Saturday, December 13, 2008

Election Results: Top 2 vs. Ranked Choice Voting

Now that the 2008 elections have been certified by the various elections departments around the state, we can examine the process of releasing results with a broader perspective. There were slight differences between the Top 2 races and the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) races in the release of preliminary results in Pierce County. There were no differences between the two systems in when the results became official.

Certification of Official Results

All elections are not official until the results are certified by the Elections Department and the Pierce County Auditor. This is by state law and there is no difference in the implementation of this law between Top 2 races and RCV races. This happens three weeks after election day.

Part of the reason for the long time between election day and official certification is our heavy emphasis in this state on mail-in ballots which need only be postmarked by election day. Mail-in ballot generally result in higher voter participation which is good, but the trade-off is later results.

Preliminary Results

All elections departments release preliminary results for all elections before official certification. These results are not official, but give the public a snapshot of the votes which have been counted to a particular point in time.

The release of preliminary results for Pierce County elections was a two phase process. In the first phase, the Elections Department released the Top 2 results and the first choice results of the RCV races. For some RCV races such as the Pierce County Sheriff race or the County Council, District #4 race, these results were enough to indicate who will win.

About 45 minutes later, the results of the RCV tabulation and the RCV ballot image file were released. This later timing was partially due to the far greater amount of information about the RCV votes included in the ballot image file.

The ballot image file information is not provided on Top 2 races at all. The precinct information is only available on the Top 2 races after certification. The precinct level information can be calculated using the ballot image file. The RCV ballot image file provides a far greater level of openness and transparency to the elections process than is available for Top 2 races.

Use of the ballot image file to analyze preliminary results was not done as widely in this first RCV election, but provides the public and the media with the ability to study the votes of the public in great depth.

Landslides vs. Close Races

In both Top 2 and RCV elections, there are some landslides and some close races. For example, in our local Congressional races and in the Pierce County Sheriff's race, it was easy to project a winner with the release of the first set of preliminary results on election night. Norm Dicks, Adam Smith and Paul Pastor were easy winners in their races. Dicks and Pastor won in Top 2 races. Pastor won in a three-way RCV race.

In both Top 2 and RCV races, there are some close elections. In these races, the first set of results show that the race is "too close to call." In a Top 2 race for state legislature in Snohomish County, the News Tribune reports on December 12 (over a month after election day) that the race has been finally decided. In very close races, this can happen.

In the hotly contested Pierce County Executive race, after examining the preliminary results on election night, most observers considered the race "too close to call." Pat McCarthy was ahead in those preliminary results and never relinquished her lead, but nevertheless it was "too close to call" on election night.

Some observers have written that the existence of "too close to call" RCV races make RCV inferior to the Top 2. "Too close to call" races occur in both systems. Since we had more competition in the RCV races, probably a higher proportion of the races were "too close to call" than Top 2 races. Competitive races are good for democracy and a better alternative than Soviet-style elections with a single candidate on the ballot.


Top 2 and RCV election results become official on the same day at the same time as prescribed by state law. For preliminary results, Top 2 and the first choices in RCV races are available at the same time. For many races (both Top 2 and RCV), these results make the winner easy to call. (For example, County Council District #6 race was easy to call with these results.) For other races, these preliminary results can mean that the election is still "too close to call."

Less than an hour later, the results of the RCV tabulation and the RCV ballot image file are available. These results can make other races easy to call (e.g. County Council District #2). The ballot image file gives analysts information on precinct level data which in unavailable on Top 2 races.

Some hotly contested races (both Top 2 and RCV) will remain "too close to call" for days if not weeks. While it is better to know the results more quickly, our system of mail-in voting is something which promotes greater voter participation and causes a slower counting process.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Auditor's Survey flawed

Editor's Note

The Pierce County Auditor's office's survey of voters on Ranked Choice Voting was flawed and biased for many reasons. Read below for an academic analysis of the survey.

By Professor Richard Anderson-Connolly
University of Puget Sound

Given the very low response rate for the opinion poll on Ranked Choice Voting conducted by the auditor it is unwarranted to claim, as in the News Tribune headline of December 6, that a majority opposes RCV. We would need much better data to assess this claim.

Every voter received a poll about RCV along with his/her ballot. Thus the total number of possible respondents was 333,824. Of those 90,738 were returned making a response rate of only 27%. As a rule of thumb the sociologist and methodologist Earl Babbie (2005) suggests that “a response rate of 50% is adequate for analysis and reporting. A response of 60% is good; a response rate of 70% is very good.” The auditor’s rate was barely half the minimum standard and thus the findings do not legitimately deserve analysis and reporting.

The problem with such a low response rate is the strong possibility of nonresponse bias. “If the response and nonresponse strata were randomly formed, the respondent and nonrespondent means would be equal in expectation, and there would be no nonresponse bias. In practice, however, it is dangerous to assume that the missing responses are missing at random; indeed there are often good grounds from believing otherwise” (Kalton, 1983). In other words, if those who returned their RCV poll differ on average from those who did not respond, then the data are biased.

This situation seems very likely. It is plausible that those who did not return their surveys may feel less strongly about the topic, at least on average. Or maybe they were busier and had less time to fill it out. Or maybe they had the time but were just lazier. Or maybe they were more suspicious about government polls. Who knows? The groups could differ in many ways, including ways we might not even imagine, but the standard scientific approach is to put the burden of proof on those reporting the data to demonstrate that there are not likely to be any systematic differences when the response rate is this low. In science skepticism is a virtue. While I do not expect the auditor or the newspaper to follow this convention some recognition of the limitations resulting from the very low response rate would have been proper.

A more accurate reporting of the data would be the following:
72.8% No response
17.0% Negative view toward RCV
8.7% Positive view toward RCV
1.4% Undecided on RCV

Given that almost three-quarters of voters did not return the survey we clearly can not claim the majority oppose RCV. Recognizing that we have no comparable data on the popularity of the Top-2, the survey findings offer almost no guidance on future policy. More time and better data are needed.

In addition to the extremely low response rate the auditor’s poll on RCV has an additional problem involving sponsorship. The auditor almost certainly biased the data by including her name on the survey, which was given even more attention when it created something of a controversy in the news as a possible ethical violation. The percentage of those responding who had a negative view of RCV was close to the percentage of voters who had someone other than Pat McCarthy as their first choice for executive (and the percent that liked RCV was close to the percent that put Pat first).

Groves and Peycheva (2008) observed: “Sponsors of the survey are often policy-makers or advocates for the topics of the surveys they sponsor (e.g., companies conduct customer satisfaction surveys and manage the service delivery with customers). When the sample persons judge that the sponsor has an identifiable ‘point of view’ on the survey topic, that viewpoint can influence the person’s decision. Sample persons who have prior connection with the sponsor are most likely to experience these influences. For survey variables that are related to that point of view, nonresponse bias can result.”

By putting her name on the survey did the auditor make the RCV poll into something of a referendum on herself? It’s impossible to estimate the strength of the bias but certainly this was bad polling practice (regardless of the ethics) and compounds the nonresponse bias.

Given the poor quality of the data we do not know how many voters in Pierce County were satisfied, dissatisfied, or didn’t feel strongly either way about RCV. But as an advocate of RCV I am willing to admit that much more should have done to explain to voters the advantages to the new system. Although it would be possible to dismiss this as anecdotal evidence I have heard a few people say that they didn’t know what the “point” was to RCV. In the absence of good reasons to change I can understand why many voters would say they want to go back to something more familiar.

To give RCV a fair chance, advocates, the media, and auditor’s office should communicate to the voters not merely the mechanics of ranking or the counting algorithm but also the “whole point” to the change: more choices for voters, one election instead of two, and no spoilers, wasted votes, or vote-splitting. Once voters get the point then it would make sense to talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of RCV versus the Top-2 or some other system. The calls for immediate repeal are occurring in an environment filled with ulterior political scheming by powerful interests and devoid of reliable information regarding the true wishes of the public.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Report on Ranked Choice Voting in San Francisco

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Steven Hill writes:

"What are you doing today? How would you like to be voting in runoff elections for the Board of Supervisors? That's what many would be doing if San Francisco hadn't voted in 2002 to replace the old December runoff system with an "instant runoff" system known as ranked choice voting.

Whether using ranked choice voting or December runoffs, the goal is the same: to elect officeholders with majority support from the public. But with ranked-choice voting, you accomplish this in one November election.

We now have had five elections since 2004 using ranked-choice voting to elect the mayor, Board of Supervisors and other offices, providing some basis for assessing its impact. One significant difference between ranked choice and the old December runoff has been a dramatic increase in voter turnout. By finishing the election in November when voter turnout tends to be highest (because voters are showing up to vote for president or governor), a lot more San Franciscans are having a say in who represents them on the Board of Supervisors.

For example, this year in the District Three race, 22,407 voters participated in the final round of the instant runoff, with the winner of that race having 13,316 votes. In the December 2000 runoff election to decide the same District Three seat, only 12,414 voters participated, with the winner garnering 7,202 votes. Voter turnout dropped by 40 percent between the November 2000 election and the December runoff, and surely would have done the same this year following a high turnout presidential election."

For more, see here.


Friday, December 05, 2008

Novoselic Testimony in State Senate

by Krist Novoselic

This is a transcript of Novoselic's testimony on December 5 before the Washington State Senate Government Operations Committee.

My name is Krist Novoselic. In community organizations I am Chairman of the Wahkiakum County Democratic Party and Master of the Grays River Grange. I am speaking today as Chairman of FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy.

FairVote is a national organization advocating reforms such as universal voter registration, direct election of the president and Ranked Choice Voting. This year we helped pass Ranked Choice in Memphis, Tennessee and Telluride, Colorado. We were also very active in a campaign for the proportional voting version of Ranked Choice in Cincinnati, Ohio. FairVote supported the 2006 Charter Amendment 3 campaign - Ranked Choice Voting for Pierce County.

Our organization works with local reform efforts all over the nation in a good faith that our democratic process can be better. We believe that uncontested and uncompetitive elections are at the root of poor voter turnout. Voting is the basic interface between the citizen and their government. Greater voter participation opens the door to involvement in other aspects of our democratic system.

While Ranked Choice Voting is a new experience for Pierce County voters, it has a long history in the United States. It stood among progressive era reforms like the direct election of United States senators, Universal Suffrage, direct primaries, and the initiative process. Ranked Choice, also known as preferential voting, Instant Runoff Voting and Single Transferable Vote has withstood the scrutiny of the federal courts.

Ranked Choice voting, like used in Pierce County, is a majoritarian election system. It is a variation of the multiple round voting used in electing officers in an organization. But instead of distributing multiple ballots, voters rank their preference on a single ballot.

Traditional multi-round elections like used in many private organizations is impractical in public elections - there could be three or more elections until a majority winner. The benefit of the ranking candidates is multi-round elections can be done on one ballot.

The 2006 Ranked Choice campaign in Pierce promised more choices for voters, greater participation and less negative campaigning. We also promised voters to pick the person and not the party while at the same time protect the associational rights of political organizations.

Advocates of Ranked Choice are satisfied that our promise was kept for voters.

The debut of Ranked Choice was in an extraordinary election. There was record turnout in Washington State. I am grateful to all of Washington's election officials for their outstanding work. I want to make a special mention to Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy. Auditor McCarthy and her staff presided over three elections - mail ballot, polling place and Ranked Choice. They did a good job all around while Pierce County reached over 81% voter turnout.

The Ranked Choice Voting experience can only get better in Pierce County and it holds great potential for other jurisdictions in our state.

Western Washington University and the University of Washington are collaborating on a study of the Pierce County Ranked Choice experience.

There is also an effort in Pierce County government to move its elections to odd numbered years. This way the county elections can be more attuned to municipal elections and let voters concentrate on state and federal elections in even years.

The 2008 election is one for the record books. And Pierce County also made history with the first Ranked Choice voting election in 21st Century Washington.

We feel that Ranked Choice will work even better in the future. Mid-term elections traditionally have a lower turnout voter turnout. The single Ranked Choice election will compare better to mostly redundant and low turnout primaries.

Ranked Choice Voting has great potential in our state and is growing in our nation. Washingtonians need to be proud of Pierce County for leading our democracy toward elections with more choices, positive campaigning and greater participation.

Thank you.

Krist Novoselic - Chairman: FairVote, the Center For Voting and Democracy.
Olympia Washington, December 5, 2008


Monday, December 01, 2008

2008 Pierce County Elections

The Pierce County Elections Department put in a tremendous amount of hard work and ran a high quality election with a complex set of requirements and a high level of turnout.

The complexity of the election came from the large number of races on the ballot, the high turnout, the mix of poll and absentee voting, and the need for new software and hardware to handle the volume. This was also the first general election with two ballot cards and the first ever Top 2 and Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) elections.

The first ever RCV races were a great success with many candidates and the voters casting a higher percentage of valid ballots for County Executive than for President. Even so, we have learned how we can improve administration of future elections.

What Went Well

1) Pierce County's Elections Department pushed the required software and hardware through the certification process with the state.

2) Pierce County's voters had no trouble in filling out their ballots.

3) High turnout of voters.

4) Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) saw more candidates per race than the Top 2. In seven county level races this year, there were 22 candidates on the ballot compared to five races with just six candidates in 2006. In the hotly contested County Executive race, voters anticipated a close election and that their vote was important. RCV saw more choice in November for voters.

5) In the RCV races, the Auditor's office published a ballot image file. This is a large step forward in improving the openness and transparency of our elections. The ballot image file is not available in Top 2 races.

Lessons Learned

1) With high turnout elections and lengthy ballots, if you are going to allow voters to vote at the polls, you need to plan your capacity at the polls appropriately or you will end up with long lines. Long lines developed in some in-person polling places. Note that most voters in San Francisco vote on election day at the polls, with RCV elections and several ballot cards and do not have any particular problem with lines.

2) New vote counting software needs to be volume tested before running in a general election. In this election, preliminary results were late in being posted on election night due to software procedures which had not been tested for the volume levels of a general election. Simply following the correct procedures solved the problem.

3) Mail-in ballots take a long time to count regardless of method of election.

4) With a lengthy ballot, down ballot races get less attention. Pierce County should consider shifting its county level elections to odd numbered years to allow voters to give more attention to these races. This has already been proposed and is working its way through the County Council.

5) The Auditor did not consider RCV her "cup of tea." The elections department did an effective job of educating voters about how to fill out their RCV ballots, but should say more about why they should do so. Some voters were confused about why they were making more than one choice in each race and in turn more likely to be confused when the winner in the county executive race was not the candidate who won the most first choices.

6) The survey of voters conducted by the Auditor was problematic for various reasons, including the negative reaction connected with allegations that the survey allowed her to promote her candidacy for County Executive. We recommend a more scientific survey in the future.

7) Voter understanding of the benefits of RCV will increase in the November 2009 special election for Pierce County Auditor.

8) Tabulating RCV results (when the computer has sufficient memory) does not take long. To promote transparency, election officials should tabulate the preliminary RCV results at the end of each day and release them on the same timeline as non-RCV elections. Having to wait a week between releases of preliminary results caused frustration amongst voters and candidates.

The Top 2 experiment

In the Top 2 races, Pierce County saw several races where we had a primary with only one or two candidates on the ballot. In one race, we had two Democrats as the only candidates on the ballot in November. The hotly contested races consisted primarily of negative campaigning.

The parties had no control over which candidates "preferred" their party.

There were no Top 2 races which ended up needing a recount. Some races around the state were close and we did not know the winner until over a week after the election.

A measure to implement the Top 2 system in Oregon failed 34%-66%.

The RCV races

In the county level races, we had more candidates than in recent memory due to the number of open seats and RCV. These candidates all went directly to the general election ballot saving the county the cost of running a primary in these races. This gave more choice to the 81% of voters who voted in November.

The parties controlled who could appear on the ballot with their label. They engaged in different strategies. The Democrats had two candidates on the ballot in two races. The Republicans only put one candidate on the ballot in these races. The Democrats won one of those races and the Republicans won one, so it is not clear which strategy is better.

As in Top 2 races, there are advantages to incumbency. No incumbent lost running for re-election.

As with open seats in down ballot Top 2 races, name recognition is very important in RCV races. While the races for open seats were close in a couple of cases, each open seat was won by the candidate with the most name recognition before the race.

Some voters did not understand why Pierce County had adopted the new system. This was due to the failure of the educational program to describe the benefits of RCV. This educational effort was particularly difficult to do during a Presidential year.

Pierce County made an investment in hardware and software to run the RCV elections. In 2009, since there will be no primary, the special RCV election to choose who fills out the Auditor's term will cost about the same amount as a Top 2 race. Local jurisdictions hoping to use RCV in 2009 would gain the benefit of the investment as well.

Voters in Memphis, Tennessee and Telluride, Colorado passed RCV ballot measures.

State legislators in Oregon have put a bill to give local jurisdictions the option to use RCV in their elections on the legislative docket.


The Pierce County Elections Department did a solid job in a tough environment. With the investments made and the lessons learned, Pierce County is well situated to run elections in a very professional way in the years to come.