Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Fixing the electoral system - Part III - Election Process

Today we look at how we elect our officials. No, I'm not talking about the Electoral College. I can't see that getting changed nationally. Even though we are a purple country, the majority in every state is convinced that since they are either red or blue, the whole state is that way. Each may be in favor of gaining ground elsewhere via a rules change, but none want to give up any of their own power to do it. I'm talking about what we use to vote and how we count and how we decide a winner...

We allow people to be elected by plurality instead of majority. We don't take into account people's second and third choices. This can cause a candidate to be elected with 33% of the vote, as recently happened in San Diego. Then of course there is the Nader issue from 2000. People voted for him because they preferred him to the other two choices. However, these voters were probably ideologically closer to Gore than to Bush. If we assume that they would have voted even if Nader was not running, Gore would probably have won the Presidency. There is no way to capture those nuances in our current system.

So, what do I propose? Quite a few things, really. I think there are multiple pieces to this solution. I am just not sure how to get the rest of the country to bite. First, I think we need to standardize our methodology for voting. If we are all voting on the same race, we should have the same candidates to choose from. Nader should have had to get a certain number of signatures nationwide to be put on the ballot in every state. Everyone should vote using the same verifiable means and all races should be decided by the same approach. If we are going to roll out electronic voting, it should be rolled out everywhere. We should have the same number of machines at a polling place per registered voter. None of this crap where the affluent voters get 20 machines while the poor get 3 for similar sized districts. And people should get a receipt of their vote with a mechanism to correct mistakes. There should be the same number of workers per registered voter at each location as well.

Now let's talk about ways to change our rules for casting votes and declaring a winner. There are a few approaches I can think of. I'm sure each has drawbacks, but I don't know whether those drawbacks are worse than those of our current system. The least serious method would be to use a point scoring system the way they do with college sports polls. You rank each candidate available. So, we had five or six choices for President, right? Let's say I ranked them like this:

1. Kerry 5 points
2. Cobb 4 points
3. Peltier 3 points
4. Nader 2 points
5. Badnarik 1 point
6. Bush 0 points

We'd add up the points, and the most points would take the state. This approach allows people to vote for a third party candidate as a first or second choice and still have that reflected in the final tally. You can bet that first choice Bush and Kerry voters would make sure to give the other the 0 point slot. That means that minority parties would have to get votes. This could raise their visibility. Of course, counting might be difficult. Manual recounts would be daunting.

A variant on that would be to rank the candidates in order of preference again. This time, there would be no point scoring. All first choices would be counted. If no candidate had more than 50% of the vote, the votes for the lowest scoring candidate would revert to their second choice and a new calculation would be done. This would be repeated, the lowest remaining total would be dropped and awarded to the next choice down, until one candidate had a majority. So, if we had:

Bush 48.5%
Kerry 47.2%
Nader 3.1%
Badnarik 1.2%

Badnarik gets eliminated first. For arguments sake, everyone who put Badnarik first had Bush second, giving him 49.7%. Still no clear winner. Nader gets dropped. All his voters had Kerry as a second choice. Kerry moves up to 50.3%. He is over 50%, so we stop counting. People actually have more freedom to vote third party here. They can effectively vote for multiple candidates based on the ordering. It still gets captured and noted in the tally for each round. Nobody feels like a third party guy cost their guy the election. And it's more likely that the person in office is at least marginally endorsed by more than 50% of the voters.

Another voting possibility is approval voting. You can go read about it there if you like. The short form of it is that instead of voting for just one candidate, you vote for as many candidates as you approve of. You are voting yes or no on each candidate. An "Anybody But Bush" voter can actually vote that way by saying "Yes" to all the candidates in the President section except W. Whoever gets the most "Yes" votes wins.

I'm not sure of the flaws of any of my alternatives off the top of my head. Heck. I'm not even sure of the names of two of my approaches, although I feel that someone must have thought of them before. On the surface, they seem better than what we have going. They certainly deserve study and analysis. Any of you gamers out there want to try to figure out how you would "game" each of these alternatives? i.e. Find the fatal, exploitable flaw.