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Electoral dysfunction: Why democracy is always unfair

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n2doc Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat May-01-10 07:03 PM
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Electoral dysfunction: Why democracy is always unfair
28 April 2010 by Ian Stewart
Magazine issue 2758.

IN AN ideal world, elections should be two things: free and fair. Every adult, with a few sensible exceptions, should be able to vote for a candidate of their choice, and each single vote should be worth the same.

Ensuring a free vote is a matter for the law. Making elections fair is more a matter for mathematicians. They have been studying voting systems for hundreds of years, looking for sources of bias that distort the value of individual votes, and ways to avoid them. Along the way, they have turned up many paradoxes and surprises. What they have not done is come up with the answer. With good reason: it probably doesn't exist.

The many democratic electoral systems in use around the world attempt to strike a balance between mathematical fairness and political considerations such as accountability and the need for strong, stable government. Take first-past-the-post or "plurality" voting, which used for national elections in the US, Canada, India - and the UK, which goes to the polls next week. Its principle is simple: each electoral division elects one representative, the candidate who gained the most votes.

This system scores well on stability and accountability, but in terms of mathematical fairness it is a dud. Votes for anyone other than the winning candidate are disregarded. If more than two parties with substantial support contest a constituency, as is typical in Canada, India and the UK, a candidate does not have to get anything like 50 per cent of the votes to win, so a majority of votes are "lost".

Dividing a nation or city into bite-sized chunks for an election is itself a fraught business (see "Borderline case") that invites other distortions, too. A party can win outright by being only marginally ahead of its competitors in most electoral divisions. In the UK general election in 2005, the ruling Labour party won 55 per cent of the seats on just 35 per cent of the total votes. If a candidate or party is slightly ahead in a bare majority of electoral divisions but a long way behind in others, they can win even if a competitor gets more votes overall - as happened most notoriously in recent history in the US presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore.

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unblock Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat May-01-10 10:35 PM
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1. this is a fascinating mathematical topic.
mostly the math focuses on starting off with the idea that each voter gets a single vote, and how do you impose a structure on that that has various desireable properties.

but you can also change the nature of an individual's vote itself. having to distill all your preferences down to a single "this candidate or that candidate" already introduces inherent problems. my favorite solution is to let each voter rank all the candidates. then the candidate with the fewest top-ranking votes is eliminated. this then promotes the remaining candidates on everyone's list, e.g., if your #1 choice is eliminated, then your #2 choice becomes your new #1 choice, etc. the process is then repeated until a single candidate gets at least 50% of the top ranking votes.

this requires no runoff (except as needed for near-ties in certain cases) and permits people to vote for their "ideal" candidate first without "throwing away their vote". this better reflects a voter's actual preferences.

but as this article and a number of mathematicians have noted, it's impossible to satisfy any meaningful set of desireable properties with a single voting system; some of the properties are inherently at odds with each other.
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WillYourVoteBCounted Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun May-02-10 11:27 AM
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2. sounds good in theory but in real life
it plays out quite differently. Often activists who support IRV or ranked choice voting change their minds when they find out how it works in real life.

IRV is not the same as a runoff election, voters are forced to pick their choices before knowing which candidate would be in the runoff.

IRV throws away votes - some voters choices will not be tallied or counted at all.

IRV demands a educated and informed electorate, something that we do not have.

IRV, unlike any other election method - is not additive. You cannot simply tally the votes at a polling place. Votes have to be centrally tallied. For a city election, that means taking votes to one central location in that city or elections office. For a statewide contest, that means taking ALL of the votes to one central location in the state. You could presume there are work arounds, but currently there are not, and any such work around requires more complex technology than exists, and if it did exist it would be non transparent.

IRV hurts third parties - if you don't believe that, then ask WHY are there no third party elected officials in San Francisco, where they've had IRV since 2004?

If you care about election transparency, you know to follow the KISS principle.

See for more
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unblock Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun May-02-10 01:20 PM
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3. i agree that no voting system is perfect, irv included, but i'm not sure i agree with your points
irv throws away votes? i'm not clear on how. your #1 pick is in the running until kicked out, at which point your highest remaining choice becomes active. you ALWAYS get a say in your preference among the remaining candidates, and you ALWAYS get a chance to vote your ideal candidate ahead of the remaining ones.

irv demands an educated and informed electorate, which we don't have -- agreed, but i think one of the biggest reasons we don't is because the current electoral system SUCKS and makes everyone so jaded and cynical about the usefulness of their vote. in today's presidential system, individual votes are nearly pointless in any state that's not close, even if the election as a whole is close. individual votes in close states are nearly pointless if the overall electoral race isn't close. it's too easy for polls to influence voting and keep people away from the polls. and of course, the system keeps the viable candidates down to TWO in nearly all cases, which really throws away a lot of voter preferences.

bottom line is that i suspect that a system that demands a better informed and educated electorate could, in fact, LEAD to a better informed and educated electorate, as people realize that their vote may actually matter with the new system.

irv is not additive -- i agree, and we need better trust in our vote tallying systems. but this is a problem no matter what scheme is used.

irv hurts 3rd parties -- again, i'm not clear on how. part of the point is that it lets you vote for your dream candidate first even if they're not politically viable, without "throwing away your vote" because as long as you rank one major candidate ahead of the other, your vote preference taken into account no matter how many 3rd party candidates you vote ahead of them.

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