Would AV (IRV) even be a positive reform?

Sometimes, interesting discussions sprout in the comments that I fear will seem more buried than planted, if not re-propogated here in the main orchard.

Several of us have been discussing the merits of the Alternative Vote (AV), one of several formulas that might fit under the rubric of what American reformers mean by “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV).

Just this week, I received an e-mail from a political science contact (based outside the USA) who said that he “loathes AV.” At first, I thought the comment a tad harsh. But the more I think about, the more I wonder if it might not fit my own views, with respect to the suitability of the system for US legislative elections (or for the nominal tier of potential MMP systems).

In the thread on Electoral Reform in Canada Ed made the following observation:

I’m also impressed by the evidence that the effect of AV is to reduce the plurality of voices and parties in the legislature. I used to support use of AV over FTFP until I looked more closely at Australian elections.

Its interesting that the use of runoffs have not had quite the same effect in France.

To which I responded:

Of course, in France there was an existing very fragmented party system into which a two-round system was (re-)introduced, in 1958.

All path dependency aside, there are good logical reasons to expect that a two-round system, especially of the majority-plurality variant used in France, would tend to support a multiparty system, but AV (IRV) would not.

When there is an actual second round of voting if no candidate has won a majority of first votes, parties have much more opportunity to enter as “spoilers” (and all the more so, again, when the runoff is a restricted plurality rule and not 50%, plus 1).

Advocates of AV/IRV often favor it because it avoids spoilers. Yes, and perhaps too well.

This latter comment moved Bob to ask:

By “too well” do you mean that reducing spoiled elections reduces the effect of small party and independent candidates on outcomes? If so, then that’s a good thing for the small parties themselves, because spoiled elections are what prevent people who support these candidates from actually voting for them. Or do you mean that small party and independent candidates win less often? If so, then less often that under what other voting rule(s)?

My response to Bob’s question–and now this is something new to this current planting–is that, regarding his two ways of possibly interpreting what I said about AV dealing too effectively with the “spoiler” problem, I would endorse the first one as closer to my view.

I take a pretty Machiavellian view of interparty dynamics under winner-take-all systems (whether FPTP, AV, two-round, the absurd list-plurality system of the absurd US electoral college, or what have you). I am pretty sure large parties take such a view themselves, when they bother to be worried about the groupuscules that, in most US legislative elections, pass for parties other than the dominant Two. Large parties will take note of smaller when the latter threaten the former. So, go and spoil if you are serious about increasing the influence of small parties. As I have suggested before, that is the most likely route to real electoral reform–a form of PR (which is not, by any means, to suggest that it inevitably leads there).

It is clear from the experience of most FPTP cases that (certain types of) small parties can win seats under FPTP, even if they tend to be under-represented, sometimes seriously (but sometimes not). Of course, the USA is not such a system. It has a 2-party system that is even more solidly so than that for Australia’s AV-elected first chamber.

In the US context, that might imply that AV (or another form of IRV) would be a step forward for pluralism in our legislative bodies. I doubt it, though it is possible. I suspect that it is more likely that AV would enhance the role of single-issue organizations that could make a claim to be able to determine which candidates won through following the preference trail. That is, we might see more candidates, but I wonder about more parties, in a form that is recognizably partisan. If single-issue organizations were more institutionalized in US elections, that would hardly be a step forward.

Maybe my views of smaller US parties and AV are too bleak. I don’t know, honestly. But I am very skeptical of the passion that many reformers have for AV/IRV for US House or state-legislative races. I am actually somewhat agnostic about FPTP vs. AV for these types of contests.* I just do not feel that the difference between them is worth getting too excited over, even if the balance of the comparison is favorable to AV. Which, obviously, I am yet to be persuaded it is.

Beyond that, I’ll just say “what Ed said.” And, so that you do not have to go a-clicking, I will let Ed have the more-or-less last word in this planting (for now). Here is what Ed said:

…the evidence from Australian House of Representatives is pretty clear.

Minor parties such as the Greens, Australian Democrats, and Democratic Labor have existed in Australia and elected candidates to the Senate, which uses STV. None of these parties have ever won a House of Representatives seat in a general election, or come even close. The National/ Country Party has won seats in coalition with the Liberals, though the alliance is so close there is reason not to treat Liberals and National as separate parties.

First-Past-the-Post elected legislatures such as Canada, New Zealand (before the switch) and the UK have all had significant third party representation, from both national third parties and regional third parties. Even in the case of the US House of Representatives the Socialists have won a couple of seats. The PDS, the Greens, and I think also the FDP have won Bundestag districts at various times. [FDP, I think not; certainly not in recent decades–MSS]

So the record is pretty clear. This could be due to cultural reasons unique to Australia, though its hard to see what the are. Minor parties in Australia seem to be much more accepted than in the US. It could be due to the failure of minor party leaders to cultivate regional bases of support, though the dynamics of AV would encourage that, as these parties can exert influence through second preferences without actually winning a seat in the House. I suspect voters may not want to be in a situation where a minor party is a “finalist” for a seat. Mathematically, its hard for a party polling 10% to get enough a deviation in any one district to get over 50%, but they might reach the 30% mark.

I hope we might have a visitor or two with actual experience voting in AV elections stop by later.

(I still need to address the question of the incompatibility of AV and MMP, which has come up in another thread. I’ll get to it–promise.)

* On the other hand, for replacing two-round majority elections at the municipal level, especially in the case of officially non-partisan contests, the superiority of AV is clear to me. By the same token, it is obviously superior to the “top two” proposal (which would replace the partisan primary and restrict general election ballots to just two candidates, even if of the same party) being floated in California, but then so is the existing two-stage FPTP (once in the primary, once in the general).

92 thoughts on “Would AV (IRV) even be a positive reform?

  1. As far as any candidate (not just an independent) winning in more than one district, I’d think you’d return them in the district where they achieved the highest vote in terms of the two party preferred vote and treat their votes in other districts as wasted and count them in the list election.

  2. #48: if all Round first preferences had flowed to Shugart so that his final tally was 60 it would be necessary to calculate a fractional value for the Shugart votes to ensure that his surplus votes went into the election for list MPs.

    I’m not sure this is true. Suppose instead that Shugart gets 10 (any 10 at random) and the remaining 10 become votes for Round’s party in the list tally. Since there are going to be no further transfers of either parcel, I can’t see why it matters which 10 go where (which is, of course, quite different from STV).

    In the specific example, the election result is the same: Shugart gets the district seat and Round’s party list gets 10 votes. That may not be true in general, however, in which case my suggestion is not a direct substitute for Alan’s. But I’m not sure it wouldn’t be roughly as good. Given the difficulty of convincing people that fractional transfers in STV are OK, I’d want to put some effort into avoiding them here if possible.

    #50: Well, okay, but one of the attractions of your proposal is that it does away with the need for two ballots (as does the “best losers” form of MMP). This still deserves some more effort.

    By the way, I don’t harp on making PR fair for independent candidates and voters because I am one myself (I’m not, and in fact believe that those who blame political parties as such are badly mistaken). I do so because in the U.S., independents are an extremely important constituency for electoral reform. They have to be catered to.

  3. Throughout this thread there has been a tendency to define a good electoral system as that which returns more independent or minor party candidates. Indeed, much of the Lundberg critique of AV as against TRS turned on the greater likelihood f such candidates being returned under TRS. My answer would be that TRS essentially removes that decision from the electors, to whom it rightly belongs, and gives it to the parties who negotiate withdrawals before the second round.

    My view is that AV is superior to TRS precisely because it leaves the decision to the electors. I would argue strongly, while accepting the strictures of the Arrow theorem, that an electoral system should be as neutral as possible between different kinds of candidates and different kinds of parties. For the same reason under this rapidly evolving proposal I would allow both independents and party candidates to run in more than one district.

    The Chirac/Le Pen election also gives gives a case where AV would clearly have been superior to TRS. It is extremely unlikely that Le Pen could have drawn sufficient second preferences to remain the second candidate under AV. The electors would then have had an actual choice instead of merely selecting between Chirac and le déluge.

    It seems to me an exact analogy is the frequent, and misguided, call to limit dual candidacy in MMP systems.

  4. I thought the debate here was AV vs. FPTP (with some other proposals like Condorcet occasionally in the mix), not AV vs. majority runoff (or majority-plurality).

    On the latter choice, I would agree with Alan.

    Besides France 2002, there are probably several presidential elections under majority runoff that would have been different under AV. (I think we talked about Peru’s last election in this space as potentially such a case.)

    By the way, I would eschew “TRS” (two-round system) because majority-runoff and majority-plurality are quite different. Both are used in France, but only the latter (for assembly elections) has much of an issue with elite negotiations over second-round participation. And then there are, of course, other two-round systems like Costa Rica’s 40% rule or the double complement rule, etc.

    It seems to me that TRS is a family of systems, not a system, per se. (Its equivalent would be “ranked-choice single-winner”–RCSW!–which is a family containing AV, Supplementary Vote, Condorcet, etc.)

  5. As someone who writes open-source software, I’d still greatly prefer hand-counted elections.

    Computers are complicated beasts with many layers: BIOS, firmware on every piece of hardware, an operating system, drivers, software libraries, and of course the actual counting application. In all this complexity it’s very easy for problems to go undetected. I do trust open-source software much more than proprietary software. But I’ve fixed plenty of bugs, and even caused a few, and this was in software that nobody had a particular interest in undermining.

    I’ve worked in a local election, and it’s hard for me to imagine the amount of effort that would have to go into stealing thousands of votes in a hand-counted vote. There are multiple people involved at every stage, recounts can be done on the actual physical votes to check results, party representatives can observe each step. You would need hundreds of people in on the scam. In a computerized election, a malicious person with five minutes of access to a piece of firmware or a signing certificate could change millions of votes, and it would be very hard to detect.

    Perhaps I’m being over-cautious. After all, computers do run important things like the stock markets, communication networks and nuclear missiles. But in an area where we can get along without them, and transparency is so important, I’m very hesitant to just go ahead with computer counting without much more thought than has been given to the issue by most governments.

  6. In most Australian jurisdictions the votes are recorded and counted by hand as the first stage of the scrutiny. At a later time they are captured into a database to speed up the complexities of distributing preferences, but even then the physical count is generally already known.

    The process is fundamentally one of recording and sorting. Every paper ballot that is issued is recorded (obviously the unique serial numbers are in now ay linked to the elector’s identity) and every ballot must be acquitted against the register of issued ballots.

    On election night a series of finer and finer sorts are conducted. The ballots are tied up in bundles of 100 (that number may have changed since I last worked for the AEC). Obviously there are going to be 1 or more bundles that contain mixed papers, but all bundles are clearly marked. Random checks are conducted to ensure that the bundles are 1. pure and 2 contain the right numbers. Party scrutineers sign off on the accuracy of the bundle certificates along with electoral officials.

    In the mythical District of Whatthe they might use bundles of 10, so there would 3 bundles marked Shugart 1 and so on. Lower preferences are also recorded on the bundle certificates. Reducing the number of papers moving around by a factor of 100 makes a huge difference to accuracy and transparency. As the bundles are signed off they are also assigned unique numbers and recorded in a register. You can track a bundle of votes that was cast in polling booth X in subdivision Y in electoral district Z and there would be hell to pay if the contents of that bundle did not match what was recorded on election night.

    Once the election night scrutiny is completed, and obviously in an AV/STV system that is often not definitive because preferences must sill be worked out, the bundled ballots are transferred to regional offices and then to state offices, again each movement is recorded and acquitted.

    In 2000 one read frequently that no count can be perfect. I simply do not accept that. A professional electoral organization can account for every ballot just as a bank can account for every cheque. A well-run paper election certainly does not involve some guy in a back room quietly saying 2673477, 2673478 and so on.

    Any stage of the scrutiny can be challenged as a matter of right before the court of disputed returns, which is the High Court for federal elections and varies in the states and territories. Court challenges are not denounced as interference with the election and the courts have clear rules laid down by law for how to resolve disputes.

  7. Let’s see if I get Alan’s proposal straight.

    Say you have 2 districts. And these are the results (with each district having 100,000 voters):

    District 1

    Republican 51%
    Democrat 35%
    Green 10%
    Libertarian 4%

    District 2

    Democrat 45%
    Republican 44%
    Green 6%
    Libertarian 5%

    In district 2, there’s no winner. The Libertarian is eliminated and the 2nd choices go: 2% for the Republican and Democrat and 1% for the Green.
    After this, there’s still no winner. The Green is eliminated and the 2nd choices go: 5% for the Democrat and 2% for the Republican. Now, the Democrat has won the seat.

    Going to my point, we have the following. First, in district 1, the Republican has 1,000 votes in surplus; let’s say that 600 chose the Libertarian, 300 the Green and 100 the Democrat. Second, the Democrat has 2,000 votes in surplus. Here’s my doubt with the second part of this. Would the Greens get 2,00 votes for their list or not?

  8. Nobody gets any votes for their list. Wasted votes are counted in the list election according to their next available preference.

    In each district the number of wasted votes will be the total number of votes less the quota. The value of those votes will vary in some cases according to their transfer value. I cannot do precise calculations for the transfer values on percentages and there is quite a comp;ex argument on which votes to transfer. Let us assume the last parcel rule in the Senatorial Rules which says that where a candidate is elected by transferred votes, only the votes in the last parcel are transferable.

    In District 1 the Republican votes will count in the list tier at (roughly) 1/51st of their original value. The other votes will count in the list tier at full value.

    In District 2, in your figures the Green appears to have 6% of the vote but on transfer they jump to 7%. Either way, those votes will be counted in the list election, along with all votes credited to the Republican (both original and transferred votes). The Republican’s votes will be counted at full value. The Green votes will have a reduced value because some of them have been used to elect the Democrat.

    I would vary my original proposal to say that there are to be as many list seats as district seats and the quota is to be calculated in the usual way.

    It would be much, much easier to tell what’s happening if you could give examples in the format I used for the district of Whatthe.

  9. The government of the Northern Territory is likely to change hands on the floor of the house next Friday. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary after the US midterm elections in 2006, this is actually a fairly rare event in parliamentary systems. The ABC will carry the debate live.
    It would be unkind for me to say that the government faces defeat at the hands of independent MPs, because, as we all know from the original post, independent MPs are never elected under AV.

  10. Regarding that “wishful thinking” in the USA 2006, well, IF the USA were parliamentary and IF you had an election for the entire first chamber in which the governing party was defeated, I would submit that a change of government would have been fairly likely.

    Of course, one does not often have such an election two years into the term of a government, at least not in “majoritarian” systems.

    As for the NT, of course, when you have one of those crazy electoral systems that makes it easy for independents to win, these sort of floor defeats (or threats thereof) might happen from time to time. Independents are somewhat less predictable than party members, more or less by definition.

    Other than one quotation above from someone else, it does not appear that the post/planting made much of the chances of independents in AV. I would not conflate independents and third-party candidates. I would also guess that smaller jurisdictions have a somewhat greater tendency to elect independents even in electoral systems generally less favorable to their chances otherwise. But that is a guess (or, in fancier terms, a hypothesis).

    I do concede that I should learn a lot more about Australian subnational elections, and for that, I owe Alan and Tom thanks.

    Thanks also for the link on the NT floor vote.

  11. If 2006 has been a parliamentary election I suspect Prime Minister Bush may have lost them by a larger majority. Whether Governor-general Cheney would have accepted his resignation and sent for the Leader of the Opposition is another question entirely.

    I suspect any electoral system is more likely to return independent and minor party MPs as the the population of each district gets smaller.

  12. The NT vote of no confidence is interesting because generally the results of these things are known in advance, which is not the case in the territory. Just for the record, and in case of any last minute changes to the book, Australian territories have administrators rather than governors and chief ministers rather than premiers.

    ‘Chief executives and chief ministers’ has a certain ring)

  13. just for people’s edification, i have written a 6 page essay regarding how IRV *failed* to live up to its promise in the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington Vermont. like Aaron Armitage, i am a Condorcet proponent, and for the same reasons. i spell those reasons out in the essay and use the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington as a case study. (FYI, Burlington uses IRV since 2006. 3 years ago the IRV and Condorcet winner were coincidental. but this year, they were not.) if anyone wants a pdf copy of this essay, please email me at rbj@audioimagination.com and i would be happy to reply with a copy.

  14. If by “failed to live up to its promise”, Robert (#64) means failed to elect the Condorcet winner, well, AV doesn’t promise that. But I agree that the recent Burlington election is an excellent real-world example of the difference between AV and the Condorcet principle.

    Condorcet proponents need to ask themselves the following question. Would I rather contribute to better elections, or wait literally forever for the best possible elections? I say literally forever because, in my opinion, no Condorcet-compliant voting rule is feasible outside of professional organizations, where they may be quite successful.

  15. In #65 above, I should have said “wait literally forever for the best possible elections from my own point of view.” Otherwise, it appears that I am endorsing the Condorcet principle myself. In spite of Aaron’s fairly persuasive arguments earlier in this thread, I am not.

  16. I’m actually somewhat attracted to Condorcet but there are 3 great problems to overcome before it can be taken seriously.

    1. We would need to a script where someone like Matt Lauer successfully explains the way Condorcet cycles happen and get resolved.

    2. There is the question of transparency raised up thread.

    3. There is a larger underlying problem. In the election where I was the Condorcet winner but a spectacular loser by any other standard I would not have been the Condorcet winner if a small number of those who gave first preferences to the other candidates had not expressed second preferences. There is an ongoing debate in AV?STV about whether it is always true to say that expressing lower preference cannot harm ca candidate for whom you have expressed a higher preference.

    My run for university senator shows that expressing lower preferences can spectacularly and decisively harm candidates for whom you have expressed a higher preference. It follows that Condorcet would seem to carry all of the same weaknesses as AV, but to a spectacularly greater degree. Advising the electorate how to vote becomes no more than a gamble.

  17. I’m not an expert on the differences among the multitude of Condorcet-compliant voting rules and can’t evaluate them in terms of the later-no-harm criterion. But I’m under the impression that, just as they differ with respect to the majority coalition criterion, they also differ with respect to later-no-harm, in degree if not in kind.

    Alan is right. Later-no-harm is critical to voters, and must be critical to any reformer who wants to get her proposals adopted. But many of those who base their proposals on social choice theory think it is not at all essential and a few even believe that satisfying it is harmful.

  18. Indeed. I recall one range voting advocate arguing on this blog that the absence of later-no-harm is desirable because it requires electors to deliberate about the possible voting choices of their fellow citizens.

    I strongly suspect that, like range voting and approval voting, Condorcet would rapidly collapse to FPTP because it seems to me the only rational strategy for a candidate is to ask electors not to give any lower preferences at all.

    And I’m still dying to see: (1) Matt Lauer’s teleprompter cards for Cloneproof Schwartz Sequential Dropping. (2) the fuzzy math talking points for candidates who are not part of the Smith set but are part of the Karl Rove set.

  19. FairVote Canada weighs in on the topic of this thread here. They suggest that in several Canadian elections AV would have increased the seat bonus given to the largest party beyond that party’s margin under FPTP. Asking (rhetorically) whether AV might lead to the ultimate adoption of PR, they write:

    No. Societies rarely change their voting systems for parliamentary, legislature or council elections. When those scarce opportunities arise by popular demand, proposals for cosmetic change are diversionary and may make the legislatures even less representative.

  20. The question of whether half a loaf is better than no bread – whether a winner-take-all system with less vote-wastage is a stepping-stone towards, or dissipates the pressure for, a proportional system – is vexing.

    (1) On the one hand, in Australia it is certainly common for politicians and commentators to make a Goldilocks argument for AV – ie, “UK and USA use FPTP which gives minor parties no say on election day. On the other hand, Europe and Israel use PR which give minor parties too much say throughout the whole term of office. AV gets the balance just right.” Throw in “… and we even have PR for the upper house!” and you have a strong “best of both worlds” argument for the Australian mainland’s “norm” (4 States + federal model).

    (Now of course this is contestable – I would say AV is not 50-50 PR/ WTA, but more 20/80 – and of course it may even be less proportional than FPTP; instead of the largest party winning 55% of seats on 45% of the votes, it might be cut back to 33%, which is no improvement. Likewise, some commentators have argued that AV is worst of both worlds regarding minor parties; they have great power over who forms the govt (Exhibit A: The DLP), but can avoid responsibility for the decisions and actions of that govt. But still, it is a very common meme in Australian politics.)

    (2) On the other hand, as Andrew McLaren Carstairs noted in 1984, those European nations that adopted PR almost all had prior experience with “voting more than once” under winer-take-all – either MNTV, or a second ballot in single-seaters. Almost none had used the UK/ US system where you tick one candidate only in a contest for one seat only. He suggested that this may have made European voters more congenial to the idea of PR.

    Moreover, Australia does seem to give empirical support for the proposition that party-list PR can be a stepping stone to STV, with list systems being replaced by STV very quickly after they are used (S Aust, 1970s: ACT, 1990s) or mooted (NSW, 1970s). Having said that, even if one attributes the cause to some Anglo-Saxon ethos, it doesn’t seem to have brought NZ, Scotland or South Africa closer to STV (at least at the national level).

    So I’m still undecided, although leaning slightly towards (1).

  21. The fair vote Canada thing piqued my interest. I went back and took a look at the 2006 election results (I haven’t downloaded the 2008 results yet). At the time, I remember doing some rough calculations to see how the elections would have turned out using a single member majority system.

    I think assumptions often made about voters’ second choices tend to be too facile, especially in Canada where the party system in one region may have different dynamics than in other regions. Would Liberals and Conservatives vote for each other in Quebec to elect federalist MPs over Bloc MPs? Probably, but the CPC in Quebec attracts very “soft” federalist support, so I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, of the 306 ridings, 122 were won by outright majorities, so the results wouldn’t have changed using single member majority. However, there were an additional 62 ridings where the plurality winner got over 45% of the vote. I think its likely that in these situations the plurality winner would have drawn just enough votes leaked from other parties to get over the 50% mark, particularly under AV (with runoffs there is an extension of the campaign, so there is the chance of some new development changing the result).

    The CPC won 54 ridings with a majority, and got over 45% in another 26, so they would have won at least 80 ridings using AV. The Liberals won majorities in 37 ridings plus came close in another 20, for a total of 57. The Bloc won majorities in 25 and came close in 7, for a total of 32. The NDP won majorities in 6 ridings and came close in another 9, for a total of 15.

    This leaves another 122 ridings where AV could likely have changed the result. Of these in 56 the top two finishers were the Liberals and the CPC. Another 27 were Liberal-NDP contests, 17 were Liberal-BQ contests, 12 were NDP-CPC contests, and 10 were CPC-Bloc contests.

    If you max out the Liberal victories in these 122 ridings, under the assumption that as the center party the Liberals would win the most second choice votes, then they would have won 157 ridings and a parliamentary majority, 37 by getting a majority of first choice votes, another 20 where they came close, then another 100 by prevailing in every case the counting went several rounds. This would have given them a majority of six. To do this they would have had to win just about every place they finished in the top two. Presumably under AV they could have converted a few third place first choice finishes into victories.

    Actually I think the likeliest scenario would have been the hung parliament that actually happened. Maybe the Liberals could have formed a minority government with NDP support, but remember the 27 ridings where the two two parties were the Liberals and the NDP. The NDP maxes out at 27 ridings under this scenarios without starting to beat the Liberals in ridings where you might have gotten a changed result. Plus there is the issue that moving away from single member plurality will change the party dynamics in all sorts of subtle ways.

    I think the likeliest result of a single member majority system in Canada would have been fewer Liberal -NDP coalitions, since in some of the parliaments where they historically needed NDP support they SMM would have given them enough extra seats to put them over the top.

  22. Way up at the top of this thread, MSS wrote:

    On the other hand, for replacing two-round majority elections at the municipal level, especially in the case of officially non-partisan contests, the superiority of AV is clear to me.

    What is it about local councils and boards, but not state legislatures and the federal House, that makes AV worthwhile for one but not the other? Is it the (nominally) non-partisan format? Is it something about two-round majority?

    Or is it that PR is less important in local government, so that AV is less of a (potential) diversion from the real goal? If so, what is it about local government that makes PR less important there?

    Or is it that AV is more likely to be a step toward PR rather than a diversion at the local level? If so, why?

  23. Bob: simply the status quo against which AV is being compared, including the problem of (often very) low turnout in one or both rounds, and the often very long inter-round period, of existing municipal majority-runoff systems.

  24. MSS (#74), does this imply that you wouldn’t put any effort into AV for local legislative offices currently elected by plurality in single-member districts (city council, board of supervisors, school board)?

    I’m assuming that AV for executive and administrative offices is worth the effort at any level of government, to replace both plurality and two-round majority.

  25. In my limited experience (various cities and counties in southern California), FPTP is not used at the municipal level for councils and boards. All are MNTV or else majority runoff. I would prefer to replace either with STV (maintaining the existing district magnitudes, which would mean AV in the case of current majority systems).

    That is a way of dodging your main question, Bob!

    However, while I am still rather on the fence about whether AV is an improvement over FPTP–this thread has almost persuaded me that it is, even though it likely is not a step towards PR–it seems to me that the case in favor of AV over FPTP might well be greater under nonpartisan elections. My (not well thought out) logic here is that there is probably a higher probability of 3-way races in nonpartisan elections, and in the absence of partisan cues to assist voters in gathering information about who the leading candidates are, the ability to rank-order is a pretty big advantage.

  26. MSS is right, only a few California cities have single-member plurality councils — about 20 out of about 480, the largest being Santa Ana and Bakersfield. Somewhere between 75% and 90% use MNTV. Of the 58 counties, 57 use two-round majority (San Francisco uses AV).

    I also think MSS is probably right about the frequency of three-way contests in non-partisan elections. I would wager that such contests are most common in partisan primaries, least common in partisan general elections (in a two-party system, that’s true by definition), with non-partisan local elections somewhere in between.

    But I don’t think I agree that the absence of partisan cues is the main reason for wanting AV. I think it’s the damage done by vote-splitting when there there are more than two serious contenders. Add to that the facts, all previously mentioned, that the two round majority suffers from low turnout, high cost and second round campaigns that are either too short or too long.

    But the elephant in the room is still whether AV increases or decreases the likelihood of adopting PR at a later time. We haven’t yet considered the possibility that it does neither, at least not to any material extent. Or that it sometimes does one and sometimes does the other in ways that we can’t predict and therefore shouldn’t worry about.

  27. > “probably a higher probability of 3-way races in nonpartisan elections”

    Doubtless because party preselection/ endorsement processes (whether a panel of half-a-dozen, a mass primary with a million voters, or something in between) both offer a de facto “first round” and also give some guidance as to how big each party’s support is. In non-partisan races, both are lacking (c/f Papua New Guinea).

  28. Those interested in this thread might also be interested in one by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, prompted by a panel he attended at a recent conference on Logic, Game Theory and Social Choice.

  29. > “Think about an IRV election, and suppose that there is no strategic voting (I’ll argue that it won’t be needed, so voters will always vote sincerely. Now suppose that , after the votes have been cast, any candidate has the option to withdraw (there are some potential complications about the order in which this option becomes available to candidates, but I don’t think they matter in the end). Suppose that a candidate will only withdraw if by doing so, they will ensure the election of a candidate preferred by the majority of their voters to the candidate actually elected. I claim that this procedure is a Condorcet method. That is, it always selects the Condorcet winner, the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election, if such a candidate exists.”

    I should be flattered that Qui-Ginn Jonn reinvented the wheel that I (thought I) discovered in 1992 (scroll down to Chapter 4, “Risk of Pyrrhic Victory”). As far as I could tell in that innocent, pre-Internet age, I was the first to think of adding a standing-down option to AV.

    By the way, I have no idea who runs that German website, and as far as I know they never asked my permission to re-publish my Hons thesis (e-copies of which I had emailed to a dozen or so electoral reform anoraks on a mailing list), but again, I s’ppose, should be flattered.

  30. I would question the stand-down option. The electorate could reasonably ask why their votes got cancelled and replaced by an outcome negotiated by the parties.

  31. Would AV be better for societies with diverse political views and parliamentary systems than FPTP? (I would not presume to suggest what American reformers should do.)

    Fair Vote Canada’s research has already been noted above. I will just add a simple comment: bad as Canada’s system is, we do have a House in which 28% of MPs are from third parties, while Australia has zero — clearly worse than FPTP. They have a thinly disguised two-party system: Labor or the Coalition.

    An Australian Law Professor makes the case against AV: “Australian parliaments are controlled by a Coalition/Labor duopoly, whose participants happily alternate in power, and whose ministers need fear no independent thinking or scrutiny from their cowed backbenchers. We have one of the weakest legislatures in the democratic world. The Parliament here is under a degree of democratic control that would not be tolerated elsewhere. Australian parliamentary discipline is notorious: the last government to fall to a revolt by its own MPs was the Scullin government of 1931.”

  32. Bede Harris is of course right that proportional representation for the House is an essential reform. The more senate-like the house becomes, and the sooner, the better. However, the house of representatives is not devoid of independent and third-party members although 3 independents is not nearly enough to disprove the anti-AV thesis. However, the Coalition is increasingly shaky both federally and in the States and territories.

    The Labor Government in South Australia depends on National support in the assembly for its working majority. The Liberal government of Western Australia depends on National support for its working majority. The Labor government of the Northern Territory depends on independent MPs for its working majority.

    Of the 5 AV lower houses in Australia, 3 have governments that do not enjoy a majority in their own right.

    There is a long tradition in Australian political commentary of decrying the supine posture adopted by the lower houses and it’s broadly accurate, although no more so, I strongly suspect, than Canada or the UK. I cannot, for instance, see an Australian assembly where the progressives held a large majority deciding they hated each other so much that a conservative minority government was preferable to coalition.

    I do not know that the fall of the Scullin government, where a section of the Labor caucus defied their electors, joined the conservatives, and then went down to defeat in their own districts at the subsequent election, is really one I’d cite as a glorious day for democracy. The reality is that in parliamentary systems governments just do not fall on the floor of the House all that often.

  33. What Alan said. I doubt that Bede (whom I once edited) is calling for FPTP as any improvement over AV.

    Also, Australia is more politically and socially homogeneous than Canada. Language isn’t an issue, and apart from the Nationals being dominant (always in seats, sometimes even in votes too) over the Liberals in Queensland, the basic choice is between a Liberal and a Labor premier/ minister in all nine State and/or mainland [*] lower houses. Contrast Canada, with different govt/ opposition line-ups in nearly every Province and Federally. No Australian State has credibly threatened to secede apart from WA in 1931; but it remains a live issue in many regions of Canada. [**]

    Despite Australia’s large area, more than five-sixths of the voters here live in the south-eastern triangle (from the Sunshine Coast to eastern Melbourne). Regionalism isn’t as big a factor here, and where it is, it favours Independents with local roots, rather than minor parties with national organisation but regional strongholds (eg UK Lib-Dems).

    While there is a good case for Prof Domenico Fisichella’s argument that AV, like Runoff, can be used to “lock out” “anti-system” parties that are viewed as beyond the pale (the German Social Democrats before 1918, the French Communists, and One Nation in Australia 1996-2001), it is not often used in Australia this way. It might have been had the Democrats ever looked like seriously coming second in any electorates. It may yet if the Greens do. Yet I wouldn’t underestimate Coalition opportunism; the Libs/ Nats may yet preference the Greens just to make life harder for Labor. (Labor has at times done the same for the DLP).


    [*] ie, Commonwealth, all States, and the two mainland Territories. Norfolk Island is a world unto itself… non-party mini-council elected by semi-cumulative vorte (like the Swiss system without the party lists), controls its own immigration, doesn’t really want to be part of Australia: a sort of transplanted-Cornish Puerto Rico.

    [**] If you ask me, the “Red” States/ Provinces of North America should form one federation, while the “Blue” Provinces/ States should form another, with a customs union of course. But no one asks me…

  34. I think Bede is, to a certain extent, a victim of the Whig Theory of Parliament. Where the Whig Theory of Hisotry claimed that everything in England was wonderful until it became even more wonderful, the Whig theory of parliament is that there was once a golden age when parliaments regularly overthrew cabinets on the highest of principles and MPs were Platonic guardians of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

    The reality could not be more different. The right of the House of Commons to overthrow a cabinet was not clearly established until the Bedchamber Crisis of 1839. Moreover the British parliament, even in 1839, even after the Great Reform Act, contained large numbers of rotten boroughs whose MPs voted precisely as their patrons directed and was elected on an extraordinarily narrow franchise.

    Australian parliaments were among the first in the world to introduce payment of MPs. The Labor Party is actually one of the oldest continuous parties in the world. Pledged MPs were seen as a democratic reform, not a grubby departure from the golden age of independence.

    None of which justifies the tight party discipline that now prevails on both sides of the aisle in the House of Representatives, but it needs a better alternative than hurrying back to the glory days of parliament in 1750 or something.

  35. It helps to analyse the incentives, from the average voter’s perspective, to elect an independent vs a party MP.

    I work on the assumption that:

    (1) In an assembly with a disciplined majority party or coalition,

    (1.1) an MP in that majority has (say) 7 “power units” as far as their constituency goes (via lobbying ministers, voting in caucus, possibility of Ministerial appointment, etc).

    (1.2) An opposition or cross-bench MP has only, say, 2 “power units” (mainly via asking awkward Questions, and pleading with Ministers over non-party “roads and rats” details).


    (2) In a “hung” assembly (where no party/ coalition has a majority),

    (2.1) an MP in the largest party caucus (which presumably forms a minority government) has 4 “power units”

    (2.2) an MP in the opposition caucus has 3 “power units”; but

    (2.3) a cross-bench MP now has, say, 6 “power units”, because s/he can credibly threaten to bring down the government.

    In other words, if you elect an Independent but majority govt is the norm, your MP will be perpetually sidelined with less influence than a major-party MP. On the other hand, In other words, if you elect an Independent but hung parliaments are common, your MP may end up a kingmaker with arguably more influence than a major-party MP. (I’m sure many ALP MPs in ACT or SA would have liked a Ministerial appointment too, but the Labor chief minister had to appoint Michael Moore and Karlene Maywald to keep a majority).

    It is perhaps significant that, in Australia, Independents who have gained a high profile did so when the government had either a very slim majority (John Hatton in NSW, mid-1970s) or none at all (Martyn Evans in Sth Aust, 1990s; Liz Cunningham in Qld, 1995-98).

  36. The other motive for electing an independent MP in rural and regional Australia is the continued weakening of the National Party outside Queensland. Areas like New England, in northern NSW, once National strongholds (once you left the Brisbane outskirts you drove through National electorates all the way to the Hunter Valley just north of Sydney) now elect independents at both state and federal levels. Their feeling seems to be the Nationals get rolled by the Liberals in government and even more by Labor when the Coalition is in opposition. It’s notable that the WA and SA Nationals are both pursing a much more independent line and less socially conservative polices, although the two branches are in coalition with different parties at the State level.

  37. “… Nobody would run a giant-cheque photograph in a newspaper, ever, if he had any reasonable alternative.

    The fact is that our system of government allows MPs on the side that has the confidence of the House to engage in feudalism. This is the only appropriate term for a structure whereby communities and organisations are encouraged to display fealty to a person, and subsequently receive reciprocal benefits directly from his hand. It has been a feature of every Canadian government, whether Liberal or Conservative, and I suppose there might even be some things to say in its favour. It is certainly what the vassals expect; it is, at root, the feudal instinct that makes voters ask what their MP has done for them lately, or why the government isn’t “doing something” to help a particular region or industrial sector.

    But no one who has any interest in fair and efficient government, or in classical-liberal values, will defend unabashed, open feudalism. We all agree that a government of laws, rather than men with their whims and temptations, is a good thing. Most of us agree that the state should behave in a foreseeable way, according to objective principles. We believe that every man [SIC] should enjoy the benefits of the law equally; feudalism is pretty much the opposite of that. It cannot be purged instantly from our politics, but it can be circumscribed and made distasteful.

    Which is the point of those cosmetic Treasury Board guidelines that Conservative MPs have apparently made a habit of violating. Those guidelines represent an aspiration, an ideal of justice; and it is in the nature of such norms that displaying contempt for them is more dangerous than actually violating them.

    The Conservative MPs who splashed their names across big stupid cheques are not just behaving corruptly by using public funds for personal or partisan political gain; they’re degrading the notion of corruption. Better and safer to vote for an honest crook.”

    – Colby Cosh, “Big and stupid,” National Post [Canada] (October 16, 2009).

  38. I’m going to use “groupuscules” a lot more, that’s for sure. I wonder if there is empirical support for MSS agnosticism here in CA and possibly Washington, looking at other institutional changes. In CA especially, one might expect the top two primary to have a similar effect, but so far the only spoilers have been a major party getting into a runoff under dominant party coordination failure. The only growth in groupuscules has been (often single issue) “independent” candidates trying to mask their partisanship in very partisan districts.

  39. Pingback: Electoral Engineering and the Freedom to Vote | taktik(z) GDI (Government Defense Infrastructure)

  40. Pingback: Electoral Engineering and the Freedom to Vote – mccoy.ventures

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