Partisan dynamics of support for AV

Maine voters will decide in November whether to use the alternative vote (AV) for all single-winner elections. (I’m not sure about the congressional-district Electoral College votes.) Why does AV have traction, and if it wins, how long can we expect it to last? I assume we need to examine the incentives of party factions. I assume these factions are fighting over a law-making veto point, which is identical to the office itself in a single-winner context. (You can see how I use these assumptions in a working paper on STV, which is the PR cousin of AV.)

Democrats (two factions: regular and insurgent) are the main AV supporters right now. Why? The current Republican governor won with 48 percent of votes in a three-way race. The independent candidate was probably an insurgent Democrat. The 8 percent of voters who supported him probably would have voted for the regular Democrat in his absence. Regular Democrats like AV right now because it would move insurgent Democratic ballots into their column.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV before now? As Marsha Mercer notes for Pew:

State legislators in Maine first introduced ranked-choice voting legislation in 2001, when the governor was an independent. They did again when the governor was a Democrat, and once more during the term of current Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

When the bills went nowhere, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting-Maine collected 73,000 signatures for the citizen ballot initiative.

Regular Democrats didn’t like AV in 2010 because the insurgent Democrat led the regular Democrat, implying regular Democratic votes would have transferred to an insurgent Democrat, thereby creating an insurgent Democratic governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2006? One answer is that they had the governor they wanted, so the “transaction costs” of a referendum campaign outweighed the benefits. But that’s a lazy explanation. Another answer is that AV would have helped elect a right-of-center — ugh, I hate that word — candidate. The lead insurgent Democrat was Barbara Merrill. She has a history of supporting corporations. So a rerun of the 2006 election under AV would have created a Republican governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2002, just after the first introduction of AV legislation? Again, they had the Democrat they wanted, but that’s the lazy route. A glance at the vote totals shows the Green Party held the balance. “Ahh, the Green Party people would have ranked the Democrat second,” you say. That is not certain. The Green Party of the early 2000s had a reputation for “centrism” (that word again), meaning their votes may well have transferred to a Republican in an AV rerun of 2002. (I’ll let the Green Party explain its preferences.)

So regular Democrats like AV right now because they expect it to help them, not the insurgents. The minute AV elects an insurgent Democrat, regular Democrats will collude with Republicans to repeal AV.

Other lessons:

  1. Greens are not a genuine party of the left, at least not entirely. Many once came from the pain caucus.
  2. You like AV and want to keep it? Don’t run an insurgent Democrat who beats the regular Democrat in first-choice votes. (If you do, the regular will lose, their votes will transfer to the insurgent, Maine will have an insurgent Democratic governor, and the regular Democrats will be angry.)
  3. Are you an insurgent Democrat? Take over the Democratic Party (becoming a regular). That way you can win with AV if the former regulars run their own candidate, win with or without AV if they do not, and scream them down if they run their own candidate

20 thoughts on “Partisan dynamics of support for AV

  1. In that working paper, To Party or to Faction? The End of Proportional Representation in American Cities, it was very unusual for a PR system to be replace with FPTP, isn’t this what happened in Northern Ireland, and also isn’t France known from going from PR to a plurality runoff two round system?

    Ireland came close to abolishing PR and replacing it with FPTP twice, but thankfully the Irish Constitution enshrined the electoral system in it, and required a national referendum to change it. Both times the Irish people said No. Did referendums in the various cities abolish PR? Seems odd that the people would want to abolish it. At least Cambridge has PR-STV, at least that stuck.

    I guess the U.S party system hasn’t fragmented enough meaning that it is strictly binary, if it became more atomized causing strategic voting anomalies then maybe PR would be embraced. Most large U.S cities could benefit from PR because they aren’t ruled by a multi-party system, but a dominant party system, there is not binary party system in large urban areas, unless one considered within the dominant party, factions that lead to a binary.


    • And I agree it seems odd for “the people” anywhere to replace a PR system with something “less open.” That is the puzzle I’m tackling!


  2. Rob, thanks for your comment. All three cities covered in the working paper left PR-STV for some version of plurality: Cincinnati to plurality at-large, Worcester to plurality at-large with a winnowing primary, and NYC to FPTP.

    As far as I know, Northern Ireland still uses STV, but I may be wrong.

    France briefly had PR under the Socialists in the 1980s. I suspect the reason the next government repealed PR is consistent with the argument I make in the paper (in this context, to keep the Socialists from being a decisive policy-making faction).

    But I could be totally wrong. Others know the European cases better than I.


    • About France: the first change from PR (sort of) to majoritarian-2 rounds system was in 1958, after a kind of military coup; the second change from PR to majoritarian-2 rounds was in the 80s, and probably the reason the change was so easy was because the party that most benefited from PR was a very “unpopular” party, the far-rightist National Front (and probably specially unpopular between the kind of people who usually are the biggest defenders of PR…).

      Then, both changes in France were in very peculiar situations (a coup in one case, a supposedly “fascist” threat in the other).


    • Northern Ireland currently uses PR-STV, but when it was opt out of joining Southern Ireland, now the Republic of Ireland. It uses PR-STV for 2 elections, then later abolished it for FPTP. Then later came the troubles during the late 60’s and 70s, then the Northern Irish parliament was abolished for a time. In fact, I have heard stories that the English forced the STV system on the Irish, a system that they themselves would never use, funny that the Irish got an electoral system that the UK proposed using for themselves but never got around doing so.

      Local government is different from a state or national level, one would think that the abolishing of PR by referendum might have been local factors and interests.

      It is also strange at the local level in the U.S that cities would have the option of changing their electoral systems by referendum, it would have been interesting if the state requires all local governments to use PR-STV (or a mandate a particular electoral system) and that they had no choice to repeal it, but had to go through the state legislature to have done so.


      • There’s a state-politics story to tell, and it’s probably similar to this one.

        A shorter answer is that PR only came with municipal charter “reform.” That’s because the PR people cut a deal with the municipal reform people in 1914, which they solidified in 1932. (Very interesting: the PR people simultaneously jettisoned the initiative/referendum/recall people in 1914.) But this is why a referendum majority was sufficient to change the voting rules. PR was bound up with the home rule “movement.”


  3. For what it’s worth, this post got cut off in the editing process. It was supposed to end “…without AV.

    4) Are insurgent Democrats too small a group to take over the Democratic Party? Cut a deal with the Republicans to enact proportional representation, but then you owe the Republicans a legislative veto (see working paper).”


    • AV works best when two parties are close, but not too close: when they are dating long-term, but not married.

      (1) If they are very close – so close that they can be persuaded to stay out of each other’s turf, to cede each other territorial bailiwicks by not standing candidates against each other – AV is unnecessary because FPTP will deliver their coalition the same number of seats, [*] and counting preferences would only encourage/ advantage challengers from outside their coalition. Examples would be the Conservatives and Unionists in the UK, Labour and the Cooperative Party in the UK, the Liberals and Social Democrats in the UK, and India’s anti-Congress (I) alliance of 1977-1980 (although that proved short-lived).

      I’m not sure whether to count Minnesota, with its Democratic/ Farmer-Labor alliance (which provided candidates for five of the six Democratic presidential tickets between 1964 and 1984, as I have some recollection of reading that Minnesota primaries involved runoffs, at least at one point in history, precisely so the Democrats and the Farmer-Labor Party could test their electoral strength against each other.

      (2) If they are rather distant, AV will probably also not help, because preferences will leak. The current relationship between the Greens and ALP in Australia approximates this. The two parties share a common enemy on the Right, but anti-Green sentiment is strong in Labor – not only among Labor Right figures who dislike the Greens’ social and foreign policy positions, but even many figures on the ALP Left, who share those positions but think the Greens are so absolutist and/or idealistic that they jeopardise the achievement of those goals in practice. (Eg, here’s Anthony Albanese, ALP federal Deputy leader, who was voted in one informal blog poll I saw some years ago as tied with the Green’s Kerry Nettle as “most left-wing MP in federal Parliament”: ‘… Discussing his last campaign, where he was threatened by the Greens, he added: “I’m in the Labor Party because I want to be in a party of government, not a party that protests government decisions after they’ve been made. I want to make those decisions”…’ Emma Reynolds, “Anthony Albanese’s biggest wake-up call”, The Australian (7 September 2016),

      [*] I’m not entirely sure whether the combined FPTP vote for the single joint candidate of a coalition will reliably equal either (i) the combined first-preference vote of all candidates, or (ii) the final-count vote for the last surviving candidate, of that coalition under AV, especially with optional preferences and voluntary voting. Telling, eg, Communist Party grass-roots supporters “We’re not going to run our own candidate this time, because we don’t want to split the vote and let the Conservatives win by default; but we would really, really urge everyone on the Left to turn out and [X] the Social Democratic candidate” is a much tougher sell than “Okay, to avoid getting fined you need to turn up and lodge a ballot-paper, and to make that ballot-paper valid you need to number every candidate; so while you’re at it, comrades, why not make sure it’s the Social Democrat you put a [2] next to, after the Communist nominee?” Making preferences more or less optional (“1 is sufficient” – Ireland/ Malta/ New South Wales/ Queensland, vs “number at least 3 candidates” – Tasmanian Legislative Council/ Papua New Guinea vs “number up to 7 candidates” – San Francisco) and making voting more or less voluntary (“$25 fine if you don’t have an excuse” vs “the local branch of the Party, Comrade, is very concerned that you failed to vote at last month’s election for the Soviet of People’s and Workers’ Deputies.. Gravely, gravely concerned”) will -s far as the difficulty of making cross-party deals stick – move the dials closer to the “FPTP” end of the spectrum. But I can’t think of [m]any examples of polities with optional-preferential AV and compulsory voting (Queensland, NSW… I suppose some of the Latin American republics with presidential runoffs might fall under this umbrella) and I can’t think of any, since South Australia adopted compulsory voting in the 1940s, that have voluntary voting with mandatory preferences.

      “Mandatory” is a better term than “compulsory” for non-optional preferences, as it (a) avoids confusion with “compulsory voting” – when, eg, British pundits say “we should copy the ‘Australian Rules’, ie compulsory preferential voting with an elected upper house”, they presumably still want optional preferences; and (b) legally is more accurate – the legal consequence of failure to number all or nearly all candidates is not a penalty upon the voter (unenforceable due to the secret ballot) but invalidation of the ballot. So: “voluntary/ compulsory voting” for a right/ duty to turn out and lodge a ballot-paper; “mandatory/ optional voting” for a legal requirement to number all candidates.


      • That sounds about right. There’s probably a policy “distance” dynamic at work, if we go with that metaphor. Hence the Regular Democrats will play AV with Insurgent Democrats but not Greens, because Insurgent Democrats can be counted upon to not vote for Republicans. Regular Democrats might even cope with an Insurgent Democratic governor, as long as they are not too Insurgent.


      • I suppose “compulsory voting” can and should be widened to “incentives to turn out at the polls and cast a ballot that will be counted for XYZ candidate, party or ballot-proposition even when XYZ is not your first-choice in that particular race.”
        1. “Because I’ll get fined if I don’t,” or “because the local branch of the One Party will stamp my file ‘non-voter’ if I don’t” is one reason. But there are also positive incentives.
        2. A simple sense of civic duty is a strong factor. The meme that “good citizens ought to vote” is strong — the counter-meme that “if you don’t know much about the issues, parties or candidates, it’s probably not ideal, and it’s arguably better to stay home or abstain” has much less traction. This explains why jurisdictions with voluntary first-past-the-post voting still use random or rotated ballot-papers — to counter the donkey-vote. (Indeed, a truly civics minded voter isn’t going to turn up at the polls thinking “I’m going to find XYZ on that damned ballot, vote for them, and then go home” but would ideally think “I’m going to weigh up every single one of these candidates while I’m in the polling booth” — laudable open-minded, but human frailty means this voter will almost certainly drop off after considering the first half-moon names, and all else being equal — as opinion pollsters know — these will probably be those on listed highest in ballot order).
        3. Then there’s the effect of bundling multiple races together on a single ballot, which is less high-minded but still voluntary. Hence the well-known use of referenda to drive up turnout in elections (and the paradox of journalists, usually although not invariably at The New Republic, complaining at the same time (a) that ballot propositions are too confusing and (b) that voters care far more about them than about elections among candidates). Strategists want to be careful, since a lot of “traditional marriage/ sexuality” issues will bring out African American voters (who vote for Democrat candidates) along with religious white voters (who vote GOP).
        Hence multi-contest ballot-papers have an effect roughly similar to AV as far as divining voters’ order or preference. Revealed, not asserted, preference. Perot supporters from 1992 may tell journalists that no, they wouldn’t have voted for Bush I over Clinton had H Ross not been on the ballot (leading to the CW that Perot did not throw that election to Clinton by splitting the right-wing vote) but if you look at the down-ballot results, they voted for GOP Congressional candidates over Democrats where the race was two-way, leading the Decs to actually lose seats in Congress even as they gained the presidency after twelve years in opposition.
        Australian opinion pollsters know well that asking voters “Okay, you’d vote Green as your first choice if an election were held tomorrow: which would be your second preference — Labor or Liberal?” is less reliable than looking at how Green voters actually marked their preferences at the previous election. If the Greens’ primary vote rises, you can estimate fairly accurately that the Labor 2PP share will rise in turn. See, eg, Kevin Bonham here (scroll down to “2PP Preferencing: Last Election vs Respondent-Allocated”) and Antony Green here:
        Sure, people may say when opinion-polled that they’re planning to both vote Green and preference Liberal/ National to teach Labor a lesson for its selling out on environmental and social reforms — but people say lots of things. And admitting “yes, I helped throw control of my country’s executive branch to the new Nazis for a whole three or four years because I had a tantrum in the polling booth” isn’t, I suspect, the sort of thing people easily volunteer to strangers.
        (A caveat here that I’ve never voted in a FPTP election, at least not for any public body: maybe a few clubs and those were usually MNTV and non – partisan. So I’ve never been in the position, myself, of having to choose between voting sincerely and voting effectively. Here in Australia, when the Parliament passes laws that say “Do not write false statements on official forms”, that means ALL official forms, and does not — unlike US, India, UK, Canada, Malaysia, etc – make an implied exception for ballot-papers, on which the parliament actually encourages voters to falsify their true preferences.)


        • I like your intuition about falling back on heuristics (like party ID) when there’s a lot on the ballot. Crowder-Meyer, Gadarian, and Trounstine had an APSA paper speaking to this. They were looking at the (inferred) race heuristic, but I can see the same logic applying to a “long ballot.”


      • I imagine “Well, I’ve turned up to vote for ABC for X office, and while I’m here, I may as well vote for the other candidates of that party as well” would be heightened where there’s the option of voting a straight party ticket. isn’t there one State this year – Michigan, maybe — where the legislature is repealing that option for what appears to be partisan advantage?
        But as I said, my intuitions about how people behave under (a) voluntary voting and (b) non-preferential (tactical-encouraging) voting systems are only hearsay, not first-hand experience – drawn from anecdotal incidents I’ve read about over the years. Every eelction I’ve ever voted in has been one where turning out and voting sincerely was the most rational strategy to maximise the success of my preference list * (and avoid fines). I really have no idea how I as a voter would behave under an electoral system where staying home could have exactly the same effect on the result as turning out and voting for my first choice…

        * ie, to elect candidates in the same lexical order as I prefer ’em =- so that electing [2] as well as [1] is better, but electing [2] instead of [1] is worse, than just electing [1] alone.


    • I’m thinking of changing it to “most likely to cast the deciding vote.” Pivots and veto points seem too jargony.

      And there’s a whole thread here on “fixed-term parliamentarism”! I should pay closer attention. Here I thought I’d made that term up myself.

      Fixed-term parliamentarism is an interesting thing. My hunch is it’s also bad for governance.


      • Sorry, props to [Jack, not to MSS, for “law-making veto point”. Should pay more attention myself.
        [The term also neatly distinguishes from “policy-making veto point”, eg an office or institution with a lot of social clout but no legal power, or at least not a veto over new laws. Religious bodies would be good examples – the Mormon Church in Utah, the Methodist Church in Tonga or Fiji, the rabbinate in Israel, the Catholic church in Malta and (formerly) Ireland, Boston and New South Wales, the Islamic clergy [*] in some Islamic states but not, eg, Iran where they have a legal role. Likewise formerly royals in states that have become republics – the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and I understand, anecdotally, in some states of India and even Germany – can be politically influential in terms of giving the nod. By contrast, the Anglican clergy in Britain enjoy legal power – 26 seats in the upper house – but almost no political influence.
        [* Yeah, I know, officially Islam has no “clergy”, but cleric is as cleric does. Officially, Anglicanism is the third most centralised sect of Christianity; but contrast the real-world impact of, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s opposition to the Coalition of the Willing’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, with the Shia Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s imprimatur for it, to decide which of those religions is more “clerical”].


  4. Out of curiosity, how closely does the Regular Democrats vs Insurgent Democrats split in Maine map onto the Hillary Clinton vs Bernie Sanders contest in terms of ideology? Is it a localised playing-out of the same issues (basically, over whether America in 2016 is better or worse than it was in 1956)?


    • I thought I had replied. The WP app is being weird.

      I don’t know for sure, and today’s insurgents do not seem like yesterday’s insurgents. But my hunch is “roughly yes.”


  5. Pingback: Voter choice or partisan interest? The case of ranked-choice voting in Maine | Fruits and Votes

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