Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Few thoughts on Election Reform

The last several elections have focused on "change". The people are unhappy with their leaders. Congress currently has about a 10% approval rating. Many have concentrated on trying to get better candidates elected into office. The hope being that these politicians will reform the system and make it better. However, the fact that polls show (page 19) that about 1/5th of voters would support a candidate, even if that candidate was not a Democrat or Republican, demonstrates that there is a significant percentage of Americans that are unhappy with both of the two major parties. According to other polls, a full 40% of voters do not view themselves as members of either major party. If nearly half of voters do not associate with one of the two major parties, why are there no 3rd parties rising to prominence? Many believe this problem comes from the nature of the way we vote.

I think the US needs to have a discussion about reforming our elections in order to provide a more representative govt and avoid having half of the population feeling disaffected by the two parties (not to mention those that don't even vote due to feeling that their vote doesn't matter). So in this article I talk about some of those approaches.

The Problems
Most of the elections held in the United States are of the type called, First Past The Post (FPTP). This is basically the system where each voter gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes at the end is the winner. There are numerous problems with this method of voting, one specifically being that it tends to mathematically trend to just 2 parties due in part to the spoiler effect. Another problem that FPTP has is that it makes it easy to gerrymander. Gerrymandering is where the voters are divided into specific voting areas that tend to provide "safe" voting regions. There's a documentary about gerrymandering as well as a game one can play to see just how it's done.

Watch the following videos to see a simplified view of the problems we have in the United States:

Problems with First Past the Post:

Problems with Gerrymandering:
Bonus video on Gerrymandering

Presidential Election - Electoral College
One of the most contentious elections is for President of the United States. This multi-year campaign ends in an election that many, even politically savvy, are still uncertain how it works.  The electoral college is a system that was supposed to protect against a basic popularity contest. This video describes the basic concept and the video that follows shows the problems it has:

So you can see that FPTP, the Electoral College and Gerrymandering can create some very unrepresentative results. In addition, the Electoral College encourages Presidential candidates to focus their efforts and attention in just a few swing states while ignoring the rest of the country. So what is the solution? How do we balance the ability to allow multiple divergent views with limited positions while still representing the population itself as closely as possible without overburdening the voters?

In looking at various options, the first thing to understand is that there are different types of elections: single seat and multiple seat. Single seat is where you are voting for a single person to fill a single position - for example, Governor or President. Multiple seat is where you are voting to select multiple people to fill multiple positions - for example, US Senators or City council. In the US, the majority of multiple seat elections are broken up into several single seat votes - for example, you will vote twice for US Senator (US Senator #1 and US Senator #2).

What's interesting is that different voting systems work best for different types of elections. Let's focus on three types, two for multiple seat and one for single seat.

Multiple Seat - Mixed-Member Proportional
The Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system is a voting system that can be used for multiple seat elections. This is a system that could be used to replace the way in which we select, for example, the representatives for Congress. The way this works is to double the number of seats available and to grant 2 votes for each voter. The first vote is for a specific person that they wish to be their representative. These seats are granted via a FPTP method and has the same spoiler effect type of strategic voting. However, the second vote allows the voter to specify the political party that they most closely align themselves with. This has no spoiler effect and allows voters to vote for strategically for a specific candidate while still allowing them to voice their specific beliefs by voting for a party that best represents their own views without feeling that their vote is wasted.

Watch this video for a description and example of MMP:

There are certainly some drawbacks to this method. For example, this makes political parties an official part of the election process. In addition, simply voting for a party and having the party specify the candidate to fill the position allows for a lot of potential abuse and could still leave voters disaffected and not truly represented. However, these are still generally better options than the simple FPTP approach often used in the US currently.

Multiple Seat - Single Transferable Vote
Another option for a multiple seat voting method is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). This approach allows people to rank their preferences. So if there are 6 people running for a particular position (e.g. Senator), then you can rank your top preference with 1, your second preference with 2, and so on, or until none of the rest of the candidates seem appealing/tolerable to you. So if you want your first preference a great deal, you'd put a 1. If you'd be ok if your 2nd choice won, you'd give them a 2. But if the rest of the candidates make your skin crawl, you can simply stop right there and not rank any of the rest of them.

At that point all the votes are counted and the rest of the process is a somewhat cumbersome process (God bless computers) of transferring surpluses and votes for the weakest candidates to other candidates. I'll avoid a full description and allow you to watch this example created to explain the system to voters in British Columbia, Canada when they were considering various election reforms like the ones in this article:

One of the biggest complaints about this method is that it is difficult for people to understand how to vote and that it is more complicated for people to understand how it counts the votes. Honestly, ranking preference should be pretty straightforward - though people who have voted in plurality FPTP style elections all their lives may be a little confused at first, but I think that the benefits of such a system outweigh some short-term confusion - especially if we know it may occur and can overemphasize help and assistance for voters.

Single Seat - Instant Run Off (aka Alternative Vote; aka Ranked Choice)
What about the Electoral College and the election of the US President? Many people are calling for eliminating the electoral college and moving to a straight popular vote. However, that would leave us with the same problems of FPTP again. What might be a better approach is what's called the Instant Run Off vote (aka Alternative vote; aka Ranked Choice voting). In this approach, similar to the Single Transferable vote, instead of picking a single option, people get to rank their preferences (or not if you absolutely don't like someone). This eliminates the spoiler effect that FPTP creates and makes third parties more viable.

Once everyone votes, their first preference is counted. The person in last place at this point is eliminated and his votes are allocated to the next (2nd) preference. Again the person in last place at this point is eliminated and his votes are allocated to the next preference. Etc. This continues until there are only 2 candidates left and the one with the most votes at that point is the winner.

Here's a video that demonstrates how it works (note that when eliminating the last place person, this video, for simplicity, assumes that all of that candidate's votes all go to one other candidate - in reality, this is not necessarily the case):

I believe that this approach would greatly enhance US Presidential elections. Too often, even currently during the Republican primaries, the more "electable" candidate is chosen specifically to beat the "other guy". Too many people are voting against the other guy than for the candidate that most closely represents their views. FPTP is drifting us away from representative govt.

Just a quick note: It might seem that going with an Instant Run-Off type of vote would eliminate the primary process. This isn't necessarily true. In fact, they could still go through the same vetting process to inform us about the candidates. They could still hold a series of FPTP primaries/caucuses to determine the winner or they could hold various straw polls and have an Instant Run-Off vote of their own in, say, July, or they could reform the entire process into something else. But they could still have a process by which a winner is determined. It may simply be that this winner is the "official" party representative and be able to use party money for their campaign. However, having an "official" party candidate should not eliminate any other candidates in that party from running or force them to run outside of their party.

Fixing Gerrymandering - Shortest Split-line
We mentioned the power that parties have if they control the drawing of voting district lines. But is there a better way to create districts without granting the power to some group? One method is to allow computers to follow a simple algorithm called the Shortest Split-line. This simply takes an area, determines how many districts are needed, then using an algorithm, divides the area into as close to even districts as possible. This site, as far as I can tell, is where the idea comes from and has several examples of how it could work. This video demonstrates a simple example:

This has the benefit of eliminating the politicization of redistricting as well as utilizing a simple, low-cost computer program to divide districts into areas that actually make sense. However, it generally ignores geographic features and may actually split a neighborhood, if not an individual house, into two different districts. One proposal was to allow zig-zags down the splitline along census tracts. Either way, it would seem that such a method would provide for a more representative type of districting vs allowing politicians to carve out their preferred voters.

Voting Itself
One thing we cannot overlook is the voting itself. Obviously there are dozens of different ways to present the options to voters. Ballot design is a much debated topic. As long as it's an open discussion, open to multiple viewpoints, I think that can be handled amicably. However, it doesn't matter how the vote is presented and what method of casting and counting votes is handled if the actual collection of votes is tainted. Skepticism and accusations have surrounded many of the electronic voting systems. People are especially leery as just a few companies really dominate this market. What's worse is that these machines have been demonstrated to be able to be tampered with. See this video that shows how one can tip the scales toward a desired outcome.

Examples such as this demand that we need an open, secure, and verifiable method of vote recording that also has a paper trail. I have been a fan of BlackBoxVoting who offers voting analysis and designs voting systems to be exactly what I described: open and verifiable yet secure and protected.

A lot of focus in the last couple elections have focused on electing the "right" politicians into office in order to "fix the system." However, without changing our method of voting for these politicians, we will never see the change that we hope. There are multiple problems with the FPTP voting method used in most US elections. These problems have, in part, led to our current situation with nearly half of all voters claiming to not belong to one of the two major parties. There are alternatives out there that would allow voters more flexibility and a greater voice in expressing their views and being better represented. However, until we begin to increase the urgency and the demand to alter our method of voting, we will continue to see the same politicians, the same promises, the same 2 parties, and the same problems.

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