Preferential Voting: Best Thing Ever

This was actually adapted from a toastmasters speech (great public speaking club if you’re looking to improve), but I think it is interesting enough to merit a blog post.

Electoral College: Outdated and Unfair

Let me set the stage: The year was 2000, and in this country we had an extremely close presidental election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. For the third time in United States history, the winning candidate received fewer popular votes than the runner-up.

This seems wrong. Political affiliations aside, whether we wanted Bush or Gore to win, this outcome violates our intuitive notion of fairness; the person with more votes should win, because everyone’s vote should be counted equally. In particular, the influence of one’s vote shouldn’t depend on the state in which you live — that would just be silly.

Strangely, what state you live in does matter in the electoral college voting system in the US. If you don’t live in what is called a “swing state”, where the number of democrats and republics is about even, then effectively your vote does not matter. Why? Because entire states are either won or lost, and all of a state’s electoral votes go to the winner. So if you are a Democrat in a mostly Republican state, or a Republican in a mostly Democrat state, your vote is meaningless, because it will not influence anything outside of the state. This should upset us! Why should we have such an inferior system of voting?

Now, while getting rid of the electoral college is important and could make voting more fair, I introduced that example to get us thinking about voting systems and how one can be more fair than another; we might mistakenly assume that the voting system we have is the best and cannot actually be improved.

I actually want to suggest a more radical change than just getting rid of the electoral college. I firmly believe that elections in this country should use a different voting system entirely, one that is used in some other countries, one that is more fair: It’s called preferential voting.

Preferential Voting

The idea is simple. Instead of only indicating only your favorite candidate on a voting ballot, you rank the candidates in the order that you like them. For example, you might indicate your top 3 choices, your first choice with a 1, your second choice with a 2, and your third choice with a 3. Preferences are better than just a single choice because they contain more information. This additional information can be leveraged to determine fairer outcomes for elections that will satisfy more people. And satisfying more people is what democracy is all about.

Now, it’s tempting to assume that a direct vote in which a majority of votes wins, which is called plurality voting and is what the electoral college is roughly based upon, is the best system already. But I’ll describe a simple situation in which such plurality voting actually leads to an unhappy outcome, where the candidate that most people would prefer to win actually loses.

Here is the situation: Imagine that there are three candidates for a presidental election, Candiate A, Candidate B and Candidate B+. A and B are main-stream party candidates that both have a good chance of winning the election, while B+ is a third party candidate unlikely to win. Now, what is important about B+ is that the policies of B+ are more similar to B than A.

Effectively, B+ will “steal” votes from B. If B+ wasn’t running, then B would get more votes, because B+ voters by and large prefer B to A, because B+ is more like B than it is like A. We can think of A and B as republicans and democrats, while B+ might be a third party like the libertarian party or the green party. If B is the conservative candidate, then B+ might be a libertarian candidate like Ron Paul; a vote for Ron Paul might steal away support from a conservative candidate like John McCain. If instead we think of B as the liberal candidate, then B+ might be a green party candidate like Ralph Nader; people who vote for Ralph Nader would likely vote for a Democrat over a Republican.

So imagine that A gets 45% of the vote, B gets 40% of the vote, and B+ gets 15% of the votes. Let’s also say that nearly all of the voters for B+ would prefer B over A. So here if we measure the outcome by the current system, pluralilty voting, then A would win because 45%>40%>15%, even though 45% (B)+15% (B+) = 60% voters prefer B over A, while only 40% of voters prefer A over B. This seems wrong!

Rancid Meat and Dismissable Objections

To show how crazy this is, look at it a different way. Imagine you’re trying to decide on a restraunt to eat at among a group of 10 people. To be fair, everyone will vote on where to go by putting their choice on a piece of paper, and the option with the most votes will win. Unfortunately for you, three people in your group have escaped from an insane asylum and all they want is to eat rancid meat. The other seven people are sane, and while they don’t want rancid meat, their favorite restraunts are all different, so no other option gets three votes. So while nearly everyone would prefer any other restraunt to rancid meat, rancid meat wins in a standard pluralilty vote!

Does this contrived example undermine your faith in plurality voting? It should!

Why not use preferences, where you could have the option of saying: I rank candidate B+ as my first choice, candidate B as my second choice, and candidate A as my last choice? So, if it’s clear that B+ cannot possibly win (because only 15% of people choose B+ as their first choice), then B+ is eliminated from the election and votes for B+ are recast to whoever those voters ranked next highly after B+. In this case, B+ voters would mostly have B as their second preference. So, in the end, after B+ is eliminated, B would have around 60% of the vote and A would still have 40%. So with preferential voting B would win, and the election would actually result with the winner being the one that most people prefer to win!

One argument against preferential voting is that it’s more complicated and confusing, and voters might not understand it. I don’t think so. All preferential voting means, is that instead of voting for one person, you rank the candidates. We’ve done this before in surveys and in school. We know what it means to rank something, to show what our preferences are, it’s not that complicated. You put a one by your favorite, a two by your second favorite, and so on. If such a simple system is too complicated for the American people to understand, then we are in big trouble anyways.

Another argument, that was once true before modern computing, is that preferential voting makes ballot-counting more complicated. To determine the results is not a simple matter of counting with preferential voting. You first count all of the 1st preferences, and then you eliminate the least-preferred candidate. Next you reallocate all of the votes for that eliminated candidate based on the next preferences of all those that voted for him. This process continues until there is a single winner. Before we had computers, it would have been too hard to do in practice. But now that we have ultra-fast cheap computers, it’s a piece of cake. Computers can do this sort of counting and reallocation of votes in a flash. So this counter-argument is not a serious obstacle either.

The Lofty Conclusion

Whether you buy my argument for preferential voting or not, as we get closer to 2012 and the next presidential election, we should all be willing to ask if voting in this country is done in the most fair way. Shouldn’t everyone’s vote matter the same regardless of what state you live in? And shouldn’t we elect someone that more people would prefer to be in office? We aspire to be a beacon of democracy in this crazy world after all, so shouldn’t we strive to have the fairest democracy with the fairest system of voting as well?

3 thoughts on “Preferential Voting: Best Thing Ever

  1. Nicely argued! Lots of good groups working on this. It’s often called “ranked choice voting” and “instant runoff voting” too. And National Popular Vote is making headway advancing a change to presidential elections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>