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.

Lesotho (MMP) & Malta (STV) hold early elections on the same day

Lesotho and Malta will hold early elections this Saturday, June 3rd. Both have parliamentary systems and each one uses a different (and interesting!) type of proportional representation – each having a certain following among readers of this blog.

Lesotho uses a one-vote variant of MMP, with 80 single-seat districts in the nominal tier and 40 in the list tier. There is no threshold, and no seats are added in case of overhang, so a party can win a majority by taking more than 60 districts.

Malta uses STV, with a twist: if I understand correctly, in case one party receives an absolute majority of first-preference votes, seats are added to ensure that party has a majority, and that the majority is in proportion to its majority of the vote.

The elections were also called in different ways. Lesotho’s parliament (election not required before February 2020) was dissolved after the government lost a confidence vote in March – the prime minister could have handed over power to the coalition that ousted him, but chose instead to ask the king for an early election. Malta’s early election (originally not due until March 2018) was called by the prime minister.

Irish election 2016

Ireland’s 2016 general election will be held 26 February. The current coalition of Fine Gael and Labour is not doing well in the polls. However, neither is the main opposition party, Fianna Fail. The RTE seat projection currently has Fine Gael on 55 seats (based on just 28% of the vote), Labour on 13. Fianna Fail is barely holding off Sinn Fein for second place, 33 to 29 in the projection (20% and 18% in voters, according to the poll of polls).

The assembly size has been reduced. It was 165 in the last election (2011), but will be 157 in this one (not counting the seat of the Speaker). Fine Gael’s 2011 result was 46% of seats; they may not make it over 35% this time.

So worried is Fine Gael that it is “devising a risky battle-plan aimed at salvaging as many seats as possible,” according to the Independent. The plan is to ask senior members of the party to reduce their own personal vote by shifting votes to weaker co-partisan candidates.

 

Fine Gael is devising strategies in a series of constituencies, which involves divides of territory and asking loyal supporters to vote for one candidate over another in a particular area.

Although this tactic has often been used in the past, it hasn’t been employed in such large numbers before. And the decline in support levels make if far more difficult to pull off.

 

The article has a list of strong incumbents who are being asked to sacrifice voters, and notes that the party is attempting to use Facebook to target reliable voters who would shift.

Of course, all this vote-management reminds us that the Irish single transferable vote (STV) is not dramatically distinct from the old Japanese single non-transferable vote (SNTV). In either system, parties can be hurt, relative to the seats that their collective vote totals could deliver them under a list system, if their leading candidate obtains too large a share of the party’s total votes in a district. With votes overly concentrated on one candidate, the weaker ones could be eliminated too early to benefit from vote transfers from other candidates, including the co-partisan strongest one. (I assume this also implies that not enough voters for the leading candidate can be counted on to list co-partisans second. Otherwise there would be little need to manage first-preference votes in this manner.)

Meanwhile,

Labour is banking on “locking down” its traditional core vote of 10pc and its TDs coming ahead of the second Fine Gael candidate to benefit from transfers.

Yes, there is an advantage that small parties under STV have that is not available to such parties under SNTV. But for large parties, especially those with declining support, STV poses serious coordination challenges.

The seat projections, it should be noted, come with some grain of salt, because projecting seats under STV is hard.

M=1 is the endpoint of the continuum of M

The BBC reports that there is a debate in Jersey about a possible change in the island’s electoral system. “Deputy Montfort Tadier wants to introduce a mixture of single transferable and alternative vote systems.”

Of course, that actually would be the same system, but a mixture of district magnitudes. Single transferable vote (STV) simply reduces to alternative vote (AV) when moving from any magnitude greater than one to a single-seat district.

The article further notes that “Jersey currently has a mix of single and multi-member constituencies” and that “Jersey currently uses the first-past-the-post system, for all elections.”

It is interesting that when the rule for determining winners is plurality (first past the post), it is considered the same system, independent of magnitude. Yet when referring to a rule of transferable votes, applications to M=1 (single-seat district) and M>1 (multiseat district) are considered different “systems”.

Further, the article attempts to clarify: “The single-transferable-vote means a vote could be transferred to a second preference if the first does not succeed.” Yes, and so does the alternative vote, which is defined next as being “where candidates are ranked in order of preference.” Yes, and so is the single transferable vote.

Is MMP in Ireland’s future?

The Constitutional Convention of Ireland is considering proposing a new electoral system for parliamentary elections.

The 100-member Convention strongly favors a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, with 69% preferring it over other options. A “proportional list system”–not clear whether open or closed was specified–wins 29% support, and a paltry 3% would like FPTP. (And, yes, those numbers sum to more than 100.)

The news story does not offer information on preferences for keeping the current system vs. change, either in general or any specific replacement system. It does note that there will be a further round of deliberations next month on the exact model that the Convention will recommend.

Ireland is, of course, the main model we have of Single Transferable Vote (STV). MMP and STV are usually the two models most preferred by reform activists (at least in current FPTP jurisdictions) and by political science expert in electoral systems. It is very interesting to see an Irish process possibly leading to STV vs. MMP as choices for the country.