Tuesday, September 25, 2007

IRV Gives Election Results ASAP

It’s not often that Memphis has the chance to be a trend setter, but one of the least understood proposals before the Memphis Charter Commission would give us just such a chance.

It’s Instant Runoff Voting, a proposal submitted to the Commission by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, whose solidly liberal credentials should allay concerns that IRV is a plot to give white voters more clout at the polls.

He’d be hard-pressed to have more graphic examples of the wisdom of IRV than this year’s city elections. After all, it’s likely that a number of City Council races will require costly runoff elections, where voters will back into selecting a winner rather than voting for their hopes and dreams for the future.

Eliminating Spoilers

Sadly, there’s no runoff for the Memphis mayor and Council super-districts, meaning that there’s the real prospect that some elected officials – notably the mayor – will take office with more people voting against the winner than in favor of him or her.

For the sake of example, consider the race for District 6 Council race where yet another Ford progeny, Edmund Ford Jr., is running for the seat left open by his father in the wake of his federal indictment. His major opponents are Reginald Milton, Ed Vaughn, James Catchings and a few assorted others.

It’s likely that no candidate will get a majority of the vote, and as a result, a follow-up runoff costing Memphis taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars will be held. There’s also the prospect that the turnout will be much smaller.

Cheaper And Immediate

It could be different. It could be cheaper, more efficient and the results could be immediate.

That’s the beauty of Instant Runoff Voting. Memphis voters would no longer have to vote twice to get a winner, because on election night, a majority winner would be proclaimed.

Here’s how it works:

When voters go to the polls, they vote for candidates in order of their preference. The pick their first choice, their second choice, their third choice, and so on.

Simple Math

If a candidate wins a majority, that person obviously is the winner. If there is no candidate with a majority, the rankings of the other candidates are used to declare a winner.

All ballots are recounted, and the candidate receiving the least number of first place votes is eliminated. The ballots are counted again, and voters who chose the eliminated candidate now have their votes counted for the second-ranked candidate. The weakest candidates are progressively eliminated and votes redistributed until a single candidate has a majority of the votes.

In this way, IRV offers the chance for better voter choice and wider voter participation in selecting the winner. According to proponents like Commissioner Mulroy, IRV allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without the fear that they are helping to elect their least favorite candidate. Best of all, the ultimate winner actually has the real support of a majority of voters.

No Longer A Novelty

For four years, San Francisco has been using IRV, and the response from the public has been highly supportive. Soon, Oakland and Minneapolis will add the instant runoff to its election process after voters overwhelmingly approved it at referendum.

North Carolina is beginning to use it in certain judicial races, and Arkansas, South Carolina and Louisiana use the ranked ballot for overseas and military voters. Meanwhile, Ireland uses it in its president’s election, London in its mayor’s election and Australia for its House of Representatives.

Support of IRV has also come from one of the most unexpected places – political parties. With instant runoffs, parties can choose to nominate multiple candidates without worrying about watering down their voter support.

More Than Saving Money

Now, the liberal vote can be split between multiple candidates, allowing a conservative candidate to win. But IRV allows voters to rank all of their candidates so that if a district’s dominant political philosophy does not fall victim to spoilers in the race who pull away enough votes from one major candidate to elect the other.

For example, in New Mexico, Green Party and Democratic Party candidates split liberal voters, allowing Republicans to be elected in districts in which they clearly are out of step.

Until Shelby County passes a vote-by-mail system, Instant Runoff Voting is the best idea to come along in years, because not only does it save significant public money, it has actually been credited with reducing negative campaigning. Because candidates aren’t just campaigning for people’s votes, but also for second and third rankings, which means that they are less likely to vilify opponents whose supporters can mean the difference between victory or defeat.

A Blow For Progressive Government

No part of American society is more resistant to change than the public sector, but the Charter Commission has the opportunity to strike a blow for innovation in our election process. One Commission member says IRV is too complicated for Memphis voters, a pretty damning statement considering that all it does it require voters to rank candidates 1-2-3.

So far, some of the Memphis Charter Commission members seem a bit perplexed by IRV, and a couple have said that it’s not easy to explain. Then again, neither is the electoral college.

Here’s hoping that the Commissioner will give Instant Runoff Voting the serious consideration that it deserves. It would be good if Memphis could be known for its commitment to progressive policies for a change.



This post unfortunately repeats common myths about IRV. The truth is that better and simpler methods than IRV exist - and IRV is lethal to third parties, because voting for a non-major-party candidate is statistically more likely to hurt you than help you. The world needs Range Voting or its simplified form of Approval Voting. Here's why.

Consider this hypothetical election using IRV.

#voters - their vote
10 G > C > P > M
3 C > G > P > M
5 C > P > M > G
6 M > P > C > G
4 P > M > C > G

C is the clear Condorcet (condor-SAY) winner, meaning he is preferred by a landslide majority over all his individual rivals. C is preferred over G, P, and M all by an 18-10 margin.

But... M wins, even though he also has fewer first-place votes (6 voters) than C with 8.


1. P is preferred to M by 22 of the 28 voters, yet he's the first candidate eliminated.
2. G also has more first-place votes (10) than M's 6.
3. So M either loses pairwise to, or has fewer first-place votes than (or both) every rival, but still IRV elects M.

The example above was intended to be "realistic," perhaps somewhat resembling the situation in the (now evolving) 2008 US presidential race with G="Green", M=McCain, C=Edwards, and P=Paul. But if you are willing to drop realism and construct artificial election scenarios, then this demonstrates how to construct arbitrarily-severe election examples of this kind: http://rangevoting.org/IRVamp.html#bad

IRV sounds initially appealing, because people picture a weak third party candidate who loses in the first round. The myth is that this takes away the fear of voting for your sincere favorite candidate, and gives third parties a fair chance to grow; but if that candidate or his party ever grows to be a contender, he is statistically more likely to hurt the party closest to his own than to win. It doesn't matter how unlikely you imagine the above scenario to be - it's still _more_ likely than the odds "Green" will win. And so third party voters will learn to strategically vote for their favorite major-party candidate, because it will more often be a good strategy than a bad one. You don't have to buy my math; you can look at decades of IRV usage in Australia's house, and Ireland's presidency. Both use IRV, and have been two-party dominated. So much for the myths that IRV allows you to "vote your hopes, not your fears", and eliminates spoilers. Now you can see why the Libertarian Reform Caucus calls IRV a "bullet in the foot" for third parties, and why Australian political analysts at AustralianPolitics.com say that IRV "promotes a two-party system to the detriment of minor parties and independents." Ironically, most of the many countries in the world who use a genuine _delayed_ runoff have broken free of duopoly. Yet third parties just worked to help replace that system with IRV in Oakland, CA. This can be chalked up to a result of massive public ignorance, largely perpetuated by groups such as FairVote and the League of Women Voters (http://RangeVoting.org/Irvtalk.html).

Electoral reform advocates (especially third parties!) should be demanding Range Voting - score all the candidates and elect the one with the highest average. Its simplified form, Approval Voting, is probably the most feasible to implement. It simply uses ordinary ballots, but allows us to vote for as many candidates as we like. Consider the benefits:

* More resistant to strategy: As we see above, IRV strategically "forces" voters not to top-rank their sincere favorite; the general strategy with IRV is to top-rank your favorite of the front-runners (typically the major party candidates). But with Range Voting and Approval Voting, this _never_ happens. The worst a voter may do is exaggerate his sincere scores to the max and min scores allowed. But with Range Voting, a vote for your favorite candidate can never hurt you, or the candidate, whereas with IRV it can hurt both. -- http://RangeVoting.org/StratHonMix.html

* The previous fact helps to explain why IRV results in two-party duopoly, just like plurality voting. -- http://RangeVoting.org/TarrIrv.html

* Spoiler free: Whereas IRV merely _reduces_ spoilers. -- http://rangevoting.org/FBCexecSumm.html

* Decreases spoiled ballots: Since voting for more than one candidate is permissible, the number of invalid ballots experimentally goes down with Range and Approval Voting. But IRV typically results in a seven fold increase in spoiled ballots when we started using IRV. -- http://rangevoting.org/SPRates.html

* Simpler to use: In 2006, the Center for Range Voting conducted an exit poll experiment in Beaumont, TX. There were 5 gubernatorial candidates, and voters were allowed to rate them 0-10 (or "abstain"). They all seemed to find the process as simple and intuitive. There were no complaints of complexity, or any questions for clarification. And the fact that spoilage rates go down with Range Voting, but up with IRV, shows that there is some objective sense in which RV is simpler. Voters literally make fewer mistakes.

* Simpler to implement/tabulate: A simple one-round summation tells us the results, whereas IRV's potential for multiple rounds can cause long delays before the final results are determined. A positive side-effect of Range Voting's simplicity is that it makes the necessary transition to manual counting, and away from voting machines, more feasible. And Range Voting can be conducted on all standard voting machines in the interim. Whereas IRV's complexity leads most communities implementing it to purchase expensive and fraud-conducive (electronic!) voting machines, the fraudster's best friend. -- http://RangeVoting.org/Complexity.html

* Greater voter satisfaction: Using extensive computer modeling of elections, a Princeton math Ph.D. named Warren D. Smith has shown that these methods lead to better average satisfaction with election results, surpassing the alternatives by a good margin. But IRV turns out to be the second _worst_ of the commonly proposed alternatives. This mean that all voters will benefit from the adoption of either of these superior voting methods, regardless of political stripe. -- http://RangeVoting.org/vsi.html

* Reduces the probability of ties: While they are not extremely common, they do happen. IRV statistically increases them, but Range Voting decreases them. -- http://RangeVoting.org/TieRisk.html

* In case you're going to say, "But IRV has more _momentum_ than Range Voting", you should consider this. -- http://RangeVoting.org/IRVsplitExec.html

* In case you wonder why groups like FairVote and the League of Women Voters support IRV, maybe you should consider all the misleading and even patently false claims they've made about it. -- http://RangeVoting.org/Irvtalk.html

Get the facts at RangeVoting.org and ApprovalVoting.org

And if you're in the market for a better system of proportional representation (http://RangeVoting.org/PropRep.html) than the antiquated STV system, check out Reweighted Range Voting and Asset Voting.


Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA

Rob Richie said...

Clay Shentrup will go on forever in such forums -- he indeed he is a true believer in his reform proposals.

Unfortunately for him, his proposals are very hard to win and sustain. They don't have a track record of success and do have several examples of failure from the few places that have tried them and variations of them --- from insincere voting in figure skating competitions in the Olympics to concerns about tactical voting in elections for the Dartmouth board of trustees.

Meanwhile, instant runoff voting has been used for national elections, major city elections and dozens of significant private organization elections. It's recommended by Robert's Rules of Order, picked by the American Political Science Association for its own leadership elections and endorsed by numerous state League of Women Voters groups after comprehensive studies.

It's also clearly popular with voters, both in exit polls where it's used and as a ballot measure (it's won 10 straight times on the ballot, typically by landslide margins).

More to be found at www.fairvote.org/irg and www.instantrunoff.com

For more on limitations of range voting and approval voting (the most fundamental of which is that indicating supporter for lesser choices can help defeat higher choices), see www.fairvote.org/rangevoting

gatesofmemphis said...

It seems easy to do but hard to understand. It took me a 2nd reading of your post, plus a google trip to figure out how it worked.

Do you think it matters that citizens might not understand the underlying idea? as long as they can vote successfully?

Bob Richard said...

gatesofmemphis: Exit polls of voters in San Francisco and Burlington answer your question. Voters both understand IRV and like it.

See www.sfrcv.org for links to the studies.

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