Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ranked Choice Voting: Myths and Misperceptions

By Professor Richard Anderson-Connolly of UPS

Editors Note: Representatives from Citizens Against Rigging the System and the PCBGL have been carrying on a debate on a previous posting. This statement merited a separate posting.

Alex Hays is the paid political consultant for the campaign committee behind Amendments 1, 2, and 3. He has made numerous incorrect statements about instant runoff voting, which amendment 3 seeks to repeal. Some of these statements were directed at me and I will correct them here.


1. Majority rule. Your statement in the Seattle Times is correct Top-two yields a majority winner. I will further note it does so in every case except perhaps where write in ballots would deny this in a very close election.

RCV failed to generate a majority winner in both the Execs race and the auditor's race, the only two county wide races. McCarthy won with 45% and Washam with 37%.


1. My statement was that IRV is a majority winner system. The top-2 is also but it requires two elections and has worse mathematical properties because vote splitting can still occur at the low-turnout primary. Thus IRV is the better system for achieving majority winners.

Both McCarthy and Washam won with majorities. The correct denominator is from the last round not the first. I suspect that Mr. Hays already knows this and therefore would be intentionally stating something he knows to be false (which is one definition of lying).


2. RCV gives more power to extremists. Studies of returns in Australia show that RCV eradicates third party candidates, but allows third party voters to distort the election by shifting the major parties toward the extremes.


2. This critique suggests that Mr. Hays is concerned because IRV doesn't do enough to help third parties (it “eradicates” them). The number of parties tends to be a function of the type of voting system. This is Duverger's Law. Plurality voting (first past the post) is the worst. Proportional representation is best. IRV/Preferential voting can be seen as an intermediate step. If Mr. Hays were serious about this criticism then he would be a proponent of proportional representation. His objection to IRV would therefore be on the grounds that it is easier to go from the top-2 or pick-a-party to proportional representation. But this is a disingenuous critique because Mr. Hays is not concerned about the eradication of third parties.

Secondly, most elected officials in Australia are not extreme by any conventional meaning of the term. Perhaps the range of officials is a better match for the range of opinions found in the general public, but this would be a good thing. Ireland also uses IRV and over the post-war period has steadily become more secular, peaceful, and prosperous. It is better for different political factions to have representation in legislative bodies instead of being forced to resolve conflicts through other means.


3. RCV advocates clearly state -- I'm told you personally make this claim, but I have not heard it from you myself -- that RCV will shift the US Democratic Party to the left and this is why they advocate for the new system. Altering the election system to promote ideological goals is a violation of democratic principles.


3. This is an application of the Median Voter Theorem. In many jurisdictions under a plurality/two-party system, the parties can ignore folks who are left or right of center. In a multi-party system they can no longer take those folks for granted because the lesser-of-two-evils dynamic is gone. I believe that the Democratic Party would either move leftward or be replaced by a party of the left, like the Progressives or the Social Democrats. We don't need two parties – the Democrats and Republicans – occupying such similar ideological territory. There are many of us who are not well represented by either party despite constituting a large percentage of the population. In fact every year a smaller and smaller share of population identifies with the two parties.

Unless Mr. Hays is using a very odd definition of both ideology and democracy his claim that “altering the election system to promote ideological goals is a violation of democratic principles” is flatly wrong. If one believes, as I do, that our current system is undemocratic (an ideological position) then one has every right, and perhaps a duty, to try to change (alter) the system. Those who fought for voting rights for women and minorities were animated by an ideological position. What should we call the efforts of people like MLK Jr. or Susan Anthony or Gandhi? Why did they do it? These certainly were movements to alter the election system to promote ideological goals.

In reality it is Mr. Hays' defense of the two-party system that reflects an anti-democratic ideology. The fact that he is defending the status quo is no excuse. Racism, sexism, and most other forms of exclusion have been defended on the grounds of tradition. I hope and anticipate that two-party bigotry will eventually suffer the same fate as those other forms. Whether we win or lose in Pierce County won't make much difference when the history of this civil rights movement is written. The US will eventually have a multi-party democracy.


4. In California the US Supreme Court ruled that altering the election process for the express purpose of changing candidate speech (such as claimed in the voters' pamphlet statement authored by the no on 3 committee) is prima facie evidence of unconstitutionality and an abridgement of free speech rights.


4. I have no idea what Mr. Hays is referring to in the voters' guide statement. Perhaps he is alleging that our voters' guide statement is not protected by the First Amendment? If so we must disagree over the meaning of free speech.


5. According to Kelly he was able to muster the votes for RCV expressly because major party members of the Commission wanted ballot control. So yes, at first at least one major party wanted RCV because of the new powers it gave them.

Editor's Note: I did not say this. Party regulars were the primary opponents of IRV on the Charter Review Commission.


5. I attended most of the charter review meetings and the issue of ballot control was not given much attention. Regardless IRV got more votes from political outsiders, independents, and progressives than from establishment folks like Pearsall-Stipek, Kevin Wimsett, or Aubrey Chase. Those who voted for IRV probably recognized it was better than plurality, regardless of the associational issue.

This reinforces our position that the charter review process by citizens elected for a short term is much better than anything done by incumbents on the council (Mr. Hays' fellow board members behind Amendments 1, 2, and 3). If councilmembers Muri and Bunney are concerned about having too much power then why are they trying to extend their term limits and stay in office? They could have written the amendment so that current incumbents did not receive the extension. Maybe they will promise to step down and make room for new people instead of running again. Amendments 1, 2, and 3 are attempts to expand the power of the already powerful, not some altruistic effort by politicians to voluntarily give power to the citizens.


6. "honest voting" -- in Colorado an analysis of RCV shows that if the supporters for one candidate had gamed their ballots and ranked him second, not first, that candidate would have won. Does that sound like RCV promotes "honest voting"


6. Mr. Hays' argument is that if somebody had gamed the system then it would have been dishonest. Such circularity is known as the fallacy of begging the question. I have never argued that IRV solves Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. No voting system is perfect. But some systems are worse than others and Mr. Hays is defending what is perhaps the absolute worst. For example, polls typically show more support for third party candidates than the number of votes they actually receive. Many folks resign themselves to vote dishonestly for the lesser of two-evils in the two parties. When people who like Nader are actually honest they end up giving us George Bush. Honesty is punished under the plurality system. IRV would a big improvement. I could vote honestly for someone like Nader first and the Democrat second. A libertarian could also vote honestly.

Mr. Hays and his political allies need to explain how our current system promotes honesty. This would be an impressive discovery because it would go against everything we know from political science about plurality voting. The difficulty of this task probably explains the attempts to distract attention from the serious flaws with plurality voting. I'm not falling for it.


7. What's dishonest about the top-two? Everyone runs in the primary (third parties included) and then we make a choice from the two who advance to the general. This is how RCV was used in many jurisdictions in the past -- an RCV style primary that yielded two candidates for the general. So clearly RCV promoters in the past liked the pause and revaluation allowed in a top two system.

The fact that once people (including people who are active in political parties) saw and disliked RCV and changed their opinion (myself included) is a function of the defects of the system.

The parties opposition to RCV is a function of setting aside self interest in favor of public interest. You reject this because you prefer to create a fantasy where you are the good guy and others are corrupt. Many people who were intrigued by and even supportive of RCV have changed their minds.

Example: Scotland

Example: Ann Arbor, MI

Example: Dick Muri

Example: Alex Hays.

Pending: Pierce County and a growing number of people in San Francisco.

Your argument against me is essentially I disagree with you therefore I must be a liar.

Also, a good run down online proves the APA doesn't use RCV and Roberts suggests multiple rounds of balloting not RCV. For the record RCV probably is a good system for private organizations (e.g. a political party) to select delegates for a national convention. It would still distort results based on ideology, but if you've ever sat through a multi-round series of elimination ballots that seems like a small price to pay.

Cheer up -- hardly any voters will read this. just you and few hardcore pro-IRV folks. So if I were really trying to confuse anyone I've just wasted a ton of time.

But hey -- you keep talking about the pick-a-party primary if you really want to confuse people.


7. The top-2 encourages insincere voting (dishonesty) because vote splitting and spoiling is possible at the primary. There have been reports that the top-2 was selected by legislators in Olympia because they knew it would effectively kill third parties. The claim that the two parties have set aside self-interest is hard to take seriously.

And the American Political Science Association indeed does use IRV. I believe Mr. Hays found the APA, which is the American Psychological Association. I was referring to the APSA, the organization for political scientists. And Robert's Rules has two systems: voting by rounds (traditional runoffs) or preferential voting (instant runoffs). And Scotland uses a form of PR (proportional representation), even better than IRV and much better than plurality. Furthermore the British are currently studying both IRV and PR as means of replacing plurality. Mr. Hays' claim about San Francisco is almost without significance. Plus New York and Los Angeles are currently looking into IRV. Despite Mr. Hays' attempt at repeal in Pierce, IRV tends to be adopted by a new jurisdiction or two every year or so.

While Mr. Hays may be a good person he is not a credible critic of IRV. I don't know whether he is lying, searching for good campaign talking points, or making (some) mistakes in good faith, but whatever the reason his arguments are consistently wrong. He is a paid political consultant hired to win just like an attorney who is representing a client who is known to be guilty. His fellow board members are county council members and the prosecuting attorney. The folks who personally stand to gain if term limits are extended and if races become less competitive. The same folks who are trying to sneak the term limit extension past voters by including the move to odd-years. His fellow board member Lindquist was recently appointed by these council members and now seems to be scratching their backs. These are the same folks who wrote a prejudicial ballot title and then hid behind their own lack of an open procedure to get away with it. The committee for 1, 2, and 3 has a real credibility problem. Some politicians, like Bill Baarsma or Burt Talcott, are honest. The admit they don't like IRV because it's bad for the two-party system. I disagree that the two-party system is worth saving but believe that they are acting in good faith.

I would imagine these talking points probably work with members of the two parties who naively trust the party leadership to give them accurate information, but they don't stand up to logical or empirical scrutiny. From the perspective of the average citizen IRV is a better voting system than plurality. That's the central reason to reject amendment 3. Our real challenge is getting the auditor's office to implement it properly. (Voting the current auditor, who was appointed by the county council, out of office is probably a good start. But that would be the subject for another post.)


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