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Archive for the ‘electoral systems’ Category

Recently I finished reading the book Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone. I also assigned part of it to my Ethics & Economics Challenge students. It’s a fun and informative read, draping heavy-duty political science in engaging story-telling. (My post at e3ne.org on the topic is here.)

The book’s central thesis is that the American electoral system is irrational, and that range and approval voting methods provide obviously superior alternatives to the plurality rule for “single-winner” elections. Along the way, Poundstone discusses the Arrow Theorem and why it provides no obstacle to making a comparative judgment among voting rules.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem says that no social choice rule (method for coming up with a social preference ordering over possible alternatives) can satisfy the criteria of non-dictatorship (no one person can make the decision for the whole group, irrespective of the preferences of the rest), universal domain (no preference orderings are simply ruled out of order), Pareto optimality (if everyone prefers X to Y, so should the group), and independence of irrelevant alternatives (changing your relative ranking of X and Z shouldn’t affect your choice between X and Y). In simple language, the Arrow theorem says that there’s no such thing as a “will of the people”: only individuals have preferences.

Poundstone takes issue with that interpretation of the theorem, arguing that the “independence of irrelevant alternatives” criterion should be relaxed or removed. In essence, Poundstone believes that we can make interpersonal comparisons of utility (utility as cardinal, not just ordinal), and that once we do so, we can come up with some social choice rules that are objectively superior to others, because they result in more aggregate human welfare.

The assumption of cardinal, interpersonally comparable utility lies behind the case for range (or score) and approval voting as alternatives to plurality rule. The former methods are said to result in less “Bayesian regret” when used either sincerely or strategically. For instance, plurality voting leads to the “spoiler effect” (Nader causing Gore to lose to Bush) and lots of tactical voting (Nader supporters voting Kerry instead). Sometimes it can even result in victory for a candidate that would lose by a majority to every other candidate, or simply fails to choose the candidate that would beat every other candidate (Poundstone discusses how Stephen Douglas likely would have won a pairwise majority vote in 1860 rather than Abraham Lincoln).

From page 239 in the Poundstone book comes this graphic based on plausible simulations of different elections under various voting rules:

Bayesian regrets under alternative voting rules

Bayesian regrets under alternative voting rules

Lower scores here are better, and thus you can see that range voting leads to overall least “regret” when voters are sincere. When voters are 100% strategic, range and approval tie (fully strategic range voters simply cast strategic approval-like votes: full marks to their favorite and the preferred candidate of the two with the best chance of winning, none to the rest).

Of course, the whole exercise depends on the notion that you can sum up regrets across voters. In some parts of life, we make rough-and-ready interpersonal comparisons of utility. When we speak of those “less fortunate,” we clearly have in mind the idea that the poor are less happy than the rich. The possibility of empathy seems to require a view that others are “more or less similar” to ourselves, including in their capacity for happiness. At the same time, the possibility of individuality seems to require that we acknowledge that others are “in some ways quite dissimilar” to ourselves. I can’t know what’s best for you, because your happiness has a large idiosyncratic, unmeasurable component.

Where does that leave us? The Bayesian regret calculations, it seems to me, give us good reason to favor range and approval voting over the current system, simply because in the absence of any other numeraire for making cost-benefit calculations of policies, the assumption of interpersonal comparisons of happiness, with everyone capable of the same amount of happiness (no utility monsters), is better than the alternative of throwing up our hands. But we still can’t get away from the fundamental insights drawn from the Arrow theorem: that only individuals have preferences and act on them, and that trying to maximize social welfare at the expense of respect for individuality is not only possibly unjust, but also irrational.

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Breaking Binary

By all indicators, Congress is a failed institution that is no longer capable of executing its basic constitutional duties. Given the role of parties in organizing Congress and controlling the agenda, one should not be surprised that much of the blame is attributed to the GOP and the Democratic Party. A new Gallup Poll has some interesting results for those who have tired of the binary. As Gallup reports:

Amid the government shutdown, 60% of Americans say the Democratic and Republicans parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed. That is the highest Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of this question. A new low of 26% believe the two major parties adequately represent Americans.

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One should not be surprised that 71 percent of independents believe that a third party is needed (a majority of independents have held this position as long as Gallup asked the question). But now “Republicans (52%) and Democrats (49%) are similar in their perceptions that a third party is needed. In fact, this marks the first time that a majority of either party’s supporters have said a third party is needed.”

Of course, there are massive institutional barriers to successful third parties, not the least of which is the existence of single-member, simple-plurality districts.  As those of us who have supported third parties in the past know, their candidates are routinely excluded from debates and have difficulties even accessing the ballot in many states.

Even if the binary is broken, it is not going to go down easily.

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Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum has been in the news in Britain. The Scottish government wants to hold the referendum in 2014, but UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Westminster holds ultimate control over the wording and timing of any legally binding referendum and wants to hold the referendum sooner.

Another point of contention is whether the referendum question should include two or three options. The SNP government in Scotland is open to a three-question (status quo, independence, or “devo max“) referendum, while the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK wants a two-question (in or out) referendum. The apparent worry from Westminster is that a three-option referendum could split the unionist vote and allow independence to win with a bare plurality (say, 40% for independence and 30% each for status quo and devo max). Here is a debate among British political prognosticators about what will happen.

The solution to the problem is simple: (more…)

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I recently ran a poll here to gauge support for the idea of giving voters with bachelor’s and/or doctoral degrees extra votes in elections. I ran the same poll on a non-political site to get an idea of support from the general public. Surprisingly, Pileus readers opposed the reform overwhelmingly, 82-18%, while respondents on the other site were slightly more supportive, with opposition running at 74-26% (31 respondents). In both polls I simply asked the question and did not offer any reasons for either side of the issue. The sample sizes are too small to draw terribly confident conclusions about the general public’s support for this proposal, but support does seem surprisingly high given that no Western democracy since the 1940s has given multiple votes to college graduates (Belgium and the United Kingdom formerly did so).

The impetus for the poll came from a discussion I had with Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. Caplan finds that voters have strikingly different views from economists on many economic issues. The general public tends to suffer from anti-market, anti-foreign, and pessimistic biases. However, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to think like an economist (the smaller your biases on economic issues). In subsequent research, Caplan says that the effect is really one of IQ: smarter people are more likely to think like economists, and smarter people are also likely to get more education. Nevertheless, the logic implies that giving people with more education more votes will lead to better politicians and better economic policies. I argued that giving additional votes to more educated voters might actually be a popular change in the long run, if it were actually proposed and defended at length. Bryan thought that it would be overwhelmingly unpopular and essentially not worth proposing.

The precise implications of these poll results are up for debate, but it seems to me that support for some reform of this kind actually does have some base of support in the public, even when no logical or evidentiary support for the change is offered.

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At a recent Institute for Humane Studies conference, I had a bit of a debate with Bryan Caplan about the potential popularity of this proposal. In conjunction with this poll, which admittedly suffers from serious self-selection bias, I have another poll running on a non-political site. We’ll check back in a few days and see what the results show.

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In a few hours, polls open in the United Kingdom for local and devolved elections and for a referendum on moving to a new electoral system, Instant Runoff Voting, which Brits and Aussies insist on calling, undescriptively, “alternative vote” (AV). This referendum came about as a demand of the Liberal Democrats, who held the balance of power in the hung parliament elected last year. The Conservatives agreed to hold the referendum but have campaigned against it. The Lib Dems, for their part, prefer proportional representation with multi-member constituencies, but decided AV was better than nothing. (Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is on record as having called AV a “miserable little compromise.”) The Labour Party is split on the reform.

Indeed, AV has many flaws. Compared to the plurality, single-member-district system used in the US, UK, and Canada currently (sometimes called, somewhat inaccurately, “first past the post”), it should at least get rid of the wasted vote problem, in which voters decide to vote for the lesser of two evils because their favored candidate cannot win. But it does so at the price of removing small third parties’ blackmail power. For instance, in the US a Libertarian would have no chance of winning, arguably even if AV were the electoral system. But at least under the current system, a Libertarian candidate can take away votes from a Republican (usually, but not always, Libertarians siphon more votes from Republicans than Democrats) and cause the Republican to lose a tight race. Therefore, Republicans at least occasionally have to pay lip service to Libertarian causes to keep those votes.

Within the UK context, AV would essentially mean a “permanent progressive majority” for the foreseeable future, since (more…)

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