Democratic primary: Don’t understate Biden’s dominance

The fragmentation of the US Democratic Party’s field of presidential pre-candidates exaggerates the weakness–real though it is–of the clear front-runner, Joe Biden.

Taking two poll trackers, Economist and FiveThirtyEight, here are those polling at five percent or more:

Pre-candidate Economist FiveThirtyEight
Biden 26 27.3
Sanders 17 17.8
Warren 16 14.7
Buttigieg 8 8.0
Bloomberg 7 5.0
(Sub-)total 74 72.8

It is noteworthy that even with so many candidates and different methodologies, the two trackers agree on the order. The only really substantial difference between them is in the estimate for Bloomberg. Not shown here, the two trackers also agree in the order of the next three: Yang, Klobuchar, and Booker. After that they diverge on the farther trailing candidates. (Economist has both Gabbard and Steyer at 1% but lists her ahead of him; perhaps we could say they agree on the order of the top ten.)

In the Economist tracker, the full list of all candidates who are given a vote percentage includes five listed as “<1%” (trailing two estimated at 1%). If we assumed all these five averaged 0.5% (which is probably too high) we still get to only 88.5% as a “total”. So that leaves too much for the thirteen who were running but have dropped out; the tracker does not report a percentage undecided. If we take Biden’s percentage over all those with at least 1%, he is just over 30%. Still pretty weak for a front-runner. But the one in second place, Sanders, would rise only to just under 20%. That’s a large gap.

Applying the same exercise to the FiveThirtyEight percentages–which have six candidates over 1%–we get a “total” of 86.3% and the top two at 31.6% and 20.6%.

The Democratic Party obviously does not use a nationwide two-round majority rule. But if it did, where would a top two 30–20 finish rank? How likely would it be that the second place candidate would win the runoff? I looked at this question in 2016; the graph at that post shows rather few real-world presidential contests with approximately 30–20 for the top two. But if one were to draw a line on the graph marking the region in which the gap is ten percentage points or more, no second-candidate comeback shows up with this large a gap until the leading candidate is around 35% (Austria 2016, the case that prompted the post). That is, even with a first-round candidate as weak as a third of the vote or less, comebacks occur only when the two are rather closer than Biden and Sanders are at this point. And this is, of course, before one even considers ideological placement of the candidates.

What I am getting at, in case it is not obvious, is that it is hard to imagine Biden not being the winner were there a hypothetical direct two-round primary–and even if the field stayed this fragmented up till the first round (which is itself unlikely). Perhaps Warren’s chances increase slightly if this nationwide primary were run under the alternative vote. She might pick up enough from eliminated candidates to surpass Sanders in the final two when calculated this way. It still seems a stretch that she could end up with a majority after reallocation of presences.

Now, let’s try a different hypothetical. The primary actually uses proportional representation to allocate delegates. Sort of. There is a 15% threshold, and the rules consist of a mix of statewide delegate allocation and allocation in congressional districts using varying district magnitude. If it were a single-shot affair rather than sequential across states and regions, only three candidates look like they would get any delegates (generously granting Warren what she needs to get over 15% in the FiveThirtyEight tracker or allowing for regional variance even if she stayed at 14.7%). In this scenario, Biden has 44% or 45% of the above-threshold vote. That might just be enough to win a majority of elected delegates or close to it, given a medium district magnitude on average. It would certainly put him close.

(There are 3,836 “pledged” delegates; 435 congressional districts plus separate statewide districts for the states that have more than one congressional district, DC, and various territories means ~480 districts, so an average magnitude of about 8.)

None of this is to say Biden can’t be caught by someone. And in the real and strange world, Iowa and then New Hampshire get to go before anyone else. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden is in a tight three-way fight in their Iowa estimate, with Buttigieg still clinging to a slight lead over Biden and then Sanders (19.7–19.1–18.3), with Warren at just 13.4%. The New Hampshire estimate is similar, only with Sanders the one clinging to a narrow lead over Biden and Buttigieg (18.0–17.3–15.6) and Warren at 13.9%. (Gasp–the fifth place candidate is Tulsi Gabbard, on 4.9%.)

The odd (I am being kind) procedure the party uses in the real world could still produce a surprise, if Biden fails to get a plurality in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and if the pre-candidate (or two or more) beating him were to surge nationally afterwards. It looks unlikely to me. I think Biden has it, barring an occurrence of something even stranger than the method by which the party selects its nominee.

“Winnowing works”–or does it?

I keep seeing political scientists–among those who focus on the US case–using a hashtag that says, “winnowing works”. It has got sufficiently under my skin that I decided to rant about it just a little. Honest, just a little.

I take it they are indicating that it is a good thing that the process set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has led to several presidential precandidates dropping out already. Sure, in that sense, winnowing works–by definition. That is, the field is smaller than it was a few weeks ago.

But is it working at the task that is presumably the one we should judge it by–producing a strong nominee? I have my doubts. I have very serious reservations about the current top three (Biden, Sanders, Warren). This is (somewhat) independent of their specific policies or track records. They are all old, and each one brings some significant baggage or potential problems with electability.

Maybe I am just unhappy that candidates I disliked less than the rest of the field, like one emphasizing an issue that should be front and center and was one of the few governors in the field (Inslee), one I just happen to find appealing (Booker), or one who seems especially well positioned to win Great Lakes area states lost in 2016 (Klobuchar) are all languishing. But that’s the point. Some of these currently lesser know candidates might have been better choices (Inslee is already out). But they have been, or likely soon will be, winnowed out months before anyone actually casts a vote.

The DNC is doing something very strange here. On the one hand, it continues to pander to the insistence of certain small and unrepresentative states to go early in the process of voting, on the theory that voters seeing a candidate up close are better able to make choices than the rest of us. On the other hand, it has created these big media events (“debates” is not really an appropriate term) and qualifications based on national polling and contributors, which make mass-media name recognition especially important. Am I wrong to see this as a fundamental contradiction?

There are many, many things I do not like about the US process of presidential selection. But I am just not convinced that winnowing is working at delivering a good nominee, vetted by actual voters whether in little states or the Democratic electorate at large.

Rotation of US Supreme Court justices?

According to the transcript of the Democratic pre-candidates’ debate (night 2), Bernie Sanders said:

I do not believe in packing the court. We got a terrible 5-4 majority conservative court right now. But I do believe that constitutionally we have the power to rotate judges to other courts. And that brings in new blood into the Supreme Court…

I would not pretend to know what Bernie meant. He says some strange things. But the Constitution is pretty brief on structure of courts. Let me try to imagine what he meant, and consider whether it could be constitutional.

Could legislation establish that there is a wider panel of appellate justices from which Supreme Court justices are drawn for periods of time? I am certainly not a constitutional lawyer, but maybe.

In Article III, Section 1, the US Constitution states, in part,

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour…

So we know from this that how “inferior courts” are structured is up to Congress, and that individual judges can’t be subjected to a term of some set length, without a constitutional amendment.

We also know, from Article II, Section 2, that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the supreme Court.” No other judges of any court are mentioned. So legislation could establish the inferior court judges are appointed by the Supreme Court, for example (a model that is actually used in some countries). But the point about “rotation” raised by Sanders is the reverse: could members of the Supreme Court be drawn from other courts, rather than be sitting on a permanent body?

I do not see why not. The judges as individuals can’t be dismissed except for violating “good behaviour”. But could not Congress establish that the President, at set periods, appoints (with advice and consent) judges from the Circuit Courts to sit on the Supreme Court, who at set periods rotate back to their “inferior” courts? The only obstacle that becomes immediately apparent to me is if the specific court (Supreme or inferior) a judge sits on is considered part of his or her “Compensation” (capital C in original, Article III, Section 1). But if all judges in these courts are accorded the same salary and benefits, then maybe the Constitution actually does permit some sort of rotation.

Now, I am not saying that Sanders is clever enough to have thought it though the way I just articulated. Nor I am claiming that I have not overlooked some other constitutional obstacle. But the Constitution is a lot more vague than folks might think when it comes to stipulating how the federal judiciary is structured. Most of that is left to Congress.

The 2018 Ranked Choice Voting Election in Maine’s Congressional District No. 2

Maine’s recent congressional election – the first-ever federal poll in the U.S. to be held under Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) – took place against a backdrop of continuing opposition by the Republican Party to the recently introduced voting system. State GOP leaders not only called on their voters to rank just the party’s candidates, but sought as well a court ruling to prevent RCV from determining the outcome of the U.S. House of Representatives election in Congressional District No. 2, and subsequently a recount of all ballots in the election (later called off while it was underway).

Nonetheless, a significant minority of Republican voters in the district ignored party exhortations and indicated valid rankings for at least two candidates, while substantial minorities of non-GOP voters only gave a first preference to Democratic or independent candidates. At the same time, the number of voters who engaged in bullet voting – indicating a preference for just one candidate – constituted a minority of the voting electorate in CD-2. This is notable when one considers that in both the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendums held in Maine, a majority of voters in CD-2 rejected the switch from plurality voting.

Moreover, a federal judge first allowed the RCV count to take place, and subsequently issued a ruling upholding the constitutionality of the election in the congressional district, where incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin obtained the largest number of first preference votes, but fell short of an absolute majority; he then lost the second and final round of counting to Democratic challenger Jared Golden, who prevailed with 142,440 votes (50.6%) to Poliquin’s 138,931 (49.4%) following the elimination of independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, whose second preferences were transferred to the remaining two candidates. The First Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently denied Congressman Poliquin’s motion for an injunction to prevent Golden from being declared the winner, and Poliquin – who wanted the election outcome determined solely by the first preference count, or by a re-run under plurality voting – dropped the lawsuit challenging RCV shortly thereafter.

The following table, based on a tally of 296,077 cast vote records in CD-2, published by Maine’s Secretary of State on his official website, shows the distribution of first preference votes for each candidate with at least a valid second preference for another candidate (“Preference”), or no second and successive preferences for a different candidate (“Bullet”); the “Other” category groups ballots with valid first preferences, but no valid second or successive preferences due to either overvoting on the second preference ranking – indicating a second preference for more than one candidate – or undervoting i.e. leaving blank more than one consecutive ranking beyond first preference while indicating preferences for other candidates, or a combination of both. State of Maine 2018 Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Election Data has frequency counts for all 1,564 tallied preference combinations in the CD-2 election.

Candidate Bullet % Preference % Other % Total
Bond (I) 4,333 26.2 12,106 73.1 113 0.7 16,552
Golden (D) 51,423 39.0 79,551 60.3 1,039 0.8 132,013
Hoar (I) 2,120 30.8 4,713 68.6 42 0.6 6,875
Poliquin (R) 89,228 66.5 43,955 32.8 1,001 0.7 134,184
Total 147,104 50.8 140,325 48.5 2,195 0.7 289,624

There were 435 overvotes and 6,018 undervotes in the first preference count; the latter figure – which included 5,711 ballots undervoted on all available rankings – is noticeably lower than the reported number of blank ballots in the plurality-based 2014 and 2016 U.S. House elections in CD-2, and it is also lower than the number of blank ballots in the district for this year’s gubernatorial election in Maine, which was also carried out by plurality voting. At the very least, these numbers indicate the introduction of RCV did not bring about an increase in the number of blank or invalid ballots. In addition, the very low number of overvotes strongly suggests there was little voter confusion about the new electoral system.

Of the 147,104 voters in CD-2 who indicated valid preferences for just one candidate, 137,971 indicated only a first preference, including 315 cases with a second preference but no first preference, while an additional 9,133 voters indicated a valid first preference (or a valid second preference without a first preference), as well as additional preferences, but only for a specific candidate; a large majority of these – 7,706 voters – gave all five preference rankings to their chosen candidate. Under Maine’s RCV counting rules, these votes had the same effect as having indicated only a first preference for the selected candidate. However, while ballots with valid preferences for just a single candidate constitute a narrow majority of the valid first preference votes, they represent a minority of 49.7% of all votes cast in the district. By contrast, in both the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendums, CD-2 reported a majority of votes against RCV both among the valid and overall vote totals. Moreover, even among voters casting valid first preferences, those who indicated a first preference only were a minority of 47.6%.

Bullet voting for the two major-party candidates had no impact in the CD-2 election outcome, since their first preferences were tallied in the second count as preferences for continuing candidates. However, the 6,453 ballots with valid rankings for either Bond only or Hoar only made up the bulk of the 8,253 non-transferable votes in the second count (most of the remaining 1,800 votes in that group had valid rankings for both Bond and Hoar, but not for the other two candidates). It has been suggested that these voters were confused as to which candidates would make it to the second count, but a far more likely explanation is that they simply wished to support the independent candidates only and didn’t care for either of the two major-party candidates. In fact, their behavior is functionally the same as that of voters in traditional runoff systems casting a blank or invalid ballot in the runoff election, after the candidates they originally supported were eliminated in the first round of voting. Moreover, Bond and Hoar first preference voters had the lowest proportion of bullet voting, at just under two out of seven ballots cast for them.

The overall distribution of bullet votes and preference votes in the CD-2 election closely resembles the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendum outcomes, and it would seem this is not entirely a coincidence: in towns with more than ten voters, there were moderately strong correlations between bullet voting in 2018 and opposition to RCV in 2016 (0.62), as well as between preference votes in 2018 and support for the new electoral system two years earlier (0.64); when the correlations were calculated on the basis of valid votes only, both stood at 0.63.

In conclusion, neither all GOP voters in CD-2 ranked Congressman Poliquin only (nearly a third cast a preference vote) nor did all Golden voters (or those backing independent candidates Bond and Hoar) rank other candidates – this was the case with almost three out of eight non-Poliquin voters. There was little evidence of voter confusion, and casting a preference vote or a bullet vote may have been indicative of ongoing support for RCV or opposition to it, respectively; if so, the election outcome did not point to growing opposition to the newly adopted electoral system. Just as important, these findings should leave no doubt that RCV is not a clear-cut partisan issue.

NYT endorses a larger House, with STV

Something I never thought I would see: The editorial board of one of the most important newspapers in the United States has published two separate editorials, one endorsing an increase in the size of the House of Representatives (suggesting 593 seats) and another endorsing the single transferable vote (STV) form of proportional representation for the House.

It is very exciting that the New York Times has printed these editorials promoting significant institutional reforms that would vastly improve the representativeness of the US House of Representatives.

The first is an idea originally proposed around 50 years ago by my graduate mentor and frequent coauthor, Rein Taagepera, based on his scientific research that resulted in the cube root law of assembly size. The NYT applies this rather oddly to both chambers, then subtracts 100 from the cube root result. But this is not something I will quibble with. Even an increase to 550 or 500 would be well worth doing, while going to almost 700 is likely too much, the cube root notwithstanding.

The second idea goes back to the 19th century (see Thomas Hare and Henry R. Droop) but is as fresh and valid an idea today as it was then. The NYT refers to it as “ranked choice voting in multimember districts” and I have no problem whatsoever with that branding. In fact, I think it is smart.

Both ideas could be adopted separately, but reinforce each other if done jointly.

They are not radical reforms, and they are not partisan reforms (even though we all know that one party will resist them tooth and nail and the other isn’t exactly going to jump on them any time soon). They are sensible reforms that would bring US democracy into the 21st century, or at least into the 20th.

And, yes, we need to reform the Senate and presidential elections, too. But those are other conversations…

PR-USA: We still need it

Thanks to a shout-out at Twitter by Michael Latner, I went back and re-read a few very old posts (from 2005 and 2006) that I did in the category, PR-USA.

Although all were written with respect to politics of the moment, here on Election Day, 2018, the urgency of significant electoral reform remains. For instance, take the Fivethirtyeight.com forecast for the House. Using their “classic” forecast, we see that “Democrats are favored to win a majority of seats if they win the popular vote by at least 5.6 points”.

That’s right. Democrats could win the popular vote by more than FIVE percentage points and we could still have a Republican House seat majority. That would be a scandal of representation. No electoral system should be considered justified on democratic (or republican–note small initial letters) grounds if it is within the realm of realistic probability that a reversal of the voting plurality could occur even with a five-point edge for one party. (Their forecast gives Republicans about a 14% of retaining their seat majority; if they do so, it will almost certainly be without a plurality of the vote.)

It hardly matters whether the root of such an outcome would be gerrymandering (partisan-biased district-boundary drawing) or simply the geographic distribution of votes (i.e. Democrats running up huge margins in their safest seats while Republicans eke out many more close wins). Both causes are inherent to use of the single-seat plurality (or sometimes majority) electoral system.

Of course, it is easier, in principle, to fix the gerrymandering cause. And there are several such measures, along with other electoral-reform measures, on ballots around the country today. As I said in a post in 2005 opposing (with some reluctance) a measure in my state that was billed as terminating gerrymandering, these do not solve the fundamental problem, even though they would help.

In addition to almost totally ensuring that the party with the most votes also has the most seats, proportional representation would limit polarization, open up alternative dimensions of issue competition, and institutionalize a voice for the sort of anti-establishment sentiment that now only bursts forward in spasms of “radical middle” or “populist” voting.

Henry Droop made many of these points a century ago. I made variants of them a dozen or so years ago. And they remain relevant today. Literally today.

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.