Make. All. Votes. Count. (Part II: single-winner)
We all know the parables of broken voting processes. Probably the most famous is the Simpsons episode where evil aliens Kang and Kodos replace the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. When Homer exposes them, they simply cackle:
Kodos: It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about
it? It's a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us.
Man1: He's right, this is a two-party system.
Man2: Well, I believe I'll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead, throw your vote away.
Of course Kang wins, and enslaves the humans to build a giant space laser. But Homer doesn’t feel guilty:
There’s a similar story in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent of an alien democracy where the people are ruled by lizards…
...“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.
Stories like this are often read as being indictments of politicians. “Ha ha, politicians are not really people, just bizarre alien reptiles.” But that’s the wrong message. The recognizable character in these stories is not a politician — no human candidate tells of his childhood dreams of being a baseball—but rather the voting method. Clearly, the Lizard-ruled planet’s voting method is the same as the American one that elected Kang: First Past the Post (FPTP). As long as you can only vote for one candidate, giving that vote to anyone besides one of the two frontrunners is indeed, as Kang says, throwing it away.
And this broken US electoral system is very much at the root of our broken politics. Even a tiny change could have tipped the balance in the presidential elections of 2000 or 2016. The electoral college is the most prominently broken part of the system, but FPTP is just as malfunctioning, and any other system would almost certainly have swung both of those elections, with huge consequences.¹ FPTP increases polarization, reduces turnout, makes candidates more money-dependent, and makes politics dumber and more divisive in just about every way.
So, how should we fix this? Well, part of the answer is proportional representation, which I wrote about in the first installment. But for single-winner races, there are several voting methods that would be better. The first, simplest step is approval voting. After that, there are several good options. I’ll explain my favorite, 3–2–1 voting; but things like STAR voting (aka score runoff) or Ranked Pairs (a Condorcet method) would also be good.
As I said, approval voting is the simplest fix. Instead of arbitrarily restricting voters to choose just one candidate, let them support as many as they want. The winner would be the candidate supported on the most ballots. In other words, use the same ballots, but stop throwing “overvotes” in the trash: count all the votes.
This would immediately give voters a way to solve vote-splitting. If you’re afraid of Kang winning, you could vote for Kodos AND a human. Hopefully, pretty soon the frontrunners would be the humans and not the lizards, so you could drop your support for Kodos.
In order to evaluate various voting methods, I’ve developed a system for simulating hundreds of thousands of realistic elections and finding which system elects candidates that make my virtual voters happiest. This leads to a measure called Voter Satisfaction Efficiency, VSE, which runs from 0% for a method that picks a candidate at random, to 100% for one that magically reads voters’ minds and chooses the best candidate. Depending on various aspects of the simulation, FPTP usually gets a VSE of around 70–85%; approval, around 85–95%; and the best methods such as 3–2–1 voting, of around 92% and up. So approval gets most of the benefits of voting reform, without the complexity.
But some people aren’t satisfied with approval. They want to be able to oppose Kang unequivocally, while still making a distinction between Kodos and a decent human candidate. For them, there’s systems like 3–2–1 voting.
In 3–2–1, you can rate each candidate “good”, “OK”, or “bad”; as many candidates at any level as you want. If you want to, you can just rate one candidate “good” and leave the rest blank; the predeclared ratings from that candidate are used to fill in the rest of your ballot.
The winner is found in three steps. First, the three candidates with the most “good” ratings become semifinalists; then, the two of those with the fewest “bad” ratings become finalists; and finally, the finalist who’s rated higher on more ballots wins.
A couple of extra rules cover some unusual situations. First, no two semifinalists can be from the same party; that stops one party from sweeping the election by running three identical candidates. Second, it takes at least 15% “good” ratings to become a semifinalist; so when there are only two serious candidates, a third unknown can’t win by mistake.
The upshot is: you need to generate enthusiasm to become a semifinalist; the two least-divisive semifinalists become finalists; and majority rules in picking the winner. Voting strategically to get an unfair advantage isn’t impossible (there’s actually a proof that it never is), but it’s almost never possible to predict a way to do that in advance.
¹ In 2000, the tiniest surplus of second-choice votes from Greens would have swung the vote to Clinton. And in 2016, it’s less clear exactly who would have won under a better voting method, but Trump probably wouldn’t have won either the primary or (if he’d made it that far) the general. In fact, the most likely winner under a better voting method would be Sanders.