Alternative Voting Systems

November 11th, 2006

By Zeke Wright

In the coming midterm elections, typical Joe American will go to his local town hall, school gymnasium or library, choose between one, two or perhaps three candidates for each office and then go home with the smug satisfaction of having once more fulfilled his civic duty. He will hopefully have scrutinized the candidates and their politics, but most likely, he will have given little thought to the process of voting itself.

The idea of “one man, one vote” is an endearingly simple one and seems to naturally lead to the sort of voting system that we use in the United States. All government elections in the U.S. are single-winner elections, meaning that we’re voting for single candidates (and not parties, for instance). One of the terms used to describe our system is “plurality,” or “first past the post.” It’s an analogy to horse racing, in that whoever first passes the post – in this case getting a plurality, or the largest share of votes – wins. In an election with five candidates, the candidate with 21 percent of the vote can win should everyone else each receive a hair under that.

And so we immediately come to the first problem in our election method – the majority of voters might not approve of the winner. This issue is exemplified in the old, tired “Nader spoiler effect.” In the past two presidential elections, many chastised Ralph Nader for running because of the possibility that he’d split the Democratic vote, causing the Republicans to win. Even if “conservative thought” was a minority in the U.S., it would still win the presidency. Conversely, in 1996 Ross Perot may have split the Republican vote, handing Bill Clinton the victory.

The problem with plurality is the rise of strategic voting – voting based not on actual preference, but on preventing a “worst case” outcome – and the disproportionately small influence of third parties and independent thought. These are commonly voiced problems in our vernacular. Voting for a third party is a “waste of your vote,” and we always end up choosing between the “lesser of two evils.”

Strategic voting and a bare minimum of choice (two) undermine the democratic nature of our entire political system. Few see it as ideal, but what’s the alternative? Is there any other way to vote? If you’ve ever spent two seconds on a website like hotornot.com, then you already know the answer.

Hotornot.com is key to understanding alternative voting systems, because it’s a perfect illustration of one. For those feigning no experience with such sites, lonely, narcissistic individuals first upload photos of themselves, then visitors rank the photos with a 1-10 scale (10 being super hot, I suppose). After thousands of votes, we get a clear picture of who is hot and who is decidedly not. Averaging the votes shows us whom is appreciated the most (or, for amusement purposes, least).

This is a rating system of voting. Rating systems remedy many of the problems discussed earlier with plurality. Joe American can now vote for whom he truly supports. He can give high ratings to those he identifies with, middling ratings to candidates or parties he partly agrees with and low ratings to those he diametrically opposes. No votes wasted, no ethics compromised and everyone walks away happy.

Another broad category is ranking systems, the most prominent of which is instant runoff voting (IRV). Here, as you might have already guessed, our faithful voter goes to the polls and ranks candidates from best to worst. In IRV, if no candidate gets a majority of first place votes, then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is dropped. For those people who voted for that least-favored candidate, their second choice is then figured into the results. This continues until a single candidate has a majority of the vote. IRV is used in several municipalities across the U.S., as well as Ireland and Australia.
There are many other ranking schemes, such as Borda, in which you’re essentially giving points to candidates when ranking them. There are probably as many different types of voting systems as there are places to use them, but people who get their jollies out of discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each are few and far between. (I’m one, so chances are you aren’t.)

If we accept that plurality is a flawed system, the burning question now becomes, “why doesn’t the U.S. explore alternatives?” Donald Beachler, associate professor of politics at Ithaca College, says that reform will always be difficult when we have incumbents comfortable with the system. The main opposition comes from Republicans and Democrats, who in effect have a monopoly. Nobody with a monopoly ever wants to concede their power.

Or do they? Warren D. Smith, founder of the Center for Range Voting (CRV), contends that the best chance for widespread adoption of an alternative system would be in place (in Iowa), and – most importantly – the new system would be shown to work (or at least not fail). It’d be a “big publicity boost and a lot of practical experience,” says Smith.

Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. Smith says that if his organization gets 1,000 endorsements via the CRV website, it’ll be enough to garner attention from top party officials. Currently the website shows only 29 endorsements. Still, Smith and CRV’s strategy is interesting.

Beachler, for his part, believes that beginning at the local level is the most viable way to getting alternative voting systems into use. He says that it needs to be “raised as an issue … [in a] highly politicized population.”

He cites Ithaca as a model for potential adoption. The efforts of a group like the CRV could find success much more readily on a small scale.

This is an opinion echoed by many and that seems to hold true – communities in the U.S. currently using IRV include Boulder, Colorado, San Francisco and Berkley, California and Burlington, Vermont. However, the problem now becomes expanding its use. Using IRV to vote for county coroner is nice, but trivial.

In addition to opposition from the two dominant parties, alternative voting systems also face other obstacles. As Beachler says, it’s a hard issue to explain to the public. In a political environment dominated by the 30-second TV ad, the question becomes how to explain the issue succinctly – how to show people that a different form of voting opens up new opportunities for them in the political process.

This isn’t an easy task. Also, voting methodology may not seem especially relevant in the face of more pressing concerns like healthcare or the war in Iraq.

One often cited obstacle against alternative voting systems – the idea that the change would simply confuse people – doesn’t hold water. This is only a problem, says Beachler, “if you want to make the assumption that Americans are stupider than Australians, the Irish [or] the French.” The obstacle is getting the new system in place; once it’s in, voters will be able to adjust. After all, how many people are confused at the notion of ranking photos on hotornot.com?

Despite the hurdles, there are encouraging signs. There are two bills currently in the New York State Assembly concerning IRV, drafted by assemblyman Fred Thiele. Steve Abramson, director of Citizens for Instant Runoff Voting in New York State, had a hand in drafting both. Neither has broken out of committee.

Another promising move comes in the form of a statewide mandate to upgrade New York’s voting machines. The impetus of this was the 2000 debacle, which showcased the nation’s inadequate voting equipment. Many counties in New York still use mechanical lever votingmachines, which according to Abramson are “increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain and repair” (as well as horribly inaccurate).

The replacements are mostly electronic. And, as Abramson states, any computerized equipment that runs software is capable of handling ranked ballots. Should IRV or another system be considered in the future, the incompatiblility of our voting machines is one issue that would be averted. Simply code new software. [Editor’s Note: See Greg Ryan’s article on pg. 10 to learn about problems with electronic voting machines.]

Abramson’s NYSIRV is “strictly an information site on the web.” Still, they’ve made
presentations to the New York State HAVA (Help America Vote Act) Commission and an election commission in New York City established by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Voting methodology is being reconsidered,” Abramson says.

It certainly seems so. Recent Democratic nominee for New York State Attorney General Mark Green is a firm supporter of IRV. The internet continues to serve as a clearinghouse of information on voting reform, and the exposure of many of these organizations is on the rise. The possibility of reform is still distant, but perhaps closer than it has been before.

Zeke Wright is a senior politics and writing major who enjoys voting for himself on HotOrNot.com. Email him at ewright1[at]ithaca.edu.

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