A ballot at a polling place

How can we build a bet­ter bal­lot and make vot­ing a more sat­is­fy­ing expe­ri­ence?

This is a ques­tion that pro­gres­sive activists and orga­ni­za­tions have been ask­ing for a long time, but with height­ened inter­est fol­low­ing the Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Bush v. Gore, the 2010 vic­to­ry of mil­i­tant Repub­li­can guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Paul LeP­age in Maine, and Don­ald Trump’s 2016 Elec­toral Col­lege win.

Each of those elec­tions demon­strat­ed the weak­ness of the plu­ral­i­ty vot­ing sys­tem we have tra­di­tion­al­ly used here in the Unit­ed States, which is some­times called first past the post (FPTP for short, an allu­sion to rac­ing) or win­ner take all. This sys­tem requires vot­ers to mark a bal­lot for just one candidate.

The can­di­date who receives the most votes for each posi­tion being vot­ed on then becomes the win­ner — even if they haven’t received major­i­ty support.

In a first past the post elec­tion where there are more than two can­di­dates com­pet­ing for votes, it is pos­si­ble for two good can­di­dates to siphon votes from each oth­er, allow­ing a bad third can­di­date to swoop in and emerge victorious.

This is called the spoil­er effect, and, as men­tioned, this egre­gious defect has reared its ugly head in numer­ous high pro­file elec­tions in the past few years.

In part to address the spoil­er effect, many elec­tion reform advo­cates are call­ing for the adop­tion of an a dif­fer­ent vot­ing sys­tem known as ranked choice.

Tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, there are mul­ti­ple ways to imple­ment ranked choice vot­ing, so that term can refer to more than one alter­na­tive vot­ing sys­tem. How­ev­er, most dis­cus­sions of ranked choice vot­ing equate that term with instant runoff vot­ing, or IRV, so IRV is the imple­men­ta­tion that we will pro­ceed to dis­cuss in this post.

As implied by the name, all ranked choice sys­tems afford vot­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to rank the can­di­dates who appear on the bal­lot in a giv­en order.

With IRV, if no can­di­date receives a major­i­ty, then the top vote get­ting can­di­dates each instant­ly advance while can­di­dates receiv­ing the fewest votes are elim­i­nat­ed and their votes redis­trib­uted in order to deter­mine a winner.

Pro­po­nents of IRV, like the nation­al orga­ni­za­tion Fair­Vote, claim that this sys­tem “helps elect a can­di­date that bet­ter reflects the sup­port of a major­i­ty of vot­ers” and “helps to more fair­ly rep­re­sent the full spec­trum of voters.”

But what instant runoff mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als won’t tell you is that IRV hap­pens to have a major glitch of its own: it’s actu­al­ly pos­si­ble, a frac­tion of the time, for a can­di­date to lose an elec­tion by becom­ing more popular.

The eas­i­est way to explain this defect is to show it to you.

Below is a sim­u­la­tion cre­at­ed by Nicky Case which shows an imag­i­nary can­di­date going from being on the verge of win­ning to instead los­ing… by becom­ing more pop­u­lar with vot­ers. In the sim­u­la­tion, can­di­date Tra­cy Tri­an­gle is ini­tial­ly win­ning as vot­ers shift towards Tra­cy and away from fel­low can­di­date Steven Square.

But as the video shows, as vot­ers con­tin­ue to move clos­er to Tra­cy,  there comes a point where Tra­cy ends up in a runoff with Hen­ry Hexa­gon… and los­es.

“How often does this actu­al­ly hap­pen in real life?” Case asks rhetor­i­cal­ly, pro­vid­ing the fol­low­ing answer: “There’s a cou­ple con­firmed exam­ples, and math­e­mati­cians esti­mate this glitch would hap­pen about 14.5% of the time. But sad­ly, we can’t know for sure, because gov­ern­ments usu­al­ly don’t release enough info about the bal­lots to recon­struct an IRV elec­tion & dou­ble-check the results.”

“So, not only is Instant Runof­f’s glitch as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic as First Past The Post’s glitch, it’s pos­si­bly worse – because while FPT­P’s count­ing method is sim­ple and trans­par­ent, Instant Runoff is any­thing but. And a lack of trans­paren­cy is an even dead­lier sin nowa­days, when our trust in gov­ern­ment is already so low.”

In Wash­ing­ton, the Leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a pair of bills that would explic­it­ly autho­rize local gov­ern­ments to adopt instant runoff voting.

One of these is Mia Gregerson­’s HB 1722. There is a Sen­ate com­pan­ion, SB 5708, spon­sored by Guy Palum­bo. HB 1722 was heard today in the House State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee and is sched­uled for exec­u­tive ses­sion on Feb­ru­ary 22nd.

It may not reach Gov­er­nor Inslee’s desk, but it is cer­tain­ly spark­ing interest.

There is a risk of vot­er con­fu­sion with these bills. If this leg­is­la­tion were to be imple­ment­ed, then we’d like­ly soon see a very com­pli­cat­ed bal­lot with plu­ral­i­ty vot­ing being used in some races and instant runoff being used in oth­er races.

That’s because these bills do not man­date a tran­si­tion to instant runoff vot­ing; they only make it an option for cities, coun­ties, and oth­er local governments.

NPI whole­heart­ed­ly agrees that we should work on aban­don­ing win­ner take all as our vot­ing sys­tem. But if we’re going to say good­bye to first past the post, then the alter­na­tive we adopt should be bet­ter than what we have now.

If we adopt ranked choice vot­ing with instant runoff, we should do clear-eyed, rec­og­niz­ing what the down­sides are. We’d have to live with the glitch described above, but we can cer­tain­ly insist on requir­ing ample resources for vot­er edu­ca­tion to deal with the poten­tial for con­fu­sion in juris­dic­tions that adopt RCV.

Nobel win­ning econ­o­mist and math­e­mati­cian Ken­neth Arrow has the­o­rized that all vot­ing sys­tems where can­di­dates are ranked will ulti­mate­ly be unfair in some way.

It’s also impor­tant to know that instant runoff and ranked choice vot­ing are not the only alter­na­tive vot­ing sys­tems out there. There are alter­na­tives avail­able to us that don’t involve rank­ing can­di­dates at all. Like approval vot­ing.

With approval vot­ing, you check the box (or fill in the oval) for every can­di­date that you approve of. So, if you like, say, three of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates cur­rent­ly run­ning for Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, then you could vote for those three. Here’s a hypo­thet­i­cal bal­lot which con­sists sim­ply of the declared can­di­dates for Pres­i­dent so far for 2020 on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic side:

  • Cory Book­er
  • Eliz­a­beth Warren
  • Kamala Har­ris
  • Kris­ten Gillibrand
  • Julian Cas­tro
  • Tul­si Gabbard
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • John Delaney

Wow. Ten con­tenders for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion already! And the field is expect­ed to get even big­ger. Would­n’t it be nice if Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers had the option to express their sup­port for more than one can­di­date? There can only be one nom­i­nee, but plen­ty of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers are like­ly to be fond of more than one of the can­di­dates, espe­cial­ly with so many good options to choose from.

Wait, pick­ing more than one can­di­date? Does­n’t that vio­late the one-vote-per-per­son rule?” Nicky Case asks in ref­er­ence to approval vot­ing, writ­ing in response: “Well, your vote was nev­er a sin­gle check mark, your vote was always the whole bal­lot. And on this bal­lot, you get to hon­est­ly express all the can­di­dates you approve of, not just your favorite or strate­gic second-favorite.”

If our goal is to improve the vot­er expe­ri­ence to bol­ster par­tic­i­pa­tion and safe­guard the future of our democ­ra­cy, then we should design a bal­lot that encour­ages peo­ple to vote hon­est­ly. And it’s essen­tial for peo­ple inter­est­ed in vot­ing jus­tice to know that we aren’t lim­it­ed to exper­i­ment­ing with IRV and RCV (which Pierce Coun­ty already tried and reject­ed and which is being used by sev­er­al locales around the coun­try). We also have approval vot­ing and star vot­ing open to us… and if we’re going to pass a local options bill for alter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods, we could allow those to be used in addi­tion to RCV.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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4 replies on “Alternative voting method discussions should note the “bug” in RCV’s instant runoff voting”

  1. Approval is *not* inher­ent­ly a bet­ter sys­tem. That’s an opin­ion, and you’re wel­come to it, but it’s com­plete­ly disin­gen­u­ous to present it as objec­tive­ly better.

    This is a philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: should strength of pref­er­ence matter?

    What if there is one can­di­date 80% of vot­ers are “meh” about, they unen­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly approve, and a sec­ond can­di­date 60% of vot­ers are “YES!” about, excit­ed­ly sup­port­ive? Who deserves to win?

    There’s no objec­tive­ly cor­rect ques­tion, it depends on your per­son­al pref­er­ences. Approval vot­ing means the for­mer should win. RCV means the lat­ter should win.

    It’s also worth not­ing approval isn’t with­out its own flaws, even if you do think a can­di­date 80% of the pop­u­la­tion is “meh” about deserves to beat a can­di­date 60% of the pop­u­la­tion is stoked about.

    Based on how peo­ple tend to think, folks are like­ly to bul­let vote — sup­port only one can­di­date, even if they gen­uine­ly approve of more than one. 

    Why would peo­ple do this? Because they don’t want to risk hurt­ing their favorite by help­ing their favorites rival, and their hon­est sec­ond choice, win by one approval. Con­sid­er a tight race between, say, Bernie, Hillary, and Trump. Even if you pre­fer Bernie but *hon­est­ly* approve of Hillary, and approve them both, and Hillary ends up being Bernie by one vote, then you hurt your favorite can­di­date by vot­ing hon­est­ly and would have been bet­ter off strate­gi­cal­ly only approv­ing of Bernie.

    This isn’t just a the­o­ry — you can see this exact phe­nom­e­na if you look at Dart­mouth col­lege, where approval vot­ing was used for years to elect their stu­dent body before being replaced with plu­ral­i­ty in 2017. More than 80% of vot­ers only ever “approved” of one can­di­date because of this exact phenomena.

    While the bills you men­tion would allow local juris­dic­tions to adopt the instant runoff vot­ing vari­ant of RCV, it would also allow them to adopt the sin­gle trans­fer­able vote (pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion) vari­ant of RCV.

    Final­ly, Pierce coun­ty should not be held up as a rea­son to not exper­i­ment with RCV. There were many, many unique fac­tors that led to Pierce coun­ty adopt­ing it, and lat­er repeal­ing it, that have not been repli­cat­ed seen in any of the oth­er juris­dic­tions that have adopt­ed RCV. Pierce coun­ty’s expe­ri­ence was an anom­aly: https://www.sightline.org/2017/09/19/what-really-happened-with-instant-runoff-voting-in-pierce-county-washington/

    If you want to look at the issue objec­tive­ly, you can’t just look at the one out­lier of Pierce coun­ty. Try also tak­ing a look at the var­i­ous RCV expe­ri­ences in Minneapolis/St. Paul, San Fran­cis­co and Oak­land CA, San­ta Fe NM, Cam­bridge MA, Tako­ma Park MD, the entire state of Maine, or oth­ers and see what *their* vot­er expe­ri­ences have been like.

    There *is no per­fect vot­ing sys­tem.* I’m a huge RCV pro­po­nent, and I’ll be the first to tell you that RCV isn’t per­fect — but no sys­tem is, and cer­tain­ly not our cur­rent sys­tem which is the worst of all worlds. To claim that approval is an objec­tive­ly supe­ri­or sys­tem and ignor­ing all its own flaws is intel­lec­tu­al­ly dishonest.

    1. Col­in, the premise of this post is that instant runoff vot­ing is not a sen­si­ble, supe­ri­or alter­na­tive to the vot­ing sys­tem we cur­rent­ly use. The premise is not that approval vot­ing is objec­tive­ly the best vot­ing method there is and we should adopt it. That is a straw man that you con­struct­ed with your com­ment. We agree there’s no per­fect vot­ing system.

      We pub­lish advo­ca­cy jour­nal­ism here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. That means that all of our pieces are sub­jec­tive or opin­ion­at­ed by their nature. We have nev­er pre­tend­ed oth­er­wise. We are work­ing for a bet­ter future for our region and coun­try. What we pub­lish here and on our oth­er projects reflects our val­ues, prin­ci­ples, and pol­i­cy directions.

  2. Some good points here. But, a slight­ly bet­ter ver­sion might be approval/disapproval vot­ing, where­by the vot­er also has the option to dis­ap­prove can­di­dates with a “D” vote. The win­ner would be the can­di­date or can­di­dates with the most net approval votes. This would also be use­ful in con­tests where there are only one or two can­di­dates, enabling the vot­er to “dis­ap­proval” any or all can­di­dates on the ballot.

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