Gold Choosing: a way of choosing law makers

Explained with the ten hundred words from Thing Explainer

The US has decided that the laws will be made by law makers, and the people will choose the law makers. The people who chose the way to choose the law makers lived a long time ago. They did not know as much as we do about ways of choosing. Since they made the laws about how to choose, we have changed those laws in some little ways, and also made some big changes about which people get to choose. Also, some little places have made bigger changes about how to choose. But now it’s time for bigger places, or even the whole US, to make big changes.

Choosing lots of law makers at one time

There are two groups of law makers, that people call the higher house (with fewer law makers) and the lower house (with more law makers). For the lower house we choose all the law makers at one time.

The way we in the US choose law makers and other important people is called “first past the stick”.¹ First, somebody draws lines to cut the country into places, so that there are the same number of places as law makers and the same number of people in each place. Each law maker is chosen by only the people who live in one of those places. Each person gets a piece of paper² which says the names of the people who want to be law makers from their place , and they can mark the paper to choose just one of those law wanters. Then we put the papers in piles, count the piles, and the law wanter with the biggest pile of papers is the new law maker for that place.

That is a bad system in a lot of ways. Since each paper can go in just one pile, if your paper doesn’t go in one of the two biggest piles, it is sort of ignored. So all the people who don’t want their paper to be ignored try to guess which two law wanters will have the biggest piles, and they write their paper for one of those two, even if those two are not really the best. Also, when there are different groups of people who want different laws, a group having more people doesn’t always mean it will get more law makers. Having people in the right places, on the right side of the lines that say which law maker you choose, matters more than having more. And who draws those lines? Usually it’s the law makers themselves. That’s wrong. (People even made up a word to make fun of this trick, named after a man and a little cold blooded wet walker animal.) It was supposed to be you choosing them, not them choosing you.

People like me who think about ways to choose have other ways that make sure that bigger groups of people can choose more law makers. I’m going to tell you about one of those ways. I call it “gold choosing” because of the letters in “gold”. People tell me it’s not simple so I’m telling you about it using only simple words. I hope that when I am done you will agree that it is simple enough.

What makes a choosing way good?

Before I tell you all the steps of gold choosing, I want to tell you the things about a way of choosing that I think are important. Other people think these things are important too. When they asked a lot of people in the country with a leaf on its stick hanging picture, those people mostly said things which I think agree with what I say below.

The first thing is that a way of choosing isn’t any good if it’s never going to be real. It won’t be real unless some day many people and at least some law makers agree it’s good. The people won’t trust it unless they can see that the important parts are simple. Especially, each person’s job when they’re choosing should be easy. And the law makers won’t agree if it means that most of them won’t get to keep being law makers. It’s lucky for me that to change the laws that get made, we only have to change a few law makers, not most of them. So a good choosing way should not change which law makers win any more than it has to.

Another important thing is that the way of choosing should try to listen to as many people as it can. It turns out that you can’t listen to all the people. But the ones you have to ignore should be few; fewer than the number it takes to choose one law maker. When you think about it, the ways of choosing that ignore the fewest people are the ones that make sure that the bigger a group of people is the bigger the number of law makers they can choose. That would mean that the trick named after the man and the cold blooded wet walker animal would not work.

The other important things about a good way of choosing have to do with the groups of people who all want the same laws. We call those groups parties, even though they have nothing to do with what day anyone was born. A good way of choosing should make sure that the people, not the parties, decide who gets to be a law maker.

The last important thing is that a good way of choosing should mean not too many parties and not too few. The first past the stick choosing we use now means we have just two important parties. New parties have no chance. So any new law idea that both parties don’t like is not going to be a law. We need more parties. But too many parties would mean each party cared about just one idea. That would be bad. I think you can guess that it’s bad, but to explaining why in these simple words, I have to leave some parts out. The simple way to explain is that when each law maker cares about just one thing, it’s harder to find ways for everyone to be mostly happy, because they’re always either all happy or all sad.

So a good way of choosing should let new parties grow, but also push smaller parties to find friends and make bigger parties. In that way, it is still a little bit like the parties about when people were born; too small and too big are both bad.

So now I told you what’s important about ways of choosing lots of law makers at once, I will tell you about gold choosing.

Gold choosing starts with the same lines we use already, cutting all the people into places by where they live. Each place has the same number of people and so place will get exactly one law maker. Using the same lines helps make the law makers we have now happy, because it helps make sure that the new choosing way won’t make them lose their job for no good reason.

Before it’s time to choose, the law wanters each say how good they think the other law wanters are. Anybody can read what each law maker said about that. We’ll use that later.

When it’s time to choose, you get a piece of paper with two choices to make.

First, you choose which law wanter you want most. The paper already has the names of all the law wanters in your place, so choosing someone from the same place is easy. If there’s a law wanter from another place who you like better, you can write their name to choose them.

Second, you choose one of two “moving plans”, which say how to move your paper if the law wanter you chose does not win. To make this choice simple, you just have two choices about who you trust more. You can trust the law wanter you chose, or you can trust all the other people who chose law wanters from the same party. If you trust the law wanter, then if your chosen law wanter loses, your paper will move to the law wanter that they said they liked best. If you trust the other people from the same party, then your paper will be cut into pieces and move to each of the other law wanters from the same party, with the bigger pieces going to the ones who got chosen by more people.

After everybody chooses, you count all the papers and put them in piles. Then, each law maker has a pile with two kinds of papers: the papers from people who trusted that law wanter, and the papers from people who trusted the other same party people. You count the number of each kind of paper in each pile. (You also count how many of each come from the same place as the law wanter.)

Actually, there aren’t really piles. I’m going to tell the story using papers, but from here on, it’s easier if you don’t actually use paper. The earlier steps, up through the counting, should use real paper, because things that aren’t paper are too easy to change without anyone knowing, and too hard to go back and check one part at a time. But then when it’s time to make piles and move them around you just use numbers and pretend that they’re paper. That makes it easier to use parts of the numbers without tearing the papers. You don’t need to use papers for this part because once you have the numbers there is only one right way to move the papers. Anybody can see the numbers, imagine how the papers should move, and so check if the right law makers won.

The next step is to cut out all but about two law wanters for each place. The other ones all lose. (There are usually two who don’t lose from each place. But if there is one of them whose pile is more than two times as big as the pile of any other law wanter from that place, counting only the papers from the same place, then there is only one who doesn’t lose. And if there are two law makers whose piles have the most papers from the same place, but a different law maker from that place whose pile has the most papers of all kinds, then all three do not lose.)

There are three reasons for this step of keeping only two law wanters from each place. The first one is that people from a place will be mad if the winning law maker from that place didn’t get very many papers from that place. The second one is that this step helps push smaller parties to find friends, but still lets them start and grow. The third one is that this step helps make sure that gold choosing chooses the same law makers as first past the stick unless there’s a good reason for the change.

When a law wanter loses, you move all the papers in their pile to other piles, following the moving plan of the person who made each paper. You never move a paper to the pile of a law wanter who has already lost.

Now you start finding winning law makers. To win, a law wanter needs a pile of a certain size, big enough so that the pile of papers left over at the end is just a tiny bit smaller than the piles for each of the winners. When a law maker wins, you cut their pile in two, by cutting each of their papers in two pieces. That should make one pile they keep, which is exactly the right size they needed to win; and one pile of paper pieces that are left over, that you move to other piles by using the moving plan of the person who made that paper.

When one law maker wins, all the other law wanters from the same place have to lose. Their papers move to other piles as always.

If there are no law wanter who can win, then you find the law wanter who is the farthest from winning their place, and make them lose. Again, their papers all move.

Now you’re almost done. You’ve chosen all the law makers, one from each place. There’s just one more step, to make sure even the people who don’t like the winner in their place have a law maker who will listen to them. So each winning party takes the places where they lost, and gives them to one of their winning law makers as “extra places”. A law maker should listen to people from their “extra places”, especially to the people who chose their party, just as much as they listen to people from their own place.

And that’s it. That’s gold choosing.

Now, I understand if you still don’t think it’s very simple. I’ve used simple words to explain it, but I’ve used a lot of them. And even then, if you wanted enough detail to actually do gold choosing, you’d need even more words. So why should you trust it?

When you are first learning something that’s a long way from simple, like a dance for lots of people or how to use numbers to understand how things move, one thing that helps is to look for the things that are always true. If there are some truths that none of the steps can change, then even when the steps are not simple, you can fall back on trusting those truths.

What are the things that are always true in gold choosing?

• The paper for people to choose is simple and easy.
• Each person’s paper counts the same.
• In order for each law maker to win, they need to use up the same number of papers.
• Each person’s paper moves to the remaining law wanter(s) who that person would probably like the most, until it gets used up (or until there are no more law wanters who you can tell they’d probably like).
• Each person has a choice of who to trust.
• Bigger parties will get more law makers.

(Now, those things are not exactly always true, but they do not break often, and only when there is really no way for them not to break).

There are also other ways to get more trust in gold choosing.

• If you have the papers from choosing law makers using first past the stick, you can use those same papers to see who would have won in gold choosing. You will see that it is not different unless it has to be to make sure bigger parties get more law makers. Look at enough cases like this and maybe your trust will grow.
• You can compare gold choosing to other ways of choosing lots of law makers at the same time.
• You can talk to people who think a lot about choosing ways.

¹ Even though there’s no stick and even if there were nobody would know where to put it until after the law wanters had already passed it.

² Sometimes they don’t actually use paper, but they really should. Machines are good at making marks on paper and reading marks on paper, but paper is better than machines at remembering in a way that’s hard to change.

Some of the simple words I used are not the ones people usually use. Here they are, with the usual words, even though those are not simple.

first past the stick: First Past the Post (FPTP). Also known as plurality.

gold choosing: GOLD voting (Geographic, Open List or Delegated)

choosing ways: voting methods

law wanters: candidates

papers: ballots

the bigger a group of people is the bigger the number of law makers they can choose: proportional representation (PR).

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