Fed up with the lack of resources that show the problems with RCV and the benefits of Score without being written by PhDs for PhDs (that’s scorevoting.net), I decided to write my own blog post…
…except that I feel like I went on too long and it may still be too long for an average person to understand (; didn’t read).
(The bolded colors in the election examples are rendered in their own color, with a black background on yellow, but it does not show on the forum.)
This one is directed at people who know of RCV already.
Voting Reform: Tricks and TrapsIf you live in the US, chances are you probably at some point thought that the government is broken. Politicians lie, lobbyists buy off Congress, no one can agree... But perhaps you heard about people wanting to change the system to make it better. For example, the organization "RepresentUs" posted a video about a strategy to break down corruption here. Almost everything in the video is spot-on, but there is one mistake that could undermine the benefits.
That one mistake occurs at 5:48: "Create ranked choice voting so third parties and independents can run and win." Unfortunately, this bold claim does not hold up to scrutiny. They are correct that our current voting rule, where you name one candidate only, is problematic, but ranked choice voting (RCV) suffers from many of the same problems.
For those who have never heard of RCV, the system goes as follows: When you vote, instead of naming one person, you list the candidates in order of preference. For example, you may vote:
(Usually, you are not forced to rank every candidate.) Initially, your vote only counts for Alice. The first-place votes are counted up, and the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Anyone who voted for that candidate gets their vote transferred to their second choice (or the next choice that is still in). So if Alice dropped, your vote goes to Bob. (If Bob had already dropped, your vote goes directly to Carol, and so on.) This continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of the votes.
- Alice Ideal
- Bob Good
- Carol Meh
- Dave Otherparty
- Evil N. Corrupt
(The name "instant runoff voting" has also been used to refer to RCV, because RCV simulates a series of runoff rounds, while only requiring one physical election.)
This may seem like a pretty good system. Supporters claim that the use of RCV will:
Do not get me wrong. Those are all massive defects with the current system. My point in this blogpost is that RCV also falls into those four traps (although perhaps less often). There exist other reforms like Approval Voting and STAR Voting that do much better, but I am getting ahead of myself.
- Elects a true majority winner (as opposed to in our current system, where in a five-candidate race, Bob may win with 21% of the vote).
- Prevent the "spoiler effect" where a minor party draws votes away from a frontrunner and flips the result.
- Discourage "tactical voting", because voting your true favorite is supposedly always safe because your vote will transfer to your favorite frontrunner.
- Allow third parties and independents to win.
RCV ExampleBefore we begin: I am using small elections (3-4 candidates) to make it easier to see what is going on. However, these problems largely persist with more candidates. More evidence is given at the end of this section.
Suppose that a town has been dominated for decades by the Purple Party and the Orange Party. The Oranges generally win the mayor's office 55-45, but occasionally an independent shows up, steals votes from Orange, and Purple wins.
One day, the town decides to switch to Ranked Choice Voting. They send out papers showing people how to use the new system, and encourage third parties to run. The Yellow Party runs as a stronger version of the so-called "dull" Orange Party, and the votes come in...
45% vote Purple, 35% vote Orange, 20% vote Yellow.
Yellow is eliminated, but their voters all put Orange second, and Orange wins 55-45. Spoiler averted! So what is the problem?
Well, the Yellow Party is not interested in getting 20% every time. (That would not solve the problem of two-party domination.) They decide to push harder next election, and hopefully try to win.
40% vote Purple. (Their second choices are irrelevant.)
28% vote Orange:
14% voted Yellow second.
8% voted Purple second. *
6% gave no second choice. **
32% vote Yellow:
26% voted Orange second.
*These voters are swing voters who faced a close decision between the main rivals. Yellow was regarded as too extreme.
**These voters did not care too much about politics but liked the Orange Party and simply voted for that party. Both of these two categories of voters will exist in real elections, even though giving a second choice cannot hurt Orange.
OK, so there is a lot more going on here. (RCV is not simple to count once there are more than two competitive candidates.) But Orange drops out. The second round looks like:
Purple: 48% (40 first-ranks, and 8 from Orange transfers)
Yellow: 46% (32 first-ranks, and 14 from Orange transfers)
...Purple won? Wait a second. I thought RCV was supposed to eliminate spoilers! The truth is, RCV only partially solves the spoiler problem. It is true that RCV is immune to "perfect" vote-splitting (where two or more candidates split votes entirely amongst themselves). However, in this case, there were some moderate Orange voters who may have been deciding between Orange and Purple, but thought Yellow was too extreme and ranked Yellow last. In real elections, "perfect" vote splitting will almost never occur.
Let's look at that election in more detail:
OK, so this tears RCV to shreds. Except perhaps you feel like the last point is not sufficient. Yellow was too extreme to win; perhaps a centrist who draws votes from both parties will fare better. In fact, that is what the Red Party decides. They mount a campaign that is between Purple and Orange. Then Crimson, an independent moderate, decides to join in as well. We have the following:
- RCV did not elect a majority winner for two reasons:
- Purple won with 48% of the vote, because some Orange voters neglected to give a second ranking. (These voters probably only care about the Orange Party, and neglected to research the other two candidates. This will happen.
- Orange would have defeated either Purple or Yellow in a head-to-head race. Orange only lost because of not having enough first-place votes.
- Yellow was a "spoiler", because Yellow knocked Orange out of the race too early. Yellow was not strong enough to beat Purple, and lost the second round.
- In particular, note that Yellow's votes never transferred to their second choice. Every single Yellow voter specifically wrote that Orange was the second choice. None of those second choices were counted; however, Orange voters' second choices were counted. (Seems unfair? That's the spirit.)
- Yellow is never going to be able to defeat Purple. After this election, Yellow voters will tactically rank Orange first, for fear of another disaster.
- In this case, the third party was thwarted, and voters will return to two party domination.
2500 vote Purple.
1999 vote Red.
2001 vote Crimson.
3500 vote Orange.
The apparent tie is broken after days of checking, recounting, and hand-counting again. (The problem of ties is intensified under RCV because there are more rounds and probably more candidates.) Red drops by two votes, and her votes transfer all over the place. The second round looks like this:
(Another near-tie? Murphy's law...) Unfortunately, Crimson still does not make the cut. This is called the "center squeeze" effect. Presumably, many Purple and Orange voters put the moderates second and third. But in general, moderates have a hard time getting first-place support by the very nature of being a moderate: they tend to gather many second ranks, but those mean nothing unless they get enough first-ranks to upset a major party.
RCV's selling points, like the stereotypical telemarketer, do not hold water. However, all is not lost. RCV is only one of many ways to fix our voting system, and there are three that look more promising.
If you think 3-4 candidates are not enough to get a full picture, I have some evidence here:
What actually does work?There is one big flaw with ranking candidates: it lets you state your preference for Alice over Bob, but not how much you prefer Alice over Bob (compared to, say, Bob over Carol). However, a system involving ratings, say, from 0 to 10 allows you to vote something like:
(If Bob and Dave were frontrunners, you may be tempted to vote them 10 and 0 instead. However, once the minor parties pick up steam, this will stop being necessary.)
- Alice = 10
- Bob = 8
- Carol = 5
- Dave = 1
- Evil = 0
In fact, we just came across one of the main proposals, known as "Score Voting". Score Voting just elects the candidate with the highest total score. This system treats every candidate independently, which means it truly eliminates spoiler problems. It also allows third parties to grow without affecting the major parties at all (until they win, of course).
For example, in the color election from earlier, voters may vote something like
Purple voters, in the meantime, may vote
- Yellow = 10
- Orange = 10
- Red = 6
- Crimson = 4
- Purple = 0
(Some people have argued that people who give out more points have "more power" than those who do not. The first voter gave out 30 points and the second gave out 20. However, these two votes canceled each other out. This means that neither one can have "more power" than the other!)
- Purple = 10
- Crimson = 6
- Red = 4
- Orange = 0
- Yellow = 0
And even if Orange ends up winning in the end, the minor parties are now a force to be reckoned with. The town newspaper will start featuring them more often, and eventually they will win.
(By the way: Score voting can be proved to eliminate spoilers, so it truly is safe to put your favorite first.)
But there are others...One criticism of Score Voting is that it can degenerate into people voting only max and min and not using the middle of the scale. They advocate for a slight tweak to the Score rules to a new system called "STAR voting", which stands for Score Then Automatic Runoff.
With STAR, the two candidates with the most points are declared "finalists". The candidate scored higher on more ballots wins. (So if you score Alice 3 and Bob 2, and those are the top two, then your vote counts as a full Alice vote in the artificial runoff.)
Although I prefer plain Score due to simplicity, STAR should also break two-party domination. (Unlike RCV, STAR allows candidates to "grow in the shadows" like Score, and if many alternative candidates run, the chances are high that two will make the runoff.)
With some clever engineering, Score Voting can be counted on existing voting machines. (STAR may work, but it is trickier.)
Another method that has been proposed is Approval Voting, which is basically just Score but with only two levels (Approve and Disapprove). Approval is nice because the ballot looks like the current one, but it is less expressive than Score. (Approval can be used as a stepping stone to Score if a particular district has trouble switching.)
Score voting and STAR voting should also reduce the influence of money "naturally" (as opposed to laws specifically designed to do so), because of the wide array of candidates. Multiple candidates from the same party can run, and if one is evil and corrupt, the voters can give that one a 0 and their party still has a chance to win.
If you would like to research further, here are some links:
Equal Vote Coalition: www.equal.vote (promotes STAR voting)
Center for Election Science: www.electionscience.org (promotes Approval, supports Score but not as prominently)
The website www.scorevoting.net is a somewhat detailed and somewhat outdated website explaining the flaws with RCV (called IRV) and the benefits of Score Voting.
SummaryRanked Choice Voting is a false cure. The problems it claims to solve are real and serious, but RCV is not the answer. Score Voting and STAR Voting are better ways of ending two-party domination and reducing corruption.