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.

Chile 2017: First round

Chile has presidential and congressional elections 19 November. Unfortunately, an article at AS/COA does something that is far too common in media coverage of Latin American elections: It ignores the congressional elections.

That is especially unfortunate in this case, as this year’s elections in Chile are particularly interesting due to changes in the electoral systems for both houses of congress. (Details in a previous planting.)

The presidential election requires the leading candidate to obtain 50%+1 of the valid votes cast in Sunday’s first round. Otherwise, the top two advance to a runoff, which will take place on the 17th of December.This is the electoral system known as “two-round majority” or “majority runoff.”

As for the congressional electoral system, it remains open-list PR with D’Hondt divisors, as has been the case since the current democratic regime was established in the late 1980s. However, the seat product for the Chamber of Deputies has been increased moderately. Previously, it was 240 (120 assembly seats times 2 per district), which is a highly restrictive system. Now it will be 852.5 (155 seats times a new mean of 5.5 per district). That is only modestly proportional, but still a substantial increase. (For the central importance of the seat product, see Votes from Seats.)

The Senate seat product is also being increased, but only half that chamber is elected at a time, so the new system will not be fully implemented till four years hence.

The new systems (both houses) will create more political space both for minor parties and alliances that currently have few or no seats, and for the representation of more of the member parties in the alliances that already are a hallmark of the Chilean party system’s adaptation to the more restrictive system that has been in place. In the sense of being a system of open alliance lists, it is essentially the same allocation formula as in Finland and Brazil. The crucial difference is district magnitude–formerly two (the second lowest possible!) and now to be increased, although still well short of what those other two countries have–and, in comparison to Brazil, with a much smaller assembly size.

As shown in a table of polling trends for the presidential election (first link), there is more of a contest for second place and thus entry into the runoff than there is for first place. Former president Sebastián Piñera is leading but not likely to clear 50% of the valid vote. Two leftist candidates are vying to face him in the expected runoff.

It might not seem obvious, but the congressional electoral-system changes could be influencing presidential competition. In fact, that is one of the findings of Votes from Seats: We can predict the average trend in the “effective” number of presidential candidates from the assembly seat product. (This is in contrast to conventional “coattails” arguments that claim we can understand assembly-election fragmentation only by knowing how many viable presidential candidates there are.)

In the past in Chile, there was strong pressure for parties to coalesce in order to be viable participants in the highly restrictive congressional electoral system. While parties in a common alliance for assembly seats could run separate presidential candidates–see the 2005 case of unusual alliance behavior on the right–usually they would not. (And the 2005 case did not work out that well for the right, at least in the Chamber.)

Now, the pressure to join forces for assembly elections is reduced, which should be expected to push up the number of viable contenders for presidential-runoff slots as well. The candidates vying for that second slot are Beatriz Sánchez, backed by an alliance called the Broad Front (Humanist Party, Liberal Party, Green Ecologists, and others), and Alejandro Guiller, backed by Fuerza Mayoría (including the Socialist Party of the outgoing incumbent, Michelle Bachelet, as well as the Communists, Democrats, and others). Which one will make it, and how will it affect the left’s combined chances of blocking a victory for Piñera in the runoff? And how will the candidates help (or not) their alliances’ electoral process in the new congressional election?

Voter choice or partisan interest? The case of ranked-choice voting in Maine

Galvanized by the first ever ranked-choice-voting (RCV) win in a U.S. state, reformers just hours ago held a conference call to build their movement. Ranked-choice voting is a set of voting rules more kind to “outsiders” than our ubiquitous plurality system. Given the unusual strength of America’s two-party system, why do outsider-friendly electoral reforms ever win?

My answer is: a replacement institutional template, losing-party self-interest, and ruling-party disunity. In a recently published paper, I show how this logic can explain the spread of “multi-winner ranked-choice voting” (i.e., proportional representation or PR) in the first part of the 20th century. Losing parties and disgruntled ruling-party factions promote voting-system change in a bid for policy-making influence. Voting reform organizations supply the replacement template.

Does my answer also explain the RCV win in Maine? Is that enough to buy my argument? If the answers are “yes,” reformers would concentrate on jurisdictions with sizable out-parties and fractious ruling parties.

Americanist political scientists would also change the way they think about election “reform.” The dominant trend for more than a century has been to see party and reform as exclusive. Fifty years ago, we would have read about conflict between “machine politics” and “good government.” Now we read about “activists” versus “compromisers,” legacies of Progressivism, and reformer “process-obsession.” What if party itself were a critical reform ingredient? As Jessica Trounstine reminds us in her excellent book, Democratic boss Thomas Pendergast was more than happy to turn the model city charter (without PR) to his own “machine” ends in Kansas City.

Let’s see if my template-loser-faction model explains what just happened in Maine.

The template

“Maine has not elected a governor to a first term with majority support since 1966,” said Jill Ward, President of the League of Women Voters of Maine. “Ranked Choice Voting restores majority rule and puts more power in the hands of voters.” – quoted from FairVote.org

Efforts to enact RCV began in 2001.

The losing party

Circumstantial evidence suggests that, from 2001 until the 2014 re-election of Gov. Paul LePage (R), the Democratic Party either:

1) controlled a policy veto point via the governorship, or

2) did not expect “independent” voters’ ballot transfers under single-winner RCV to help elect its candidates.

How is 2014 different for Democratic Party expectations? If the rhetoric of the current governor is any indication, the Maine Republican Party has become more socially conservative. Perhaps it is now so socially conservative (in Democrats’ minds) that the Democratic Party thinks “independent” voters would rank its candidates over Republicans. Maybe Democrats are thinking: “If we had RCV, we wouldn’t be the losing party.”

The disgruntled, ruling-party faction

My hunch is that this is a group of fiscal conservatives, no longer at home in either state party. That doesn’t make them a disgruntled, ruling-party faction, but it might have made them willing to consider Republicans in earlier years. Consider:

  • Proponent of record for Question 5: An Act to Establish Ranked-choice Voting. Liberal on some economic issues, but supports consumption taxes and income-tax reduction.
  • Two-time independent candidate for governor. Liberal on the environment, ambiguous on economics, but not a conventional Democrat of yore. Endorsed independent candidate Angus King (over the Democrat) to replace outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe, a famed “moderate” Republican.
  • One-time independent candidate for governor. Quits Democratic Party to run. Wanted Maine “to be the Free Enterprise State.”

Predictions and evidence

Last month I predicted that a coalition of regular Democrats and “the independents” would put RCV over the top. Republicans threw me a curve ball by endorsing RCV the very next day, but, as the proprietor of this blog has written, such endorsements can be strategic.

If I was right, Democrats and “the independents” should have voted for RCV, but the Republicans should not have.

Below I give a rough test of these hypotheses. Here are precinct-level results of the vote in favor of RCV by the vote for each major-party presidential candidate. (Vote shares are overall, not of the two-party vote.) This is preliminary. I only have data so far for 87 percent of precincts, the state has not released official results, and I have not looked at the correlation of RCV support with partisanship in other offices. I don’t yet have a way to get at behavior by “the independents.” Finally, I have not yet run an ecological inference analysis, but I plan to remedy all this later.

As you can see, Democrats seemed to like RCV, and Republicans did not, at least as revealed by presidential voting.

The role of uncertainty

Why don’t “the independents” simply join the Democratic Party if they dislike current Republican positions as much as the Democrats? This is what’s really interesting about the adoption and use of RCV. I argue that groups in reformist alliances do not plan to cooperate on all pieces of legislation. Let’s say Maine ends up with an “independent” governor or a sizable contingent of “independents” in its state legislature. I would not be surprised if we see them working with Democrats on some legislation (e.g., “social”), then with Republicans on other bills (e.g., taxes).

Why don’t Democrats foresee this possibility? Perhaps they recognize that single-winner RCV is not the same as PR. Consequently they may reason that “independents” will not become a bargaining force. Rather, “independent” ballots will bolster the position of Democrats in government.

Then why are “independents” going along with a reform that’s good for Democrats? Perhaps they disagree with Democrats on who’s likely to benefit from strategic voting. As Gary Cox reminds us, strategic voting depends in the end on voter expectations, shaped by elite messaging about precisely which party or candidate is “hopeless” under a given electoral system. The perception that RCV has made elections kinder to outsiders is important. If there really are many sincerely “independent” voters, “independent” candidates may get a toehold in government.

And that’s when things get interesting.

In case of tie

What if an election is tied? Apparently it is not that unusual, at least in contests with relatively small electorates. FiveThirtyEight tells of some recent US cases. It also cites a study by Casey B. Mulligan and Charles G. Hunter that says:

between 1898 and 1992 there were no tied elections for [US] federal office and only one (New York’s 36th District in 1910) that was decided by one vote. Only twice has a general election for a state legislative seat resulted in a tie: a Rhode Island state Senate race in 1978 and a 1980 New Mexico state House race. The former was decided by a special election, the latter by a coin flip.

I understand by way of Yusaku Horiuchi that ties for the last seat are fairly common in Japanese municipal elections, where SNTV is used.

What about other countries that readers may have familiarity with? And do most jurisdictions have clear rules of what to do in even of a tie? The FiveThirtyEight post refers to some cases where there were no such rules, and the council or other body had to make up a procedure.

Time from last votes cast to official results?

[It took me a few days to notice that the subject line did not say what I meant it to say. Fixed now.]

I wonder if my readers can enlighten me on what the norm is for the time between the close of polls and the release of full preliminary official results. I am particularly curious about developing countries and new democracies, and especially those with large and difficult territorial expanse.

I ask because the long gap in Indonesia–apparently it will be about two weeks before official results are announced–is surely a contributing factor in the bubbling crisis over dual claims of victory in the 9 July presidential election. The “quick counts” (samplings of polling-place counts) point to a victory by Joko Widodo (Jokowi)–or at least the credible ones do.

Even for a country as vast as Indonesia, two weeks seems like an unnecessarily long time for a result in the current age, especially when there is only one office on the ballot. I can understand the long delay in a place of ongoing conflict and severe underdevelopment of infrastructure, such as Afghanistan, which had its presidential runoff on 14 June but has no full results yet. And I further understand that systems of paper ballots take longer than electronic voting, such as India and Brazil. But Colombia produces same-evening results on a paper-ballot system with rugged terrain (even if mostly mainland, unlike Indonesia) and with significant conflict zones. It seems Indonesia could do better–and, to mitigate crises over conflicting claims–needs to do better.

But what is the norm?