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The RoBlog
Monday, November 01, 2004
Hi there! I'm trying a little experiment on loose social networks by placing a URL (to some ranting I wrote about Instant Runoff Voting) into the status message of my instant messenger. You can help the experiment by leaving a comment with how you found this site if you didn't click on the link in my IM directly. Thanks!

Elections, Party of Two Please. Elections, Party of Two.
From time to time I hear people complaining about our two party political system and how we only have a choice between two people that suck, just in different ways (the most recent episode of South Park expressed exactly this sentiment).

I appreciate this sentiment even if I believe that there are perfectly valid reasons that this might be the case (subject for another entry), and got to wondering why it is that alternative political parties seem to be making very little headway.

The most obvious answer is that they don't represent the majority of American's viewpoints, but the recent attempts by the Democrats to keep Ralph Nader off of the ballot in many states has driven home the idea that something more is at play here. If one party feels like it must drive off a party more-or-less ideologically similar to itself for fear of the other party "spoiling" the election, perhaps the system needs a good looking at.

The other day, it struck me what one of the biggest obstacles was to the emergence of serious independent parties was: the voting process.

As it currently stands, if you want to show your support for a candidate for public office that does not come from the Republican or Democratic party, you are forced to make a choice: vote for the person you believe to be the best choice, and possibly get saddled with the person who you believe to be the worst choice; or vote for the least objectionable candidate that you think can actually win.

This kind of a system forces a wide-spread mediocrity to arise whereby people continually make choices based on who COULD win rather than who SHOULD win. And since a good many people would rather ensure that the candidate that they find most objectionable does not win, the only time one can make a statement by casting a vote is when the most objectionable candidate does not appear to have any chance at all to win.

Fortunately there is a solution - actually there are several of them.

Because the 2000 election had such obvious and serious errors in it, there was much talk about alternative voting processes. It was at that time that I learned about Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).

The basic idea of IRV is that you rank all of the candidate for a position from most favorable to least favorable, based purely on who you would think would do the best job. The person you placed highest on your list gets your vote, and all votes are added up this way.

If one candidate emerges with a simple majority, that candidate wins.

If the results of the election do not produce a candidate with a simple majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the list. Everyone who voted for that candidate as most preferred now has their second highest vote counted instead of their first, and these votes are added to the rest of the votes already counted. This process continues until one candidate emerges with a simple majority of all votes.

So if you had voted for Michael Badnarik from the Libertarian party first, independent candidate Ralph Nader second, Democrat John Kerry third, and George Bush last, the vote might go like this:

No candidate wins a simple majority after the first round. Michael Badnarik, receiving the fewest votes, is eliminated from the list. Since you ranked him highest on your list, but he is no longer a valid candidate, your next highest vote is counted; the vote for Ralph Nader. For those people that cast their highest vote for one of the remaining candidates, nothing changes; their vote still goes to the first person on their list.

Let's say that still no candidate has a simple majority, and Nader has the fewest votes. Nader is then removed from the list. Since your top two candidates are no longer valid choices, your vote is now cast for your third choice: John Kerry.

Now assume that Kerry, based on the fact that people who voted for either Badnarik or Nader prefer Kerry to Bush, has a simple majority. In this way, the voting process goes down your list from most preferred to least preferred, leaving you with, perhaps not your favorite candidate, but at least not trading your desire to support a minor party candidate into indirect support for your LEAST favorable candidate.

Great, but why do I care?
But if you are a member of one of these parties, here's what's REALLY important: The true number of people who support your party can be known. People can cast their vote for you knowing full well that if you aren't elected they could still get a result they felt good about. It means that people won't cast a vote for who CAN win, but who SHOULD win. It means that the true strength of your support can be made visible and not hidden behind safety votes. It might make the press and the major parties stand up and take notice at just how many people endorse your ideas. Of course it could also reveal that your base was really just a bunch of radical crazies who really didn't care if the devil himself was elected, by golly they were going to vote for you (meaning that IRV didn't increase the number of people that voted for you), but that's the chance you take.

It is for this reason that I feel like everyone who wants serious a serious change in the leadership of the US should support a system like IRV (there are other similar alternatives, though I prefer IRV to them), ESPECIALLY any alternative party offering up a candidate for office.

Bring out all the crazies, the far right and the far left. Now we can have a truly varied political dialog as everyone can get their share of votes without the whole system devolving into chaos.

For more information about IRV, check out this site: http://www.instantrunoff.com/

Scientific American had an article a while back about alternative voting strategies that's worth checking out even though it downplays IRV (unfairly in my opinion) in favor of another strategy.

Think I'm full of it? See a glaring mistake in my argument? Don't think I can explain my way out of a paper bag? Leave a comment!
I think I have to agree with you, Rob. Though, this sounds deceptively simple - I'd have to read more on it. Do you envision this replacing voting as we know it, including the electoral college?
That is an excellent question, The DSO ;).

Note that IRV is already used in municipalities around the US, and I envision a change that most likely grows organically from the ground up rather than something that replaces our voting process wholesale at the highest levels. I think local activism is an appropriate venue to introduce this kind of change. If something is determined to be horribly horribly wrong with IRV, then the risk is localized. If it proves itself, then it can be raised to higher levels, until it becomes a tried and true process worthy of consideration for our most important elections.

I am not well versed on the reasons for having an electoral college in these modern times. I assume there is more to it that tradition, but tradition does have an alarming staying power (witness the opposition to gay marriage). So, I can't say if it would make sense to replace the electoral college or not.

As a naive regular voter, however, I believe that, given the state of technology (even of that 50 years ago) there is no apparent reason we can't vote directly for those people we want to win. Perhpas the electoral college made some sense when it was technically unfeasable to consolidate everyone's vote over a huge geographic area when the fastest mode of communication we had was via horse. But, again, this could represent a misunderstanding on my part of how the college fits in to the greater scheme of things.

The DSO, can you shed any light on the electoral college? Do you think it still has a place in the modern voting process?
Nope, don't think you're full of it at all...at least not on this topic.

For a historical perspective on the EC, check out:

It would be pretty hard to change the current set up, but something needs to be done, sooner, rather than later.
Thanks Marnie, that link was very informative. I especially like the chart that indicates how many people are represented by each elector for a given state. For example, Wyoming's 3 Electoral College electors represent about 165,000 people each, versus New York, where each elector represents (on average) 613,000 people.

As the article you linked to points out, this gives a lot more power, proportionally, to states with a small population, so you could see why they wouldn't be interested in reform.

Equally interesting is the fact that only two states (Nebraska and Maine) have a system whereby the electoral college votes are distributed with any reflection of how the populace in general voted (I thought all states did this). In all the rest of the states, whomever wins the popular votes gains ALL of the electors for that state.

What really drove this home for me was looking at the above chart and seeing that the state is pretty split in terms of party support. The Governor is Repulican, but the Senate representatives are both Democrats, and the House is biased Democratic, but only by ~60% to 40%.

This would seem to inflate the advantage of the winning party significanly, which seems bad. If you're going to have a representative election system, it seems that the least you can do is make it more granular that a winner-take-all at the state level.

Of course I'm guessing that the prevailing party in such states would probably have no particular interest in changing the law, so it would take a monumental effort to create this kind of change at a grass-roots level.

The other thing that seems strange about the Electoral College is that the members don't HAVE to vote in the direction of the popular vote that put them in place. I'm guessing pretty much no one would vote the opposite direction (although now that I've reached the end of the article, I see that this happened as recently as the 2000 election where an elector from Washington, D.C. cast a blank vote), but why even have that risk. This seems like another artifact of old technology systems.

Finally, it was interesting to see in this article that candidates for alternate parties can choose to use the same electors as a major party candidate. I don't understand this fully, but the author indicates that this would allow a person to cast a supporting vote for Nader, even though that would actually (and here's the part I don't quite follow) select Kerry's electors essentially voting for Kerry.

This is similar to my entry here in that it helps candidates like Nader gain exposure by allowing people to vote for him without actually electing Bush (which I presume they would find less acceptable than Kerry). However IRV has the benefit of actually potentially electing an independent candidate, giving that candidate (and those that voted for that candidate) more power AND it allows people to prioritize the candidates in whatever way they like. So if you prefered Nader, and then Bush, and then Kerry, you could set up your ballot that way.

Thanks again, Marnie. Very informative!
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