold our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils.

Brad said...

While IRV has its problems (as per my given example), its still significantly better than plurality voting. Speaking of "one man, one vote" is unnecessary emotional rhetoric. A ballot is meant to express the preferences of the individual voter. There are many alternatives.

naomi dagen bloom said...

Well, how do we get more people to vote if we make it more complex? I read your 2007 post and comments. Overwhelmed me. I'm with Darlene but maybe we're older and more cynical about IRV and "improvements"?

Brad said...

For the voter, IRV isn't significantly more complex and it greatly reduces the apathy that comes from wasted votes.

The concern raised about complexity seems unusual, as there are many other processes in our daily lives that we don't fully understand. Take your refrigerator for example. As an end-user, you just open the door, put things in, close the door and they stay cool. If you have the curiosity and technical aptitude, you can find out exactly how it works, but that underlaying complexity doesn't prevent the technology from becoming widespread, yeah?

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