Early STV voting equipment

Voting technology is one obstacle to wider use of ranked-choice voting. Although groups like OpaVote have had open-source fixes for years, US jurisdictions tend to rely on commercial vendors. A decade ago, many of them resisited developing the technology. Now, of course, voters can “complete the arrow,” as is done in San Francisco, or bubble in a candidate-by-ranking matrix, as was done in Maine last week.

The challenges get thornier with STV elections. Due to the “multi-winner” nature of a race, there sometimes are very many candidates. That can result in confused voters and burdensome vote counts. Only in 1991 did Cambridge (MA) solve these problems by computerizing its electoral system. That could have happened as early as 1936, when many cities still were holding STV elections.

As it turns out, IBM had found a way to mechanize the voting process. George Hallett of the erstwhile Proportional Representation League writes:

Among the most persuasive arguments against P. R., in spite of their essential triviality, have been the objections that it required several days to get the result in a large election and that it required paper ballots and hand counting, both of which in plurality elections without the safeguards of a central count have acquired an evil reputation. In connection with the possible early use of P. R. in New York City, where these objectives would be stronger than ever psychologically, an effective answer to them has now been devised.


IBM’s system used standard, punch-card readers to count STV ballots at a rate of 400 per minute. According to Hallett, “the final result of a P. R. election in New York City can easily be determined by some time in the morning of the day after election.”

Voters would use a series of dials to rank candidates, one through 20. Then, as some will recall, the machine would record a voter’s votes when they pulled the lever to open the curtain. Opening the curtain punched the holes into the punch-card ballot.

Here is the quotation in its context (albeit a bit blurry):

Other features of the system were:

  • Precinct-based error correction. A voter could not give the same ranking to more than one candidate. Nor could a voter skip a ranking.
  • Freedom of choice. A voter could rank as few candidates as they wanted. They also could rank as many as they wanted. Although the machine was built for 20 rankings, there appears to have been accommodation for write-in and additional candidates. Finally, a voter could go back and change their mind about a ranking.
  • Early “cyber-security.” Now we worry about nefarious actors loading malware onto touchscreens. Back in the 1930s, however, the worry was that poll workers might stuff a ballot box or throw out ballots they did not like. IBM’s solution was simple. Poll workers would not have access to individual ballots. Once a voter voted, the ballot fell into a sealed container, only to be opened in the central-count location.

Why the machine did not catch on remains a mystery. IBM appears to have been pitching it to New York City in advance of the November referendum, which put STV into place from 1937 to 1947. Those passing by 41 Park Row could see a demonstration model at the Citizens Union office.

It is a shame that New York (and other cities) did not go with the system. According to Mott (1926), the average invalid-ballot rate in 19 elections to that point was 9.1 percent. My data reveal invalid rates of up to 18 percent (Manhattan and Brooklyn, 1941). Part of this was abstention altogether. Another part was the lack of interest in discerning voter intent, handling skipped rankings with compassion, and so forth. IBM’s machine, however, would have addressed some of those issues, all while educating voters at the same time that they voted.

Down with the State of the Union

Transplanted here from 2012 (and perviously from 2008 and originally from 2006, with many comments from the the original and subsequent years; links may suffer from linkrot after all these years.)

Something over at PoliBlog reminded me of why I pay no attention to the State of the Union address: It’s a worst-of-both-worlds form of political communication: All the pomp of a Speech from the Throne without any of the give-and-take of Question Period.

Steven takes issue with Lewis Gould’s characterization, from an essay called Ban the Bombast!:

More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation’s situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne.

Steven suggests that Gould’s “throne” characterization implies the president always get what he wants. Rather, for me, the reference reminds me precisely of what is wrong with the State of the Union address: It is not like a real throne speech at all.

“Speech from the throne” is the term used (with certain variations) in Westminister parliamentary systems. The head of state reads a statement about what “my government…” will do in the coming year. Then once it, and the dignity of the Queen (or her representative in Canada and other Commonwealth Realms) pretending that the government speaks for everyone, is over, things go back to normal. And that normal involves the head of government being hissed and booed and subjected to harsh questions in parliament.

In this respect, the State of the Union is really the worst of both worlds. The head of state stands before the people’s representatives (oh, and the senators, too) and delivers something allegedly about the nation as a whole. But then, as head of government–and therefore a partisan leader–he (i.e. the same person, unlike in Westminster systems) never sticks around to answer tough questions and subject himself to ridicule for the absurdities he has just mouthed. Instead, the opposition has to send someone to a TV/radio studio to give an equally absurd speech that hardly anyone listens to, and thus an opportunity for the sides to engage each other when people actually are paying attention is squandered.

I say dump the whole thing and in its place:

    • (1) go back to the head of state being kept off the floor of the separate legislative body and instead have him send a written message to congress


(2) have the head of government stick around after presenting his plans and spin and make him take questions–preferably weekly, as in Canada and the UK.

That is, keep true to the separation of powers by dumping the image of dignity and superiority that its one-way communication from the “throne” of Congress implies, or make the President jostle and spar with the very same representatives of the people he’s speaking before.

A reaction to “no separation of powers without divided government”

Vox published quite an incisive article today by Lee Drutman. The title almost speaks for itself, though I would have put ‘checks and balances’ where he put ‘separation of powers’, since the point is that the latter has proven insufficient for the former to be meaningful or effective. Though the issues involved should be very familiar to most of our readers, it is worth a read, and is not long. The article’s diagnosis is very accurate, and the solutions it points to are spot on (refreshingly, confidence votes are mentioned in addition to proportional representation). Its analysis of the founders’ constitutional design intentions is, however, flawed.

First of all, the founders probably did not think the Constitution would prevent parties from forming. The authors of the Federalist Papers certainly didn’t think so. In Federalist no. 10, Madison argues that parties arise from “the nature of man”, and quite clearly states that as long as we maintain liberty, faction is inevitable: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests… The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.”

To Madison, therefore, the purpose of constitutional design is not to prevent faction or extinguish it, but to “control its effects”. In Federalist no. 10 he proposes to achieve this end through the large republic, whose size and combination of so many people with so many different interests would make it hard for a majority to materialize. In Federalist no. 51, he repeats this argument, saying “the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” But to this he adds another mechanism: “each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.” This is the separation of powers, giving the different branches institutional independence and their own separate interests.

As Drutman rightly says, experience has shown, especially lately, that this system of incentives has proven insufficient (especially to checking the executive) when the presidency and both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party. It is hard to argue the framers did not attempt to guard against just that, especially in making the House and Senate so different from each other. The passage which Drutman himself quotes from Schattschneider is probably correct, and as Drutman himself writes, “[dividing] up power across so many competing institutions that it would be impossible for partisan majorities to form” meaning majorities of the same party in both houses along with the presidency – unified government. I don’t think the framers were so optimistic as to think their design made unified government impossible, only that it made it significantly less likely – not an unreasonable expectation. But unified government was not an unknown danger, but one of the main dangers they set out to avoid. And, as I said before, they clearly did not think their institutions would actually prevent parties, only prevent them from forming majorities.

Which brings me back to the Federalists’ first argument – that in a large republic interests would be too numerous and diverse to allow one party to form a legislative majority. This has clearly proven wrong – but the reason for this, crucially, is the electoral system. With single-seat districts, a party can win an assembly majority even in a democracy as large and diverse as India, the result of the mechanical effect of the system on seat shares. Under proportional representation, however, even very small countries rarely witness single-party legislative majorities. Whether or not increased numbers and diversity in the population also brings with it a lower chance of this occurring, in accordance with Madison’s logic, is unclear. What seems certain, however, is that under proportional representation, Congress and the system as a whole would function much more in line with the framers’ original predictions.

Alabama scenarios

If it is possible, under Alabama election law, for Luther Strange or another Republican to run as an independent, I do not know which of the following is the likelier scenario.

Note: the winner is decided by plurality (most votes, not requiring more than half).

(1) Moore’s support bleeds away to the write-in, who wins a majority (or nearly so) in the deep-red state.

(2) The write-in splits the Republican vote, and Moore has sufficient dead-end support that won’t defect, letting Jones (the Democrat) win with ~40%.

(3) The write-in attracts lots of voters away from Jones who were only considering voting for him as the not-Moore, as well as from Moore himself, such that the write-in wins, but it is a close three-way contest.

One additional consideration: it is pretty late to organize a write-in campaign, and scenarios 1 & 3 both assume that it is possible to get it off the ground, and get voters aware of what they have to do.

I still think the most likely scenario is Moore wins, and sits in the Senate (until such time as the Senate, by 2/3, might vote to expel him).

The US Supreme Court gerrymandering case

I do not have time to dissect the arguments before the US Supreme Court in the case concerning the permissibility of the partisan gerrymander in Wisconsin. It clearly is a case of great importance to issues we care about at this blog. So, feel free to discuss here.

I highly recommend two pieces by Michael Latner:

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard (4 OCt.)

Can Science (and The Supreme Court) End Partisan Gerrymandering and Save the Republic? Three Scenarios (2 Oct.)



PR for the electoral college? No thanks

The following is a guest post by Nathan Batto

One of the proposals sometimes mooted (by disaffected Democrats) is that electoral votes should be allotted proportionally within each state according to the popular vote. Obviously, since Clinton won the popular vote, she would then win the election!

Not so fast. Let’s run the numbers. There are several different formulae to calculate proportional representation. D’Hondt is quite favorable to big parties; Ste. Laguë is quite favorable to small parties.

Ste. Laguë: Clinton 264, Trump 262, Johnson 10, Stein 1, McMullin 1.
D’Hondt: Clinton 267, Trump 267, Johnson 2, Stein 1, McMullin 1.

In both cases, no one gets a majority. The race would then be thrown into the House, where each state delegation would get one vote. Since Republicans hold majorities in 31 state delegations, Trump would almost certainly be elected president.

Of course, this assumes that no voters changed their votes, but of course small parties would almost certainly get more votes under this system. What that would do is make it very, very hard for either big party to get 270 EVs. Almost every election would be thrown into the House, where the Republicans hold a structural advantage in state delegations due to their popularity in rural America (read: small states). In other words, this reform would make it much harder for the Democrats to win the presidency.

[Nathan notes that the exact numbers could change based on updated vote totals. See comments for a point regarding possible thresholds. –MSS]