Category Archives: alternative voting systems

“A group offered cities money to opt in to ranked choice voting. State elections office warns accepting that is likely illegal”

In response to a question at a city council meeting, an advocacy organization’s representative apparently noted that one county’s implementation of RCV might cost an extra $36,000 for software licensing, ballot design, and the like … and that the organization would be willing to cover the gap.  It’s not exactly an inducement to participate, but likely still violates Utah’s new law against accepting private donations.  (And the advocate, saying she wasn’t aware of the law, has since backed off of the suggestion.)

I think it’s likely that the laws restricting private funding are going to end up with more complicated impacts than the legislators have foreseen, and not in ways that help local officials administer elections.

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“Mathematical Flaws in Ranked Choice Voting Are Rare but Real”

That’s the title of this new piece, accompanying this new paper (with a title that I prefer, not that anyone’s asking: “An Examination of Ranked Choice Voting in the United States, 2004-2022”).

The authors identify the “primary value of the article” in summarizing much of the empirical research on real-world RCV elections of the last 18 years; I agree with the value of that work.  (Though a caveat about hasty conclusions: the article only examines RCV elections in which there wasn’t a first-round majority winner, which is not the same as all RCV elections.)  The theoretical discussion will be largely familiar to anyone already familiar with Arrow’s impossibility theorem or social choice theory (or discussions about practical impacts like ballot exhaustion). 

As for the title of the accompanying blog post, I’d suggest considering it light of a likely alternative: “Mathematical Flaws in Plurality Voting Are Frequent and Real.”

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Ranked choice on the menu

There must be something in the water today. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board decries a “two-party system in a one-party town,” in advocating a switch from splintered partisan primaries to a nonpartisan primary with ranked-choice voting.

Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner makes a pitch for ranked-choice in the Illinois presidential primary.

The Idaho Capital Sun reports on a potential new ballot initiative filed today, providing for open primaries and ranked-choice voting in the general election. (also here from the Idaho Statesman)

MinnPost tracks the “progress” of a statewide ranked choice bill.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a piece on potential dueling ballot proposals: one seeking to prohibit ranked-choice and approval voting, and another seeking approval for approval voting.

And while I’m at it, I’d missed Walter Olson a few days ago, explaining “Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Fear Ranked Choice Voting.”

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“Towards Proportional Representation for the U.S. House”

New report:

In Towards Proportional Representation for the U.S. House, Protect Democracy and Unite America examine a 1967 statute enacted by Congress—the Uniform Congressional District Act (UCDA)—that mandates the use of single-member districts for House elections; how the system is weakening the foundations of our democracy; and policy options for reform.

While U.S. House elections use single-member districts, more common among democracies is some form of proportional multi-member districts. The two models give rise to two distinct electoral systems: the former, a winner-take-all system in which a single candidate, with a plurality or majority of the vote, represents the entire district (“takes all”); and the latter, a system of proportional representation in which multiple winners secure legislative seats in rough proportion to the votes they receive.”

Read the report

Drawing on decades of scholarly work, the report finds that replacing current winner-take-all elections with a proportional system of representation could curb gerrymandering; increase the share of competitive congressional seats; expand the ability of racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice; allow conservatives and liberals to gain representation in proportion to their actual support within a state; decrease dangerous levels of polarization; and lessen political extremism and the risk of political violence, among other effects.

As one scholar concludes in a global study of democratization, “if any generalization about institutional design is sustainable,” it is that winner-take-all electoral systems “are ill-advised for countries with deep ethnic, regional, religious, or other emotional and polarizing divisions.” Towards Proportional Representation takes stock of the House’s winner-take-all system and options for amending federal law to address its deficiencies.

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“RELEASE: Fixing the Dysfunction in American Politics Through Electoral Reform”


new report from the Center for American Progress examines some of the most fundamental problems with the nation’s electoral system and recommends better ways to promote effective, representative government.

The report describes how states and localities—from Alaska and Maine to Nevada and Oregon—are embracing a range of solutions to improve how we elect public officials. These include fusion voting, ranked-choice voting, primary election reform, and methods of proportional representation.

Reforms such as these could help address two fundamental problems with the U.S. electoral system. First, our current electoral rules discourage problem-solving and reward conflict, because candidates are incentivized first and foremost to appeal to their own partisan base. Second, the current system often does not represent the country well, squeezing out political moderates and excluding diverse voices that don’t squarely fit within either political party.

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“Americans Deserve a House of Representatives That Better Represents Them”

Ben Raderstorf and Beau Tremitiere in the Bulwark:

So in a sense, the real question is not why cross-party coalitions are appearing in state legislatures, but rather, why they aren’t more common—and why a gridlocked House of Representatives refused to elect a consensus speaker backed by a majority drawn from both parties, instead caving to the demands of a small handful of extremist legislators.

The answer is that our system makes coalition building grueling, if not impossible. Over the last several decades, the trend toward nationalized politics and the increasing brightness of the media spotlight have made it more difficult for legislators to collaborate privately and negotiate in good faith, especially at the national level. Moreover, as legal scholar Richard Pildes notes, social media combined with a rise in small-dollar campaign donations allows “individual members of Congress to function, even thrive, as free agents.” It is difficult to imagine the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Alaska outcomes happening under the glare of cable news or with social media provocateurs like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert.

The United States is not alone in facing these trends, but the effects are aggravated by our winner-take-all electoral system, where each district elects a single, plurality-winner representative. This system strongly incentivizes politicians to coalesce into two vast, directly competing parties, leading to intra-party factions instead of several distinct parties. For a host of reasons, the two main parties have each become more ideologically distinct over the last few decades. This polarization is then exacerbated by primary elections: Any legislator who attempts to build a cross-party coalition—even in an exceptional situation like the current U.S. House—risks being shunned by his or her own party’s base in the next election. A wide range of research has found that primary elections disincentivize compromise in precisely this way.

This is true not just for the GOP, but also for Democrats, who could have offered Republicans an offramp during the speakership impasse earlier this month but had no incentive to do so. As unlikely as Kevin McCarthy was to reach across the aisle to cut a deal, he was just as unlikely to find a warm reception there, even among those inclined towards the possibility. Instead, the 212 House Democrats seemingly relished the theater (some literally bringing popcorn) and repeatedly voted against adjournment in hopes of keeping the embarrassing show going.

The good news is, these rules and incentives can be changed. Instead of electing our representatives through primaries followed by winner-take-all elections, we could instead transition to proportional representation, which avoids the harmful incentives of both….

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“Don’t Blame RCV for Alameda County Election Snafu”

Rob Richie:

First, let’s understand what went wrong. According to both Oakland’s City charter and RCV election norms, if a voter skips a first-choice column or writes in an ineligible candidate, that voter’s ballot should be advanced immediately to the voter’s second-choice candidate. That’s how it’s always been done in San Francisco, which has the same Dominion equipment as used in Alameda County, and how Alameda configured its software for years.

In preparing for the 2022 elections, however, the Alameda County Registrar’s office turned on an incorrect setting on the vote-counting equipment to count local RCV races in several Alameda cities, including Oakland. This setting determines how ballots are counted if a voter leaves the first-choice column blank or writes in an ineligible candidate.  It “suspended” such ballots so that they were not included in the first round. The rest of the votes were then used to determine whether a candidate had earned a first-round majority and, if not, which candidate was in last place and should be removed. Only in the second round, after a candidate had already been removed, were the suspended ballots brought back into the tally.

While that error may sound trivial and impacted only a few hundred votes that were delayed when they were added to the tally, it could have a big impact in an RCV system designed to make as many votes count as possible. Oakland’s District 4 school board race was extremely close among three candidates, with only 29 votes in the original first-round tally separating the original second-place finisher Pecolia Manigo and Mike Hutchinson. As a result, Hutchinson was removed after the first round, and only then were the suspended ballots added to the tally. Manigo picked up most of Hutchinson’s support, but narrowly lost to Nick Resnick in the final instant runoff.

But the suspended ballots should have been counted before Hutchinson was removed. After receiving the cast vote record provided by the county, my research team colleagues at FairVote determined that Hutchinson should have earned 80 additional votes in the first round and Manigo an additional 14. The corrected vote totals put Hutchinson in the first round ahead of Manigo by 37 votes. With this corrected tally, Manigo is the one who should be eliminated, with Hutchinson now facing Resnick in the instant runoff.  Manigo and Hutchinson are both black and are more aligned on education policy, and Hutchinson was strongly preferred by Manigo’s backers as backup choice – enough to give him the edge over Resnick in the instant runoff.

So how does a mistake like this happen and what can we do about it?

First,the Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis should be thanked for recognizing his mistake and correcting it. Less than a week after FairVote and the Cal RCV Coalition alerted him to the error, he had confirmed the error, reviewed all elections that might have been affected by it and alerted the candidates in the school board race. Although earlier access to the cast vote record would have been ideal, providing it allows interested parties to examine the results for themselves – and the error is now fixed.

More broadly, it’s an unfortunate reality that election workers are overworked and underfunded. Between the demand for “stop the steal”-inspired FOIA requests and labor shortages, we’re witnessing human mistakes across elections of all types. Californians in 2022 saw errors on ballots in RiversideMerced, and Tulare counties, for example.

We should provide election officials with more resources and support, twinned with greater transparency of decision-making. The Alameda County error was the equivalent of attempting to follow a recipe and accidentally mixing in the wrong ingredient. The answer isn’t to throw out the cookbook and the oven, or never to cook again. Instead, the answer is to get more help in the kitchen – and build in means to confirm your ingredients…..

…Looking ahead, Alameda County should set up a task force to study these elections, make recommendations and perhaps establish an ongoing advisory board to review and suggest practices and key decisions and institutionalize communication between the registrar’s office and the community…..

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Must-Read: “After election debacle in Oakland, what’s next for ranked choice voting?”

Mercury News:

The revelation this week of an unprecedented error in Alameda County’s counting of election results has upended an Oakland school board race. But more lasting damage could be done to the reputation of ranked choice voting, a novel “instant runoff” format that is growing in popularity around the country.

Mike Hutchinson, the third-place finisher in a race for Oakland Unified’s District 4 school board seat, was told by election officials Wednesday that he may actually have won the race due to a technical mistake in how the county’s Registrar of Voters tabulated ranked-choice results.

The mistake itself involved a simple switch — a feature in the county’s election software that was incorrectly turned on, rather than left off. As a result, ballots where a first-choice candidate was missing were incorrectly counted.

“We incorrectly had the software set so that it did not elevate those votes when there wasn’t a vote in the first-choice column,” Registrar Tim Dupuis said in an interview Wednesday. “It was an error, and after being notified we immediately took that seriously and did the research to validate it.”

County officials are scrambling to figure out the process for re-certifying election results after they were formalized Dec. 8, and Dupuis hinted that it could require legal action on the part of the candidates involved. He could not be reached Thursday for an update on what steps need to be taken for Hutchinson to be rightfully elected.

The school board race is the only one that was affected, the registrar says. But it could not come at a worse time for election officials who are trying to allay fears about the legitimacy of results provided to the public.

The debacle could particularly be a black eye for ranked-choice voting. The system allows voters to select more than one candidate for a particular race by ranking them in order of preference and redistributes votes from the lowest performers until one candidate secures majority support and is declared the winner. The system eliminates the need for a separate runoff election when no candidate gets a majority of votes.

Ironically, the error affecting Hutchinson’s totals was detected by advocacy groups working to get jurisdictions around the country to adopt the format. They noticed a discrepancy while reviewing all of Oakland’s election results, which indicated that a special category of votes wasn’t being counted until the second round of ranked-choice results. The error was also caused by a decision made by the registrar’s staff, not a flaw in the election software.

“This is a learning moment for all of us, and I think it’s crucial we maintain transparency around the process no matter what,” said Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, which successfully lobbied for Oakland to first implement ranked choice in the city’s 2010 elections.

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