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Voting should be free, important, and unifying

For most English speakers, it’s not. Here’s how it could be.

Voting should feel great. You should have plenty of options, and each choice you make should matter somehow. And while politics will always involve some people who disagree with you, it should help bring you together with those who agree with you, and even foster legitimate compromises with those who don’t.

That’s how it should be. But we all know how it is.

Think of the last time you voted to elect a lawmaker. You probably got a ballot that listed a handful of names, and were asked to choose just one of them. You knew that if you didn’t pick one of the top two frontrunners, your vote would basically be ignored by everybody; and that even if you did pick a frontrunner, they might lose, and your vote would have been in vain. Chances are good that you actually were pretty sure who was going to win and you were just going through the motions. In fact, if you live in the US, there’s a fair chance that your district was gerrymandered; deliberately engineered to ensure your vote is wasted.

And even before you got to vote, the voting method was making things worse. If you discussed the election with people who were voting differently, it probably ended up focusing on your disagreements and not on how you could work together. Meanwhile, the candidates themselves probably spent more energy attacking each other's character than proposing solutions to actual issues.

It would be easy to decide that all those flaws are inevitable. But they’re not. A better voting method can fix them. We’d still disagree and sometimes make the wrong choices. But democracy could be working the way it’s supposed to, with free choices meaningfully combined into legitimate outcomes.

I’m going to tell you about a voting method called PLACE voting (Proportional, Locally-Accountable, Candidate Endorsement voting). If I just described the voting process step by step, it would probably sound like a pile of gimmicks. So instead, I’ll focus on how each step relates to the underlying goals. Voter choices should be free and meaningful, and the outcome should tend towards the ideals of democracy: “E Pluribus Unum”; from many, one.

To contrast PLACE with our current voting method for legislative elections, I’ll need a name for the latter. Descriptively, it’s “choose-one plurality in single-member districts”, but that’s too much of a mouthful. So I guess I’ll follow tradition and call it FPTP, first past the post, even though I have no idea what the post is or how you’d know when somebody passed it. If you want, you can read FPTP as standing for “F’ing Plurality in Tiny Pieces”; I won’t tell anyone.

Here’s a simple example of a PLACE ballot you might get for US congress:

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The first thing you might see here (unless you’re distracted by the candidate names) is that as a PLACE voter you are free to vote for any candidate statewide; you are not restricted to the arbitrary boundaries of a single-member or even a multi-member district. In a national election in the UK, you’d have even more choices—all the candidates nationwide. Of course, there’s not room on the ballot to list all those candidates, so if it’s someone from outside your district (or riding, or constituency, or whatever) you have to write them in; a separate list is available for you to check their name (including short 3-letter codes for each candidate for those who want them).

This additional freedom is likely to boost turnout. If there’s a candidate in some other district who really excites you — whether it’s because of their attention to some issue you care about, their personal characteristics, or any other reason—you as a PLACE voter can benefit them directly. That gives an extra incentive for people to vote, especially if they identify with some minority — ideological, age, ethnic, occupational, or otherwise—that has been underrepresented. Along with the PLACE voting’s other aspects, this is likely to make representation much more faithful, not just for parties, but for other groups.

A second thing you might note is that your vote can be transferred to another candidate if it would otherwise be wasted. Which candidate it will be transferred to depends on three things: the party of the candidate you chose, the endorsements (simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down) they gave to other candidates, and the initial vote totals of those other candidates. So your after your first choice can’t use your vote, it will go to one of the other candidates they endorsed from the same party, whichever one has the most initial votes. If there are no such candidates left who can use votes, it will go to those from the same party who weren’t endorsed, again in order of initial votes. If there are none of those either — for instance, if your first choice ran as an independent, so that there are no candidates from the same party—then it will go to a candidate from another party whom they endorsed, as always in order of initial vote tally.

This partially-delegated transfer mechanism ensures that your decision of who to vote for matters as much as it possibly can, for as long as it possibly can. You aren’t burdened with extra decisions that might or might not matter, such as how to rank all the candidates in strict preference order. You can simply pick one and go home.

Of course, some voters might want the extra freedom to rank candidates. But even as a highly-engaged voter, there are reasons to want to delegate as in PLACE. For one thing, it enables all vote counting and recounting to be done at the precinct level, which increases security. And for another, delegating your vote to your favorite candidate enables them to negotiate on your behalf. Even if they don’t win, other candidates will be fighting for their endorsement, and that means paying attention to your issues.

Note that if you really don’t like the idea of delegation, you have the opportunity to opt out. And when you’re deciding whether to do so, you can look at who your candidate has endorsed, so you are making the choice with full information; candidates cannot change their endorsements after the election. In any case, even if you opt out, you’re benefitting from the other advantages of PLACE.

There’s two more aspect of PLACE that I want to highlight that aren’t so obvious from looking at the ballot. The first is the incentives it gives for inter-party cooperation and compromise. Right after the initial vote tally, any candidate who did not get at least 25% of the votes from their local district is eliminated (unless nobody did, and they got the most).

This means that smaller parties would win seats only in districts where they made a strong showing. For instance, I’ve simulated results for the recent election in British Columbia. In reality, under FPTP, the BC Green party won just 3 seats of 87, despite getting 16.6% of the vote. 16.6% of 87 is 14 seats, so that’s what they would have gotten under a fully proportional method. Under PLACE voting, they would have gotten 10 seats — 7 more than under FPTP but 4 less than under full PR. That’s because they beat 25% in just those 10 districts.

So what happens to the votes that could have given them those extra 4 seats? They’re transferred to other-party candidates who were endorsed by Greens. Since those transfers happen early in the process, that means that Greens would have had the power to choose, essentially without limits, around 6–8 candidates from a major party — in this case, probably the NDP, but also any Liberals who are good on their issues—whom they’d like to give seats to. Obviously, that would tend to foster a spirit of cooperation between those parties, on both sides.

And meanwhile, it would keep truly fringe parties, who can’t reach 25% in any districts, from winning seats. For instance, in my simulation of the most recent UK election, the right-wing UKIP had enough votes to add up to a proportional share of 11 seats, but since those votes were spread across the country without reaching 25% in any constituency, UKIP would have won no seats directly.

The second aspect of PLACE that doesn’t show up on the example ballot above is the way it gives representation even to those voters who don’t win in their local district. That’s because after one winner per district is chosen, each district is assigned as “extra territory” to one winner for each party that won any seats but none in that district. So if you were a Republican in a Democratic district, or vice versa, you’d still be a constituent of a Republican representative somewhere else; and similarly for a Democrat in a Republican district, or a voter for any third party that had passed the 25% threshold and won in some other district.

If you’re interested in full rules for PLACE voting, you can look at them here.

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Opinion, info, and research on improved voting systems and democracy. Building website to use these voting systems securely for private elections.

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