Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Myths about Voting Rights and IRV (and STV)

Instant runoff voting and its related multi-seat, proportional voting variant cakked "choice voting" (also called "single transferable vote" or STV) do not remove voter rights that exist in current U.S. elections. Here are point by point responses to those who have argued otherwise.

Myth #1 "IRV/STV remove the right cast a vote with a positive effect on a candidate’s chances of winning."

Truth: With IRV, your decision to vote and rank a candidate first can never in itself harm that candidate's chances of winning. This myth refers to the voting theory concept of "non-monotonicity." As in any runoff election system (whether instant or traditional) that winnows candidates between rounds, there is a theoretical possibility that a better way to help your candidate win ("have a positive effect") might be to vote in the first round for a weak opponent rather than your favorite candidate. If you're certain that your favorite candidate will advance to the final runoff round without your vote, you can vote for the weaker opponent so that your favorite will face this weak opponent instead of a stronger opponent in the final round, and thus help your favorite in the ultimate runoff round.

Note that this dynamic exists in traditional runoff elections, as used to elect many American officeholders, and to elect most presidents around the world. Variations of this dynamic also exist in elections with a primary and general election, as nearly universally used in the United States for partisan offices. It also exists with IRV, but to a lesser extent because a voter can't strategically change his or her ballot between rounds of counting.

Given that most elections in the United States are subject to this same theoretical strategy, it is simply wrong to say that IRV removes an existing voter right in this regard. Furthermore, because voters need accurate information on how other voters are likely to vote in order to utilize this theoretical strategy, combined with its counter-intuitive nature and great risk of back-firing, its significance is questionable. There is no evidence that this non-monotonicity dynamic has ever played a strategic role in a single one of thousands of public IRV elections.

Exploiting this non-monotonic possibility is more plausible in a traditional two-election runoff system. In runoffs with two rounds of voting, this is a risky strategy, but relatively safer compared to IRV, because you can move your vote back to your true favorite in the final round (if your favorite makes it into the final round). It is much more difficult in an instant runoff with a single ballot where insincere votes will stay with the competitor, and thus can back-fire.

Also, it is important to understand that any voting method that satisfies the monotonicity criterion in every situation must also fail the later-no-harm criterion (where indicating support for an additional candidate may cause your favorite candidate to lose). Unlike non-monotonicity, the later-no-harm criterion has a direct impact on actual voter behavior, with voters "bullet-voting" for a favorite rather than risk hurting this candidate by indicating their sincere second choice -- and those that do so getting a big advantage for their favorite candidate over those who just follow the ballot instructions. As with all evaluation criterion, there is a trade-off, but IRV strikes a favorable balance and can be advocated with confidence.

Myth #2 "IRV/STV removes the right to participate in the final decision of who wins the election by eliminating voters’ ballots prior to the final counting round. The more candidates, the more voters are eliminated prior to the final counting round."

Truth: Every voter has the right to participate in the final decision of who wins the election. Some voters will, of course have their votes count for a losing candidate. Under standard IRV and STV rules every voter has the same right to have their vote counted in every round of the tally.

This myth would appear to refer to the possibility that a voter may choose to not rank either of the two final candidates, and thus abstain from the final tally (voting for neither of them).

In addition, there are some implementations of IRV where, due to limitations of voting equipment, voters are limited to no more than three rankings. In these specific situations, and when there are many candidates, it is possible that a voter may not have ranked either of the finalists, but would have, given more ranking opportunities. These voters' ballots are said to be "exhausted" because they are stuck with a losing candidate. This issue lead to a federal court challenge in San Francisco in 2010. But the court rejected the complaint and upheld IRV.

The fact is that under plurality elections all of the voters who do not vote for a winning candidate likewise have their ballot stuck (exhausted) with a losing candidate. So, IRV, even in a case where voters are limited to three rankings, only IMPROVES the chances all voters have to have their ballot count, compared to plurality elections. Even in traditional runoff elections, all voters who voted for any of the candidates other than the top two, effectively get no say over which candidates advance to the final round, whereas with IRV, many of these voters have their ballots transferred to alternate choices and can help determine which two candidates make it to the final round. Thus, it is quite misleading to suggest IRV or STV take away a voter right in this regard.

Myth #3 "IRV/STV removes the right to have one’s votes counted equally and fairly with all other voters’ votes because only voters supporting the least popular candidates as their 1st choice are assured of having their 2nd choice candidate counted when their 1st choice candidate looses."

Truth: Every voter's vote is treated equally under IRV and STV. This myth suggests that a voter supporting a leading candidate would want to have the "right" to have her ballot count for her second choice, possibly defeating her first choice candidate. This would not be a "right," but rather a defect in the voting rules that would violate the Later-No-Harm voting criterion. The beauty of IRV and STV is that the alternate rankings are treated as contingencies rather than as simultaneous votes. A voter's ballot only counts for an alternate choice if that voter's more preferred candidate is out of the running. All voters' ballots are treated the same under this rule.

In a Michigan case where IRV was upheld by the court, the court decision stated:

"In the final analysis, no voter is given greater weight in his or her vote over the vote of another voter, although to understand this does require a conceptual understanding of how the effect of a '[IRV] System' is like that of a run-off election. The form of majority preferential voting employed in the City of Ann Arbor's election of its Mayor does not violate the one-man, one-vote mandate nor does it deprive anyone of equal protection rights under the Michigan or United States Constitutions."

In the 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court case unanimously upholding IRV the court decision stated:

"Nor does the system of counting subsequent choices of voters for eliminated candidates unequally weight votes. Every voter has the same opportunity to rank candidates when she casts her ballot, and in each round every voter's vote carries the same value."

Myth #4 "In comparison with top-two runoff elections, IRV/STV remove the right to elect majority winners. San Francisco had to eliminate its legal right to elect majority winners when it adopted IRV/STV because STV routinely elects winners with far less than 50% of the votes."

Truth: IRV elects majority winners according to the same logic of traditional two-round runoff elections, be reducing the field to two finalists, and electing the one with a majority of votes among the voters expressing their preference between these two.

This myth is based on using different standards to compute majorities under IRV and traditional runoffs.

These IRV opponents argue that there is a failure to produce a "real" majority under IRV because they use the total number of votes in the first round to compute a majority, not the total number of votes cast in the instant runoff. Sometimes the number of exhausted ballots - that is, ballots that don't rank any of the remaining candidates in the final instant runoff - is greater than the final margin between the top two candidates.

The mayoral election in Burlington (VT) in 2009 is used as an example of this "failure." In the first round of that election, the results were:

Kurt Wright 2,951
Bob Kiss 2,585
Andy Montroll 2,063
Dan Smith 1,306
Write-ins 36
James Simpson 35
(With four invalid ballots, three of which were found to be valid in a partial recount.)

In the final result of the election, the results were:

Bob Kiss 4,313
Kurt Wright 4,061
(with 602 exhausted ballots and the 4 invalid ballots)

IRV opponents argue that although Kiss won a majority of the valid ballots in the final round of voting, he failed to win a "real" majority because his final round votes were only 48% of the votes case in the first round.

IRV advocates point out that the result was due to some voters exercising their option to abstain from a choice between the two finalists - just as many registered voters abstained from voting in the first place. That doesn't change the fact that the winner Bob Kiss earned majority support from voters who chose to indicate a preference for either him or Kurt Wright.

Australia avoids this possible outcome by requiring voters to rank all candidates in its IRV races for the House of Representatives. That's certainly an option for those who want this definition of a majority, and it does ensure the voters take the time to indicate their last choice along with their first choice. But if eligible voters have the right to skip voting altogether, some will argue that they have the right to skip ranking candidates they don't like.

But it's not fair to say indicate that a traditional runoff produces a "real" majority due to only using the total number of votes in the runoff round to calculate a majority. By this argument, Vincent Dober won a "real" majority in the March 2009 Burlington's City Council Ward 7 election even though he received considerably fewer votes in the second round of the runoff election than the first:

Round 1:
Ellie Blais 461
Vincent Dober 612
Eli Lesser-Goldsmith 619
Write-ins 4

Round 2
Vincent Dober 515
Eli-Lesser Goldsmith 425

Under the standards that IRV opponents apply to IRV, we would use the first round totals to compute a majority, and Dober in the runoff would have secured only 30% of the vote - a considerably worse majority "failure" than in the Mayoral election held at the same time with IRV. IRV opponents can't have it both ways. Either Bob Kiss and Vincent Dober both won majorities or neither of them did.

A more consistent standard to compare IRV and traditional runoffs would be to look at the decline in turnout from the first round to the last. In the Mayoral election under IRV, 93% of the voters who cast a ballot in the first round ended up participating in the final round. In the City Council election under a traditional runoff, only 55% of the voters who cast a ballot in the first round ended up participating in the second round.

Another revealing example is the 2008 U.S. Senate election in Georgia. Incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss won re-election in a December runoff after falling short of a majority in November. Turnout in the second round was only 57% of the first round in spite of the fact that a Democratic filibuster-proof majority was at stake in the Senate.

First round:
Saxby Chambliss 1,867,097
Jim Martin 1,757,393
Allen Buckley 127,923
Write-ins 72
Total 3,752,577

Second round:
Saxby Chambliss 1,228,033
Jim Martin 909,923
Total 2,137,956

If this election was held under IRV, the number of ballots cast for the final round would have been at least 96.6% of the first round total. It would likely have been higher, as most of Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley's supporters probably would have indicated a second preference. Even if Buckley won a far larger share of the vote and none of his supporters cast votes for their second choice, it would have been mathematically impossible for final round votes to be only 57% of the first round total as under a traditional runoff.

To be fair, it is possible for second round turnout to exceed that of the first round under a traditional runoff -- and every now and then it happens. However, large declines in turnout seem to be the norm under traditional runoffs --- sometimes dramatically so, with turnout falling on the order of ten times in statewide runoffs in Texas and North Carolina in 2008. The strongest evidence for large declines in participation from the first to the second rounds of traditional runoffs come from federal primary runoffs. From 1994 to 2008, turnout declined in 113 of 116 regularly scheduled federal primary runoffs, and the average decline was about 35% -- see FairVote's data on these runoffs.

Bottom line: you can't make a majority of voters like one of the candidates running. But you can enact IRV to make sure you always elect the candidate who has majority support over his or her top opponent in the final round and to ensure the defeat of the candidate whom a majority of voters see as their last choice - a result that plurality voting makes all too possible.

Myth #5 "IRV/STV remove the right to a transparent, verifiable election process with a decentralized, simple counting process that can be easily manually counted and audited."

Truth: IRV and STV elections can enhance election transparency and integrity, and are manually audited routinely. IRV elections for the national president of Ireland are manually counted at decentralized counting centers, though a centralized count is also possible. The count can be done manually as well as by computer.

Because ranked ballot optical scanners capture individual ballot records (rather than just running totals), they can add a higher level of security and fraud detection than paper-only elections. It is the redundancy of ballot records (both paper and computer), made possible by the new generation of optical scanners, that makes fraud so much more difficult to accomplish and easy to detect (the perpetrator needs to utilize two distinctly different strategies using different kinds of resources and overcoming different kinds of security measures to change BOTH records, to get away with it.)

The procedure for manually auditing a ranked-choice ballot election is a little more involved than a typical plurality election. There are two elements to such an audit: confirming that the machine record of ballot rankings matches the rankings marked on the paper ballots, and confirming that the IRV vote tallying procedure was properly done. To audit the ballot rankings, a random sample of voting machines are selected. San Francisco compares the total number of each ranking reported by the machine to the total number of each ranking manually counted on the same sample of paper ballots. A better method is to print a list of each ranking combination (such as 23 ballots ranked the candidates in order: candidate B, candidate A, candidate D, candidate C) and then looking at each ballot in the sample and checking off each corresponding ballot type on the list, until every ballot has been looked at and every ballot ranking on the list is checked off. There are several ways too confirm the IRV tallying algorithm. San Francisco runs the software again for the sample of ballots only, while also doing a manual IRV tally with the paper ballots, to confirm the results match. A better procedure is to run an IRV tally of all ballot data using different means (such as independent software, or just a basic spreadsheet program). Cities such as Burlington (VT) and San Francisco (CA) post all of the ballot records on the Internet so that anybody who wishes can double check the tally on their own as well. This creates greater integrity than is typical of any customary election audit. For more on this topic visit:

Myth #6 "IRV/STV gives voters of the least popular candidates the most power to decide which candidates are eliminated, counting their 2nd choices first, [so] IRV/STV tend to elect extreme right or extreme left candidates, eliminating centrist majority-favorites."

Truth: Current plurality voting is more likely to elect "off-center" candidates than is IRV. In a plurality election with several candidates, a candidate does not need any support beyond his or her ideological core supporters to get the "most" votes - even if that is a relatively small percentage of the voters. With IRV, a candidate must be able to garner both strong core support and broad appeal in order to win. As with any runoff system, IRV will elect whichever of the two finalist candidates is most preferred by voters. With over 80 years of use in Australian elections for the House of Representatives, IRV has proven that extremists are not benefited by IRV.

STV is form of proportional representation, and thus will assure that the majority of a representative body will be elected by the majority of voters, the body will also include a number of minority winners proportionate to their support in the electorate. This respects the principle that the majority have the right to govern but that all voters have the right top representation.