Esteemed commenter Extradimensional Cephalopod spent an admirable amount of time and effort last week exploring and debating the desirability (or not) of ranked choice voting systems. As a special gift to Ethics Alarms readers, E.C. summed up all of the issues in a single epic comment, and I have added his addendum to that comment as well.
Here is his Comment of the Day on his own Comment of the Day on the post, “Labor Day Weekend Ethics Warm-Up, 9/2/2022: Which Are The Pod People And Which Are The Fascists?”:
Alright, I’ve collected the arguments people have brought against ranked choice voting and condensed my counterpoints. What do you think?
1. RCV is more complicated than voters can follow.
Counterpoints: Not if we educate them competently, like we already sometimes do with regular ballots. If they’re not capable of comprehending ranked preferences and a ballot that accepts them, then their vote would be meaningless noise even under a first-past-the-post system. If that describes most voters, we’ve got a bigger problem. However, standardized testing indicates that many children can understand and fill out bubble-sheets correctly, so adults should be alright.
2. RCV encourages voters to game the system and vote dishonestly.
Counterpoints: As far as I can tell, that’s mathematically untrue. I don’t have a comprehensive proof, but I did some algebra with four and five candidates and a few assumptions about party affiliation and it indicates that trying to swing a few votes to influence who is eliminated first doesn’t make a difference in which frontrunner gets a majority. On the contrary, under RCV the voter is incentivized to rank their preferences honestly. It’s actually first-past-the-post voting that encourages dishonest voting, also known as “holding one’s nose and voting for So-and-so” instead of a candidate you actually approve of, just to make sure the other major party doesn’t win.
3. RCV encourages bland candidates that try to appeal to everyone.
Counterpoints: On the one hand, having candidates that appeal to everyone would be a really nice problem to have for a change. On the other hand, we also don’t want candidates who do so by being maximally ambiguous and minimally decisive. Luckily, RCV actually encourages candidates who take risks with ideas for overhauling the status quo to replace zero-sum tradeoffs with win-win opportunities.
Republican and Democratic politicians do not lead or accomplish much because they cannot afford to lose their designated voter base. They are limited in what ideas they can discuss safely. They’re more likely to demonize their opponents than push innovative ideas.
4. “One person, one vote.” If your first choice is eliminated, you shouldn’t get to reassign your vote.
Counterpoints: If every person gets the same number of votes, isn’t that the important thing? Isn’t that the real point of the phrase? Also, we already have runoff elections where people get a chance to cast another vote in the same race for the same office. Those don’t seem to be objectionable. RCV works exactly the same way except it streamlines the process by collecting the initial votes and the runoff votes at the same time. That’s why this version of RCV is sometimes called “instant runoff.” If the United States had started out with RCV, I can virtually guarantee that nobody would be demanding a switch to first-past-the-post.
ADDENDUM: Further research indicates that in eliminating the spoiler effect from first-past-the-post voting, ranked choice voting introduces a lack of monotonicity, meaning that in a close race, adding more votes ranking a candidate as the first choice can actually result in that candidate’s loss. This effect might only appear when there are at least three candidates who each have roughly equal support, which is why I didn’t pick it up when I did the algebra for four and five candidates with two frontrunners.
That said, in my opinion, RCV’s elimination of the spoiler effect more than makes up for this flaw in a political context. My reasoning is as follows:
The cause of the lack of monotonicity is circular preferences, where roughly a third of voters prefer A to B, another third prefer B to C, and the remaining third prefer C to A. There isn’t an obvious winner among the group, and depending on which voting system is used and the exact vote totals, the election could arbitrarily settle in favor of any of the three options. They’re all valid equilibrium states.
I’m not sure how common this situation is with political candidates, but one would reasonably hope that if three candidates receive approximately the same number of votes and there is no clear group preference of any candidate over any other, we might hope that they’re all decent candidates and it doesn’t matter so much who wins.
Furthermore, even if we used a first-past-the-post voting system, those circular voter preferences would still be there. The voters just wouldn’t get a third option to begin with, because the parties and the voters would be afraid of the spoiler effect. Someone other than the voters would end up choosing who doesn’t get to run, instead of the voters finding out how all three candidates stack up against one another. Or the spoiler would run, and the election would be spoiled.
FPTP voting cannot fix the problem of resolving circular preferences objectively, because it’s also just a version of ranked choice voting: one where only the first choices are counted. The only thing FPTP does is prevent the issue from coming up, at the cost of incentivizing politicians to demonize their opponents and avoid innovation, prioritizing the appearance of effectiveness over actual effectiveness.
Admittedly, it might be possible to use dishonest, tactical voting with RCV in order to determine who is eliminated first and thereby who gets the majority. However, it would be much more difficult to do that with RCV than with FPTP. If we really want to prevent tactical voting, though, we might randomly select the exact RCV algorithm from a curated list after all the ballots are in.
For the sake of honesty, I do think that all ballot rankings should be recorded, instead of only recording the vote reallocations when one candidate is eliminated. That way people can judge whether the system seems to be working in practice as well as in theory.
And, as always, most of the work of democracy needs to be done before citizens or legislators cast any votes. RCV just helps incentivize that work.
I don’t suppose anybody finds my reasoning sufficiently compelling? Does anyone have any points against RCV I didn’t list here?
40 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Labor Day Weekend Ethics Warm-Up, 9/2/2022…’ [Item #4: Ranked Choice Voting]””
The biggest argument I have against RCV is the potential for spoiled ballots. I’m not that sure how Alaska does their vote-counting, but it’s easy to see how, in a three-way election, people might wind up voting for two people for the same position, or failing to fill out all the choices. That ballot must then be spoiled at some level, because there is simply no way to know what the intent of the voter was.
This article goes into some depth as to why RCV is not a great choice. If that feels to partisan for you, there is one in a publication called the Maine Wire describing the problems with spoiled ballots inherent in RCV. For a fact, though, Alaska (unlike Maine, apparently) had about 0.5% spoiled ballots — a reasonable number, it seems to me.
From a purely partisan perspective, it’s difficult to figure how, as in Alaska’s example, the first-place votes were 2-1 for one of the two Republican candidates and yet somehow the Democrat gets elected, and that feels wrong. If you’ll look into the statistics, you’ll find that ticket-splitting has fallen completely out of vogue in most areas of the country, particularly in Republican areas. Of course, maybe Alaska is different — certainly that’s a valid place to begin an argument considering what it takes to live there.
I think RCV has more genuine problems than is widely known — there have certainly been some puzzling results using the system. Having said that, perhaps some tweaks to it could make it more comfortable for people like me, I don’t know. What I do know is that it feels gimmicky. For that reason alone, I distrust it.
(I learned something from the Heritage Foundation article, but since that’s most important I’ll leave that until the end. You can skip the criticism, but I think it’s important too.)
The first thing I notice about the article is the accusatory rhetoric. I’m disappointed and disdainful of these accusations of bad faith for reasons which I can illustrate by changing four words from their conclusion:
I can see why they would think that about scare-quote “reformers”, but methinks they protest too much. People who leap to accuse other people of bad faith may not themselves be acting in bad faith, but if they don’t see any legitimate, non-ridiculous reasons to disagree with their own opinions, then I don’t put much stock in their wisdom.
Furthermore, I don’t follow their logic with how the “tactical gimmickry” is supposed to have worked (or how the version that works is supposed to be different from honest voting as it’s supposed to work) unless they are relying on ballot exhaustion, something I confess I had not accounted for in my calculations.
I don’t think they thought through the concept of exhausted ballots either, though. They are correct that exhausted ballots are not counted as part of the denominator of the subsequent rounds. They effectively disappear from the count. However, consider why a person would allow their ballot to become exhausted by not ranking every candidate: they don’t know enough or care enough about some subset of candidates to rank them against each other. If a voter omits two candidates from their ballot, that indicates that if those two candidates had been the only ones running (or were the finalists in a runoff election), that voter wouldn’t have shown up to vote (or would have turned in a blank ballot), because they don’t care which one wins.
As it happens, votes not cast (and blank ballots) are also not counted as part of the denominator. Candidates get a percentage of votes cast, not a percentage of eligible voters. I think we should pay attention to ballot exhaustion statistics to get a sense of the public’s opinions on politicians, but there isn’t an inherent problem with ballot exhaustion, or at least not one that’s somehow worse than people not voting in the first place.
All that aside, I am impressed that they managed to introduce a very good point about how runoff elections can be superior to instant runoff via ranked choice voting: the more time people spend with fewer candidates, the more opportunity they have to learn about those candidates and compare them with one another. After my first choice is eliminated, I might actually want the opportunity to research the other candidates and listen to them debate each other.
I think the point the article raises is mostly about the number of candidates people can realistically research and compare. And to be fair, part of the point of RCV is to allow more candidates to run without introducing spoilers, so it’s a relevant concern. Right now the Forward Party is looking at a maximum of five finalist candidates with RCV, called “Final Five voting”. I’d hope that wouldn’t be too many for people to learn the basics about, but one could always say that cutting five candidates down to two gives people two and a half times as much time to devote to each candidates. The questions are whether people consider that worth sacrificing options (for a regular two-candidate election) or the time it takes to go vote again (for a regular runoff election), and how much time they would really need to spend researching candidates anyway. I think Final Five voting is a reasonable way to go, because it shouldn’t be too hard to learn about five distinct candidates.
Regardless of the voting system, I would suggest we at least try to get candidates to learn about issues, discuss them, and offer substantial ideas for solutions. We need to hold politicians responsible for being effective rather than just projecting the appearance of effectiveness. If we do that, I think we could make FPTP voting work alright (although I think RCV would still be better).
What do you think?
Extradimensional Cephalopod wrote:
The first thing I notice about the article is the accusatory rhetoric.
Unfortunately, a sign of the times in which we live. Without the tough rhetoric, everyone on either side of a partisan argument these days is subject to accusations of insufficient outrage. I feel your pain.
However, consider why a person would allow their ballot to become exhausted by not ranking every candidate: they don’t know enough or care enough about some subset of candidates to rank them against each other.
This may be true. However, it looks very much like a flaw in the system that is designed to punish the partisan. The overall gist of this system is that it seems designed to produce “middle of the road” candidates both by design and execution. That is not what a representative democratic republic is all about, although I know many people favor that. Bombastic and extreme candidates have been a part of our society since its inception. Yes, I suppose I am making a “not invented here” argument. So sue me, I guess. 🙂
Because of how RCV appears (I am not stating it as a fact, but rather as a subjective judgment) to force “middle of the road” candidates to the top, in effect it renders the party system mostly moot and biases the outcome toward the “least objectionable.” It is the process equivalent of “A pox on both their houses.”
Like you, I was also impressed with Heritage’s point about runoff elections. Obviously, there are far too many voters who wouldn’t take the time to consider much beyond party or a pet issue in a runoff, but giving them an opportunity to look deeper doesn’t prejudice the process like RCV does, at least in my inexpert opinion.
Regardless of the voting system, I would suggest we at least try to get candidates to learn about issues, discuss them, and offer substantial ideas for solutions.
I think many do these things already. But right now, the divide between Americans is very deep and we have no crisis to unite around — or at least, not one existential enough to bridge the divide. I’m not convinced you can force people to the middle with what many would argue is a contrived and biased voting system.
In sum, I see RCV as a gimmick designed to produce mostly center-left politicians. People already think they see this through more than one example (That’s why the Left is cheering it and the Right is rejecting it), and that does not engender trust. Neither does the opaque (to most people) computer-driven RCV tally method.
If we know nothing else about our politics right now, it’s that the visceral is at least as important to voters as the practical or logical. Until that changes, I see RCV as primarily a way to create even more distrust.
That’s an entirely fair point, in my opinion. Like the point about spreading people’s attention across a larger number of candidates, this point about favoring less partisan candidates highlights one of the ways in which ranked choice voting cannot honestly be said to be strictly superior to first-past-the-post voting in terms of producing desirable outcomes.
In theory, RCV incentivizes politicians to try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. If they don’t know how to do that by uniting people with shared values, they will attempt to make their own values as ambiguous as possible, to be all things to all people. This is not a desirable outcome.
I do have some counterpoints in favor of RCV, though, and am interested to see what you think of them.
Firstly, the Republican and Democratic Parties count among their followers so many people with mismatching values that politicians already have to make their values ambiguous, or distract from them by demonizing the other side.
Broadly speaking, Democrats may include Muslims, Jews, Catholics, people of color both religious and secular, atheists, gender/sexual/romantic nonconforming groups (LBGT+), New Agers, socialists, and scientists, while Republicans may include conservative Protestants, Catholics, Jews, conservative people of color both religious and secular, business executives, blue collar workers, members of the military, farmers, and different scientists. That’s just off the top of my head, and generally speaking. There are many demographic groups whose voting tendencies I don’t even know about, which probably vary by location as well. Many Republicans and Democrats actually sympathize with the other side on many issues, and there are plenty of demographic exceptions to my list. This list is just to illustrate how many different stakeholders each party has to avoid alienating, without the knowledge of how to reconcile different values.
With all these diverse followers in both parties, they’re already trying to appeal to people who may demand mutually contradictory policies, by substituting the appearance of effectiveness for actual effectiveness. When they act decisively, it’s usually something that sounds good to their party but sounds awful to the other party, and when it fails they can blame the other party for not supporting it. I may be wrong, but I don’t think ranked choice voting would make the problem of ineffective policy worse than it is already, if all else remains equal.
Secondly, I don’t expect all else to remain equal. Ranked choice voting is not supposed to solve the problems of politics all by itself. What it’s supposed to do is remove the problem of partisan rhetoric, which inhibits us from solving the rest of the problems.
Right now the two major parties are incentivized to demonize each other. Demonizing the other party helps unite their various followers without requiring the party to accomplish anything. It also makes it harder to get people to work together to figure out good, effective, constructive policies that satisfy as many of the stakeholders as possible. Implementing RCV will not in and of itself give people the ability to collaborate on policy work–that’s my job. RCV just removes the largest obstacle to that goal, by punishing politicians who try to scapegoat half the country instead of at least trying to appeal to the population as a whole. That will incentivize politicians to either learn how to be completely ambiguous, or to learn how to reconcile people’s values, which is what politicians are supposed to do in the first place.
In theory, anyway. I should further research the political climate in Australia to see how it plays out. It looks like the major parties of Labor and Liberal may temporarily ally with smaller parties for an edge in votes? If so, that’s a good way to incentivize the parties to get things done on non-wedge issues. After all, in an FPTP system, if all voters care about infrastructure, there’s no point in maintaining the infrastructure, because that doesn’t buy votes on the margin.
I think the effect of RCV at punishing extreme partisanship is insufficient, but still necessary (or at least very helpful) for desirable results.
That said, I will be working to reconcile people’s values regardless of the presence of RCV, and have been considering the possibility that that reconciliation process may need to happen first for RCV to become accepted, if RCV is even necessary by that point.
What do you think?
I’ll address your points in favor of RCV without quoting them for the sake of brevity, in the order you present them:
Your first point is that the values in a given party are already mismatched, and that’s true to a limited degree. Most people remaining in a party can be roughly categorized as follows: a) in broad agreement with the party principles, b) in narrow agreement with a few important party principles, c) in broad disagreement, but desiring to change the party from within to be more inclusive of their views, or d) either too lazy to change or simple “saboteurs.”
In my view, c) and d) represent people who logically should be unaffiliated or affiliated with another party. So I consider this argument true, but mostly irrelevant. They may be in the party, but they are not of the party.
Your second point is also valid to a limited degree. Ranked-choice voting is generally implemented not as a true “good government” system, but rather as a way to force change that favors one party over the other. So in a sense, it is in diametric opposition to the very point you make, as it is proposed intentionally as a weapon to swing elections toward one party, not produce better elected officials except in the narrow judgment of those favoring it.
It seems to me your main complaint is about partisan rhetoric, and God knows I agree that it is often destructive. But I do not think the solution to that is to force candidates to the “mushy middle” either by actual belief or dissimulation. Yes, we make it harder to be a partisan flamethrower and win, but is that really valuable? I’m not so sure, although for a fact, it would be easier on the ears and eyes. 🙂
Regarding your points about Australia, I think any parliamentary system offers a poor candidate for comparison. RCV is actually closer to what often happens in parliamentary campaigns due to the sheer number of parties vying for the same votes. In other words, it seems to me a very modest change for that system, but a much more radical and substantive change for the American system.
In sum, I am less concerned about extreme partisanship than you appear to be, so forcing people to the middle holds no particular charm in my personal case. I think you have done a very creditable job bringing out the benefits of RCV, but I remain skeptical that its main effect is to favor the center-left, and from my point of view, that’s not worth the benefit of eliminating bombastic rhetoric.
That first point assumes that the vast majority of people will find that one of the two major parties represents most of their principles (ignoring the question of how well the parties uphold those principles). I’m not sure whether or not that’s a reasonable assumption, so I’ll have to think about that. It’s worth noting the assumption just in case it turns out to be invalid or becomes invalid in the future.
My point was that in addition to making it more possible for “mushy middle” candidates to win, RCV would also make it possible for real negotiators to win, (which I think would be good), whereas right now neither of those archetypes can win. Regardless of whether you think one side is right, partisan candidates from both sides don’t seem to build trust with the opposite (“wrong”) side, and saying the “wrong” side is just stubborn and unreasonable seems like a cop-out to avoid the obligation to effectively negotiate. Most humans are too pragmatic to be unreasonable. Or, in other words, if you think a person has no principles, why do you think they would stick to them?
I think that real negotiators would be able to beat out the “mushy middle” candidates, if we can get any real negotiators to run. Besides, if the “mushy middle” candidates are recognized as representing a golden mean fallacy between the “right” side and the “wrong” side, everyone on both sides will see them as just as wrong as the “wrong” side and stick to voting for the more partisan, “right” candidates.
I apologize in advance for calling into question your objectivity on the issue, but I feel that this hypothesis is important to rule out explicitly: I somewhat suspect that you may be less concerned about partisanship because you trust that your favored party will get things right, if only they have power. (My take on it is that that’s what the other side thinks as well, and as far as I can tell it hasn’t been true for either side yet.)
In all honesty, how would you feel about the principle of RCV if the situation of Maine were reversed? That is, if a state has hitherto regularly voted for Democrats and introducing RCV to that state resulted in the consistent election of moderate Republicans, in similar circumstances to the ones in Maine? Would you still think that the principle behind RCV was flawed? Or would you say that it better represents what the voters actually want? I don’t intend this as an ad hominem attack, and will take your answer at face value. I do appreciate your reflection on the issue.
I am sympathetic to the argument that voters are foolish and we don’t want to make elections better represent their preferences, but then the problem becomes what mechanism we think is holding the government accountable for making good decisions, if not an election system that represents the preferences of the public? And as before, making sure the people are worth representing is not within the scope what a voting system is supposed to accomplish; it’s my job to solve that problem.
At the risk of incurring a false dichotomy, I see two possibilities based on what I’ve heard about RCV resulting in center-left victories: Either 1) RCV is less reflective of the preferences of the American people than FPTP is, and it’s merely a sneaky way to get the center-left disproportionate influence despite those preferences; or 2) RCV does better reflect the preferences of the American people and the center-left is who we ought to be electing (based on voter preferences), and the existing system artificially props up both the right and the far-left. (I say this without having any strong opinion on the “center-left”, because I’m not sure exactly who it describes.)
I’m open to arguments about which of those hypotheses is more plausible and why, or suggestions for hypotheses I’ve overlooked. I’m also open to arguments about why the second scenario might actually be desirable, why we might want to artificially prevent the “center-left” from being elected and how we would make sure whoever gets elected instead does a good job despite being largely unaccountable to the voters. I already have my own ideas about what sorts of policies a competent political party should pursue, and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans meet my standards with anything resembling consistency.
What do you think?
Thanks for the reply, EC. I’m going to give you the last word on this, as I’m going out of town and won’t have time to reply. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I appreciate the thoughtful remarks.
Let me offer some background with regard to what happened in Maine, when that state adopted ranked choice voting.
First, a bit of history: the push to adopt RCV in Maine came in direct response to the first successful run of Republican Paul LePage – a rather rough-hewn chap who was known to through elbows, but who was possessed of an impressive backstory and who served as mayor in the city of Waterville, where he did an impressive job with the town’s finances and even Democrats respected him. That respect was wiped out when he announced for governor, at which point he was magically transformed into the Worst Person in Maine.
LePage won the primary with 38 percent of the vote in a 7 person race, largely on the strengths of a well-organized Tea Party effort and low turnout. The next closest candidate was a guy I used to work for. The last-place finisher was a guy who I did some work for during the campaign; ironically enough, if RCV was in Maine at that point, he probably would have won the nomination; a poll of voters pegged him as everyone’s favorite second choice. He was and remains a nice guy.
LePage won the gubernatorial race with, again, approximately 38% of the vote in a crowded field. His Dem opponent was a tired old party warhorse nobody liked very much, and there were three independents in the field. LePage was outspent nearly 10-1 by the Dems, and the howls of outrage and disbelief rang through the state. That’s when the push for RCV started: how could it be that you could win the Blaine House with only 38% of the vote?
What nobody bothered to note was that LePage’s predecessor in office, Democrat John Baldacci (a man with all the charisma of a bolt of flannel) had won his second term in office with the same percentage of the vote, or that alleged-independent-though-actually-a-Democrat (a schtick he continues to this day in the US Senate) Angus King, who preceded Baldacci, won his first term in the Blaine House with totals in the mid 40s.
Maine has had gubernatorial races like this for generations. First-term governors rarely got elected with a majority; they might crack over 50% in their second terms if things are going well. Angus King did; Paul LePage and John Baldacci did not. But LePage once again won with a plurality, this time very close to 50%.
But as a result of the horror of having Paul LePage with the Blaine House not once but twice, the Dems and progressives launched a massive campaign to enact ranked choice voting. None of the state’s major Republican players were in support.
RCV was promoted using many of the arguments EC has listed. Other arguments included less-nasty campaigns, lower costs and so on. Its passage in 2016 was by way of a citizen initiative. There were legal challenges that had to be overcome, but ultimately, it became the way Maine runs elections.
2018 was the first year that RCV was used in a major election in Maine. Republican Bruce Poliquin, the sitting second-district Representative to the US House, won a plurality of the votes over Democrat Jared Golden. But there were several Dem-planted stalking horses also in the race, and their combined total was just enough to put Golden over the top. Poliquin sued but was unsuccessful. I never liked Poliquin; in my encounters with him I found him a blowhard of the mile-wide-inch-deep variety. Even so, he was denied his seat by a mechanism that was obviously calibrated to do just that.
Janet Mills, the current Democrat governor, actually received more than 50% of the vote after winning the nomination by… drum roll, please… ranked choice voting. She and LePage will likely face off again in 2022. LePage was limited out in 2018 but, like Trump, hates to lose and there’s nothing in Maine’s constitution prohibiting a run for a third term.
So what has Maine actually seen so far from RCV? Elections are every bit as expensive, but more of the cost is being managed by outside groups. The candidates are, perhaps, a bit more polite in person, but their affiliated activist groups spend boatloads on highly negative advertising attacking the opponent of the candidate they back. People with no serious likelihood of being elected – including people with just about no name recognition in a very small state – are placed on ballots with the specific intent that the handful of votes they draw will be useful if RCV kicks in.
Maine’s prior system of FPTP worked pretty well for the state for a long time. RCV came in because progressive interests in the state threw a temper tantrum over Paul LePage. Maine’s elections aren’t better today. They’re even more expensive and contentious. And from my perspective, all RCV has done is essentially ensure that Maine will be a one-party state – that party being Democrat – going forward.
And near as I can tell, that’s pretty much exactly what RCV was intended to do.
I’m not sure I follow the logic on this one. The problem with RCV is that it… inspires more people to vote, and it just so happens those people lean Democrat? That sounds like a criticism of the process because the outcome isn’t to one’s liking. Just because different people start getting elected doesn’t mean the current process isn’t fair.
Is it calculated manipulation of the system in a gambit to bring in more votes for one party? Of course. But if more people exercise their right to vote and those people don’t vote the way you want them to, is that any reason to say that whatever change to the system inspired them to vote is unfair, broken, or otherwise unethical? It seems like the system would be better representative of the people, in that case. Making sure the people are worth representing is not within the scope what a voting system is supposed to accomplish; it’s my job to solve that problem.
The problems with election costs and nastiness are definitely an issue, though. If the supposed benefits of RCV are not showing up, we may need to do additional work to make sure they manifest.
I didn’t say it caused more people to vote. To the best of my knowledge, it has had no measurable impact on voter turnout at all. What it DID do was allow a specific party – the one pushing for RCV in the first place – to run a bunch of no-hope stalking horses so that they could later capture those votes in subsequent rounds.
Tactically, that’s smart. But if that’s not unethical, I don’t know what is.
Okay, it took me a bit to figure out, but after checking the definition of “stalking horse” I think I might know what you mean. Are you saying it’s wrong for a party to run multiple candidates with different points of appeal and then control whichever one happens to win? And FPTP disincentivizes this tactic because of the spoiler effect?
I don’t like the idea of a party exerting control over its politicians, either, regardless of the voting system. If they did use this tactic under RCV, ideally I would hope the party would take a hint from which candidate was elected and let that candidate do their thing, but I don’t think we can count on that.
So the status quo under FPTP is… if a party fields multiple candidates so as to test what people actually want, they greatly reduce their chances of getting one of their candidates elected? I suppose I’m somewhat amenable to that, considering how they really ought to be talking with people to get a sense of what they want instead of using elections as polls.
Wait, but from what you say it sounds like if the Democrats had simply chosen to only ever run one candidate, they’d consistently win, because it’s clear that there are more Democratic voters who consistently vote.
Or is it that the Democratic Party is unable to identify which of their possible candidates is the one which is more popular than the Republican candidate, so they need RCV to sort it out? (On the one hand, the party primary is supposed to handle that, but on the other hand it only consults registered Democrats, and there may be many independent voters who don’t participate in the primary and whose preferences regarding all the various potential Republican and Democratic candidates are only knowable through polls.) In which case, I don’t know why it’s a mark against the voting system, since it’s still a better representation of the voters’ preferences.
I realize that there’s a problem with parties trying to pander to voters, but I’m not sure having them take shots in the dark is much better. I think we owe it to the voters to give them at least a few more options, because that helps them hold parties accountable.
Does that make sense, or am I way off with how I understood your concern?
EC – been meaning to get back to you on your question.
The parties can’t run multiple candidates per se in Maine; it’s not like California, with its jungle-rules primary system in which the two top finishers face off in the general election – often, in that state, that means you’re choosing one of two Democrats. Maine has primaries for its parties; as a result, in the general election you end up with one Dem, one Repub, and however many independents decide to show up. And that’s where the skullduggery can show up.
The 2018 Maine 2nd CD race consisted of four candidates: Poliquin, Golden, and two “independents.” The first independent is named Tiffany Bond (who also made an unsuccessful run in 2020 and is on the ballot in 2022). She’s an attorney, specializing in family law, in Portland – which, curiously enough, is in the 1st CD and not the second. Presumably, she’s smart enough to realize that the only way that 1st CD Rep Chellie Pingree will leave the halls of Congress will be toes first. Bond is a bit of a gadfly, but there’s no question that the Maine Dems were delighted by her candidacy under the RCV rules – her positions were such that she could pull moderate Republican votes from Poliquin, who was more of a tea-party type in his positioning (I repeat here that I’m NOT a fan of Poliquin).
The other “independent” was a guy named Will Hoar. Hoar has since more or less disappeared from the public stage, but his positions were pretty liberal; he claimed he decided to run because Poliquin had voted against the Affordable Care Act. A school teacher, he also made no bones about the idea that he was a recovering addict and alcoholic. His positions on most issues tended towards the progressive side.
So there’s the mix: a Republican incumbent, and Democrat, and two independents: one who could potentially draw votes from the incumbent, and one who could potentially draw votes from the Democrat challenger but had no serious shot at actually winning. Both, under RCV rules, worked to the Democratic Party’s favor.
Maine, so that you know, has a long history of major office elections with the two major parties and one or more independents. Angus King, who served two terms as Governor and is now one of Maine’s two sitting Senators, has been an “independent” since he began his career in politics. The “independent” label on King, for the record, is complete horseshit. He may not belong to the Democratic Party, but by thought, word and deed, he has always leaned heavily that way (he caucuses with Dems in Washington).
Numerous other independents have run over the years; they’ve had an impact, but successful campaigns have proven the exception, rather than the rule. Too, operating under the FPTP rules, the state muddled along reasonably well – until progressives became horrified that Paul LePage had been elected TWICE with pluralities and set about to change the rules of the game.
In 2018, Poliquin emerged with a plurality, edging out Jared Golden by just shy of 2800 votes. I don’t recall whether it was Hoar or Bond with the lowest total, but even the second round of RCV votes didn’t push Golden over the magic 50%+1 line. It was only when the other independent’s RCV votes were added to the totals that Golden crossed the line.
Don’t think for a second that the Maine Democratic Party wasn’t delighted by the presence of the two independents; they couldn’t say so openly but there was tacit support for both. They recognized that these independents – one progressive, no threat to the Party’s candidates, one more or less gadfly in a position to suck votes away from the incumbent, was potentially the edge they needed under the new rules. They were correct in this. And don’t think for a second that the Democratic Party won’t cheerfully exploit the system – which they drove through with that thought in mind – to create significantly greater likelihood of ongoing control. RCV is simply a clever way to game the system.
I don’t see the problem. Under FPTP, having four candidates would risk spoilers for either of the major candidates. That sounds like a bad system to me, regardless of whether the one you favor happens to win. Presumably if this had been a FPTP election, the democrats could have decided to avoid spoilers by voting for Golden instead of Bond. Since Hoar’s votes apparently also went to Golden, it seems to me that the reason the Democrats kept losing was that the “independent” candidates were spoilers, and that if only Poliquin and Golden were running against each other, Golden would have won.
With RCV, though, the voters get more options. In theory, an independent candidate could have won if they’d gotten more support. That’s a good feature in a voting system, I think, compared to where voters never even get the choice to vote for an independent.
What happened in the situation you described is that Poliquin failed to be the first choice of a majority of voters. Per the rules of the election that the voters were informed about, that means he didn’t win even though he had a plurality. Instead the independent candidates were eliminated one by one, and most of their votes went to Golden, indicating that a majority of voters preferred Golden to Poliquin.
To me, this means the system worked exactly as intended and successfully represented the preferences of the voters.
From here, my points look much like the ones I brought up in the discussion with Glenn Logan above. I’m amenable to arguments that the system somehow didn’t represent the will of the voters, or arguments that the system shouldn’t represent the will of the voters, but until I see an argument for either of those, I don’t see any obvious reason why the situation you described indicates that RCV is a bad voting system.
What I see instead is that the Republicans were winning because the Democratic vote kept getting split, rather than because a majority of people actually preferred the Republicans. That fact indicates to me that FPTP is a bad voting system, and changing it to RCV fixed the spoiler problem and allowed the people to elect a candidate that better represented what the voters preferred.
(I make no statements about the quality of the candidates, the quality of the parties, or the quality of the voters’ judgment. Those are problems that can be fixed separately, and it will be easier when the voting system allows candidates and parties to be held accountable by the voters.)
Does that all make sense?
The problem with your argument, as I see it, is twofold. With RCV, it becomes too easy for parties to salt the mine – to quietly encourage and support candidates with no real chance of winning so that the small number of votes they do draw can be sucked out later. And the second problem is the whole idea that races become more genteel, on the theory that the candidates themselves will be nicer to one another in order to draw ranked-choice votes. The reality is that the campaigns were every bit as nasty; it’s just that all of the nastiness was farmed out to “independent” PACs and groups closely aligned with the major candidates. No need to sully their fine white gloves when they’ve got the tag teams ready to go.
RCV is a pig in a poke.
We went over that bit already. I said:
And you said (emphasis mine):
Then I said:
“Are you saying it’s wrong for a party to run multiple candidates with different points of appeal and then control whichever one happens to win?”
Then you said the stalking horses weren’t technically part of the same party, but were de facto part of the same party because that’s who the votes got allocated to once the stalking horses were eliminated.
So if the independents are eliminated and the Democratic candidate gets the majority, are we saying that if those independents had never been there in the first place the Democrats wouldn’t have gotten a majority of votes? Why would that be the case? And what’s unethical about adding more options without risking spoilers? The Republicans could do the same thing, after all.
(I’ll follow up with your second point in a separate comment.)
I’m thinking about launching a satellite blog on this dialogue alone…
You raise a good point that I had not anticipated. RCV is supposed to incentivize candidates to refrain from attack campaigns to avoid alienating each other’s supporters. However, you’re right: it’s certainly possible for third parties (so to speak) to attack rivals while their preferred candidates have plausible deniability and don’t taint their friendly image. Fair enough. Perhaps RCV doesn’t fully solve that problem the way it claims to.
Candidates won’t fear the spoiler effect causing their party to lose, so they don’t have to completely torpedo support for their rivals, but they may still want to get their rivals eliminated in order to win the office themselves.
Campaigning won’t change for the better until voters change how they respond to it, incentivizing candidates who are competent and have constructive plans. Voters can more easily do that the more options they have and the more easily they can vote honestly, without fear that their vote will be wasted.
I think that the fact that RCV fails to solve the problem of negative campaigning is not a compelling argument that RCV is worse than FPTP, only that one of the selling points isn’t as good as it claims. I’ll make a note of that, but I think the other selling points are compelling on their own.
Yes, though for now I will only provide those that arise from your points directly, not separate ones I also know from experience:-
Australian experience indicates otherwise, particularly once political parties start gaming the system. Plus, the voting system works for me (and you, and you, and you…), I (and you, and you, and you…) don’t work for it, so any burden is too much (hence the so-called “donkey vote” here in Australia, also encouraged by compulsory voting). As it happens, there is a simple and transparent system that delivers close to the “right”* results in this sort of situation, cumulative voting, but strangely politicians, corporate boards etc. have never, ever installed it of their own volition though courts have sometimes ordered it.
See above: it is empirically true that political parties game the system.
Did I hear anyone say “lesser evil”?
For over a century, that has never been the case here. That may be about to change, what with the so-called “teal independents”. Then again, they may turn out to be false flag stalking horses for the other mob, and/or “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. As the saying is, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, a politician always gets in (because if another does, that other becomes one).
No! No! No! Kenneth Arrow demonstrated that all voting systems are flawed, so the issue is which flaws – and if you don’t see them, that shows they are subtle; think software bugs. The flaws here are hidden in “If every person gets the same number of votes, isn’t that the important thing?”. It is absolutely true that “Isn’t that the real point of the phrase?” – and that hides the same thing, and is wrong for the same reason, though it has served well as a propaganda sound bite. I will let readers think about it for a bit, and then if you or they don’t see it, I will illustrate it from British history and how it was implemented (hint: recall my earlier suggestion, and think about the expression “kicking the ladder away after you’ve climbed up”). And “instant runoff” suffers from the same “don’t read it, just sign it” problem as a restaurant that requires customers to lock in their dessert choice before they eat their main course.
* What is right depends on what you are trying to build in to what you choose, bearing in mind that that result of Kenneth Arrow’s proves that there must be some distortion or other – which puts it back to choosing whose thumb goes on the scales. Of course, recognising this sort of original sin means that, in some situations, a spoiled election is just precisely what is called for (see the history of the Irish at Westminster).
I’m not sure what you mean by “any burden [being] too much.” You mean it’s wrong to expect voters to make the effort to be informed on more than two candidates, or do you mean that if we do expect that, the practical consequences is that they still won’t make that effort?
Regarding cumulative voting, I’m not sure it could be said to be simpler than ranked choice voting, but I do think it could be beneficial in many contexts.
I did not mean to imply that as long as each person gets the same number of votes, any voting system is as good as any other. I’m aware of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. When I asked “isn’t that the important thing?” I was criticizing the people who cling to “one person, one vote” as if it were an axiom, rather than looking past that phrase to the idea of fairness it represents, and acknowledging that other voting systems could also be considered fair because all voters are given equal treatment.
If political parties in Australia are gaming the system to prevent RCV from enabling effective third parties, that’s something worth investigating, so we can fix those problems. I never thought RCV would be sufficient to solve problems, but I still think it will make it easier.
Nicely written comment of the day about ranked choice voting.
In regards to 4. “One person, one vote.” If your first choice is eliminated, you shouldn’t get to reassign your vote.
EC wrote, “Counterpoint: If every person gets the same number of votes, isn’t that the important thing? Isn’t that the real point of the phrase?
No to both counterpoints. They are both extrapolations and bastardizations of the “one person, one vote” concept and I oppose bastardizations like that.
In my opinion, ranked choice voting is a complete bastardization of the one person, one vote rule and it should be illegal within the confines of the United States of America for all national elections that are to fill positions for both houses of Congress or for the President of the United States. If individual states want to use this kind of bastardized election rules for their own State or municipal offices, that’s their choice.
Also on #4…
EC wrote, “If the United States had started out with RCV, I can virtually guarantee that nobody would be demanding a switch to first-past-the-post.”
This is an absolutely unprovable assertion and 100% irrelevant.
Unprovable, yes. That’s why I said “virtually”. Irrelevant, no. I am asserting that opponents of ranked choice voting are likely experiencing status quo bias, and inviting people to reflect on that potential bias by considering whether they would consider first-past-the-post voting superior if ranked choice voting was already the status quo.
Extradimensional Cephalopod wrote, “Unprovable, yes. That’s why I said “virtually”. Irrelevant, no. I am asserting that opponents of ranked choice voting are likely experiencing status quo bias, and inviting people to reflect on that potential bias by considering whether they would consider first-past-the-post voting superior if ranked choice voting was already the status quo.”?
Well done EC, well done.
You’re asserting that your unprovable hypothetical theory is so true that it should be take seriously by everyone and they should question their core beliefs on the subject based on your unprovable hypothetical theory? Seriously EC, how arrogant; it’s almost as if you’re gaslighting with an intellectually dishonest fallacy. This kind of intellectually dishonest argumentation parallels what I’ve been hearing for years from the extreme apocalyptic climate change cult, I’m sure you know what I mean, argumentation like this, I can’t actually prove what I’m asserting but you should believe everything I say as if it’s fact and change your ways or you’re an imbecile.
Nope EC, I’m not buying your “argument”.
Did you ever consider that “one person, one vote” is not itself a fundamental principle, but rather a convention based on a fundamental principle of “fairness”, and that there may be other conventions which also satisfy the principle of “fairness”? Like, say, “one person, one ballot”?
You’re entitled to have an opinion. However, when you assert that opinion to me, in this context, I consider it immature if you beg the question instead of backing up your opinion with something.
As humans age their experiences tend to accumulate and calcify into axioms, unless they are wise enough to practice humility. In other words, humans who don’t grow mature over time will grow stale instead. And they wonder why the young people, unburdened by so many unnecessary and obsolete axioms, don’t consider them worth listening to.
Me, I’m an applied existentialist, so I like to just rederive everything from first principles when I need to. I don’t expect everyone to do it themselves, but I do expect people who don’t like how I do it to at least make an effort to locate the source of the problem, which I’m perfectly willing to support them in.
Extradimensional Cephalopod wrote, “Did you ever consider that “one person, one vote” is not itself a fundamental principle, but rather a convention based on a fundamental principle of “fairness”, and that there may be other conventions which also satisfy the principle of “fairness”? Like, say, “one person, one ballot”?”
That’s unadulterated gaslighting and a transparent bastardization.
Gaslighting: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Bastardize: change (something) in such a way as to lower its quality or value, typically by adding new elements.
Extradimensional Cephalopod wrote, “You’re entitled to have an opinion. However, when you assert that opinion to me, in this context, I consider it immature if you beg the question instead of backing up your opinion with something.”
Immature? Seriously EC, don’t you know how pompous that comes across? My response to your insult to my character is, bite me EC.
“One person, one vote” is self-evident and it’s been self-evident since long before you and I were born.
One person = not more than one person, period.
One vote = not more than one vote, period.
A grade school student gets this concept and you’re literally trying to bastardize it.
Personal Observation: I have observed for many years that these kinds of gaslighting and bastardization tactics are standard operating procedure for extreme “progressive” Democrats trying to manipulate opinion. It’s as if they’re being guided, behind the scenes, by pompous intellectual and unethical psychologists or psychiatrists.
Back in the day, it was considered “self-evident” that not all humans deserved the right to vote in the first place. It’s still “self-evident” to many people that the Earth is flat and that anyone who says otherwise is trying to deceive them for… personal gain? Somehow? Imagine what will be “self-evident” ten years from now.
What is “self-evident” to you could be literally anything depending on how you were raised and how much you take for granted. When two people disagree about something, that’s a sign that it might not be “self-evident” and that you should start looking at your actual reasoning for believing it.
(Alizia used to accuse me of “postmodernism” for calling her axioms into question. Her axioms were different from yours, though, so that means somebody’s axioms have to be called into question at some point. Otherwise the only way to decide whose ethical axioms are more ethical is to go to war and assume that your deity will tilt the board so that after much unnecessary bloodshed on both sides, whichever side is heretical will be all dead.)
What we ought to do might sometimes be easy to decide, but it’s never “self-evident”. It comes from two things: what the world is like, and what we want it to be like. Ethics is derived both from the kind of world we want to live in and from the one we’re living in now. Some aspects of ethics are not 100% objective, but other aspects are.
We want to live in a sustainable, empowered world, where people can trust each other. As we figure out how the world works, that tells us what we ought to do to get there. You don’t have to cling to what seems obvious to you for fear of all ethics disintegrating around you. Just because you don’t know how to decide right and wrong by reasoning it from first principles doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Ethics is still there when you let go of your assumptions. It’s just not hugging you tight like a blankie the way you’re used to.
If questioning your assumptions about what’s right and wrong feels like gaslighting to you, that means you’re using dogma as a crutch and pretending it’s wisdom and intelligence. “Gaslighting” means to deliberately influence a sane person to doubt their empirical observations about the world: their senses and their memories. It can also mean to get people to doubt their reasoning process by which they draw inferences and conclusions based on those observations, although it’s generally not a good idea to skip straight to accusations of gaslighting if someone raises the possibility you made a mistake. It’s better if people are just willing to double-check themselves. (That’s why I never bother to accuse anyone of trying to gaslight me. I just suspend my assumptions and apply epistemology. Anyone attempting to drive me insane is in for a frustrating time, because I derive sanity from scratch.)
“Gaslighting” is not about influencing people to doubt their beliefs about what ought be done. If you want to impugn my honor and intellectual integrity by accusing me of arguing in bad faith to promote something I secretly “know” to be unethical by convincing people to rationalize it, the word you’re looking for is “corruption”, as in “ethics corruptor”.
That said, I find it sad that the only way people know of to defend themselves against corruption is dogma, the refusal to question one’s beliefs. Not only does it come with a host of unnecessary problems, but one of those problems is that it makes people even more susceptible to corruption under certain circumstances. If the corruption can be justified in terms of dogma, nobody’s allowed to question it.
Another problem with dogma is that it stunts most people’s reasoning, because reasoning would inevitably threaten the dogma. I can recognize a Blinkered person when they are unwilling to acknowledge there’s a reasoning process from which their beliefs are derived. More advanced Blinkereds can fabricate a facsimile of reason, but it’s all based on assuming the conclusion, making up vacuous concepts to support it, and deflecting or dismissing questions that don’t lead to the “right” answer.
I can’t really blame them, because as I said, they don’t know of any other way to defend themselves. That’s why I’m working to empower people to move beyond dogma and other destructive tradeoffs, by helping them understand their values and why they’re important.
You mentioned Alizia in your comment and that immediately reminded me of a quote in a comment to Aliza from Jack from way back that I think appropriately applies to the totality of what you’ve written in our conversation here…
I think we’ve both said what we came here to say and going any further seems utterly futile; so, maybe it’s time we both just agree to disagree and move on.
…So you didn’t understand any of that? I though it was pretty straightforward. It’s basically just saying that people need to understand their own values instead of claiming that their moral righteousness is obvious. I suppose to someone pickled in their own perspective, all unfamiliar concepts appear as meaningless nonsense–even the most incisive ones.
I’m not saying people can’t be morally righteous, just that it’s not as easy as you seem to think. Human religions and philosophies have been fighting over what’s right for centuries. They mostly just kill each other without making any progress, because most of them are dogmatic. I offer humans an opportunity to be better than that.
If you ever get tired of people rejecting your political opinions, enough that you’re willing to rethink your assumptions about your own values and theirs, I’ll be around.
Now you’re just…
…I’m not biting.
I mean, you’re not wrong. I’m fishing for some intellectual humility, with your own pride on the line as bait. I can’t say that approach has ever worked for me with anyone I’ve tried it on, but it’s only a last-ditch effort anyway after the better ones fail. (I suppose I could go the Cromwell route, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken,” but I’m not a theist, and who talks about their deity’s intestines, anyway?)
In the future, I may still respond to you as an intellectual exercise, but at a certain point I’ll have to cut it off due to diminishing marginal returns on investment. There are things I can learn from you, but there are other people I could learn them from with less effort, and your points of view deserve to be represented by someone who makes a better case for them. That’s a decision I’ll have to get used to making, so I may as well start now.
We can totally test out RCV by applying it to future Awards shows like The Oscars, The Emmys, et al. Make it a true competition where voters can only nominate 1 actress from White Lotus though RCV and that winner goes up against the best actresses of other shows in another round of RCV.
Seriously though. We Americans love to vote on stuff, from Best Burger to Best Beer to Miss America and a People’s Choice of Entertainment. We can start to put RCV in play at any number of venues to start gaining support for the system. The fact that we don’t is indicative of our apathy to such things.
If we wanted to start having “logic” in our politics, we’d start with a mandatory membership fee and minimum voluntary service for affiliating to a political party. I may be registered with the Republican party, but I’ve never once campaigned, attended a campaign event, or given a dollar to any candidate. That makes me more of a RINO than anyone I can think of who maybe doesn’t toe the party line exactly.
That’s a good idea; right now the Forward Party is holding events where people sample various desserts or other subjective things and then vote on them, to demonstrate how the process works.
I tried to read that ballot and my eyes glazed over. I never tested higher than the mid to lower 90th percentile on standardized tests and I only amassed nineteen years of formal education, not including kindergarten in Mrs. Landry’s kindergarten class at St. Michael’s, but that ballot was way too complicated for me.
In short, I smell a rat. If butterfly ballots were too difficult for all the Democrat retirees in Broward and Palm Beach Counties in 2000, don’t tell me this stuff is just fine with the general populace. As Ann Althouse would say, “I call bullshit.”
Wait: Rats, butterflies and bullshit all smell alike? I did not know that!
I think it’s time we try out the one person, multiple votes system. Mark a check next to every person you would find acceptable in the position. Person with the most marks wins. Quick, simple, and absolutely nobody would be happy with it: a true compromise.
I think the argument about ranked voting ends with point 1. The inability of the electorate to comprehend any voting system is highly underestimated. I am a one-person, one-vote guy but I go further I feel the voter should write the name of the person he wishes to vote for. That would at least reveal some degree of involvement with the election process. These fill-in-the-bubble forms require no preelection education and that is detrimental. Many post-election polls have shown that voters don’t know the name of the officeholders they presumably voted for. Heck, I have seen some on-the-street interviewers ask simple questions like “What happened on JULY 4? Who won the civil war? These fundamental questions, and others, were received with flummoxed looks.
I would rather see an informed electorate than a large electorate.
I’m not sure people’s penmanship is good enough to have them write the names, but I like the sentiment behind the idea.
The main problem with tests for allowing people to vote is that humans have proven able and willing to corrupt those tests in order to disempower people from voting, rather than working with communities to empower people to pass the tests. If we’re going to empower voters to be informed anyway, we may as well skip the part where we make the system more vulnerable to corruption by filtering who gets to vote.
All people really need is to be able to recognize effectiveness versus the appearance of effectiveness. Voters just have to be a competent jury to the politicians’ lawyers. Politicians may not be bound by a code of ethics, but the benefit is there’s no limit to the number of people who can call them out and propose constructive alternatives to their ideas.
(No matter what anyone may tell you, it’s not “self-evident” that everyone has the right to vote. That cheapens the actual reasons why we might consider it beneficial to make the right to vote unconditional. It also raises the question of why it’s “self-evident” to exclude people currently serving a sentence for a crime of which they have been duly convicted in a court of law. Not saying it’s an inherently bad idea; just saying it needs to be explained.)
DanL wrote, “I am a one-person, one-vote guy but I go further I feel the voter should write the name of the person he wishes to vote for. That would at least reveal some degree of involvement with the election process.”
Extradimensional Cephalopod wrote, “I’m not sure people’s penmanship is good enough to have them write the names, but I like the sentiment behind the idea.”
More good points.
I agree with all this but it’s a great idea that won’t work in a real world application in the United States of America with our Constitution. Great idea that’s not practical.
By the way, here’s an article that explains better than I did how Alaska shows the benefits of ranked choice voting: https://scottsantens.substack.com/p/what-alaskas-first-use-of-ranked