Misunderstandings about Choice Voting

Q. What's wrong with just giving each voter as many un-ranked votes as there are seats - so if there are three seats up for election, each voter can cast three votes?

A. Political scientists refer to that as "first-past-the-post" or plurality voting, and it suffers from some serious defects that can result in very unrepresentative outcomes. One problem with this common voting system (block plurality vote-for-three) is that it allows the majority to sweep the election, shutting out all minorities.  
In fact, if only four candidates are running for three seats, a candidate can lose despite getting support from a majority of voters.  This was exactly what happened to a candidate seeking to be the first Latino elected from Montgomery County, Maryland in 1998.

At the same time, if the majority group has too many candidates nominated, there is a spoiler dynamic that divides up the majority, allowing the minority group to sweep and win every seat, totally violating the principle of majority rule.  Either way, some voters are likely to have two or three votes help elect  candidates and others, none of their votes.  This violates the spirit behind the goal of one-person, one-vote. 

While the "vote-for-three" system is common and simple to use, it can be extremely anti-democratic. Choice Voting, by contrast, ensures not only that the majority of voters elect a majority of seats, but also that substantial minorities can elect their fair share of seats as well. All voters deserve to have a representative elected by their vote.  It is not my business to say who should represent you if somebody else is representing me.  With Choice Voting everybody has an equal voice.  If I and my friends have the power to vote for all three, then I have the power to get all the representation and deny representation to others, which is unfair. This aspect of Choice Voting is similar to the district system that we use: there may be 80 members of a state legislature, but I only get to vote for one.  The difference is that with choice voting, I get to help define my own non-geographic "district" rather than have my options narrowed to one or two candidates.

Are you saying that Choice Voting is always the best election method for electing a representative body?

A. There are other methods of proportional representation, which are contingent on the existence of political parties. If one's goal is to assure both majority rule and diversity, in the absence of a party system, the Choice Voting system (STV) is clearly the best option. It is generally held by political scientists who specialize in voting methods to be the best and fairest voting system for creating a fully representative board.  If, however, your goal is to elect a body that excludes minority voices and is 100% aligned with the majority group, Choice Voting is not appropriate.

What are the key elements that assure both majority rule and minority representation?

A. The goal of choice voting, in principle, is to assure that nearly every voter can elect at least one representative who genuinely represents that voter. You rank several to make sure that one of your preferred representatives actually wins.  The essence of Choice Voting is that each voter has one net vote, and the alternate rankings are contingency preferences in case your favorite is already a winner, or gets defeated.  Choice voting allows groups of like-minded voters to coalesce around the strongest candidate among the ones they prefer.  In effect, the rankings on the ballots allow the voters to group themselves into equal-sized constituencies -- each with a preferred representative. It should not be the majority's right to decide who gets to have a voice on the representative body.  Representation is for everybody, and not just a majority.

Q. Does ranking alternate candidates hurt the chances of my favorite candidate?

A. No.  Ranking additional choices cannot hurt your favorite candidate.  These are just contingency choices, in case your favorite candidate already has enough support to win a seat or has no chance of winning.


Q. Shouldn't a first choice count twice as much as a second choice?

A. Choice voting doesn't work like that at all.  Each voter has a single vote, and initially it only counts for the voter's first choice, with nothing going to any of the later preferences.  Only if that first-choice candidate has more than enough votes to win, or if that candidate has so little support that he or she gets defeated, can a ballot count towards the election of a later preference. A voter's alternate rankings are a contingency vote to make sure a member's vote isn't wasted on a sure winner who has a surplus of votes, or a sure loser, who can't possibly win.

Q. Why not always take into account the lower preferences for each candidate when determining winners?

A. There could be theoretical voting method that assigns a point value to each ranking (similar to the Borda Count Voting method proposed for single-seat elections). However, any such alternative system has a serious flaw - a voter's lower preference ranking could help to defeat that voter's most preferred candidate. For this reason, any voting system that takes into account lower preferences on a ballot at the outset leads to insincere strategic voting in order to protect your true favorite choice. That is, a vote for my second choice candidate may end up narrowly defeating my first choice, therefore I have a strategic interest in not honestly indicating my second choice, and instead give a second choice to a candidate who is sure not to nose ahead of my favorite candidate. 

With Choice Voting, your vote stays with your more preferred candidate until that candidate can no longer use your vote.


Q. Ties seem to be a big issue with Choice Voting, at least when the number of voters is small.

A. Actually ties are no more likely to impact the final outcome of an election under Choice Voting than under any other voting system. Using a traditional winner-take all system, we simply don't care about candidates who are not near the top who might be tied.  But since Choice Voting allows minority voters to also win a fair share of seats, we need to pay attention to the ties near the bottom in order to winnow the field of candidates, and allow one of the candidates the chance to advance to another round of counting. Because Choice Voting is counted in rounds to maximize how representative the final body is, ties for last place (and thus elimination) may occur repeatedly. It is important to understand that when settling a tie for last place, and thus elimination, that in most cases all of the tied candidates will eventually be eliminated any way.  It is extremely unlikely that the drawing of lots for eliminating a last place candidate will have any effect on the final outcome of the election.

Q. Is it respecting the "will of the voters" to settle ties by drawing lots?  Isn't there a better way to break ties than drawing lots?

A. A tie means that there is no clear "voters' will" to "respect" on that matter, so randomly drawing lots is fair, and is the common practice in typical winner-take-all elections as well. However, because we have more information about voter preferences due to the rank-order ballot, there are alternative methods for settling ties that could be used with Choice Voting. For example, one option is to examine which of the tied candidates was behind during the previous round of counting, and eliminate that tied candidate first. While that tie-breaking method "feels" fairer, it may not be.  The relative position of candidates in early rounds of the vote count may have far more to do with the number of similar candidates who happen to be on the ballot splitting up the vote, than with the relative strength of support for a candidate. While the use of alternate tie-breaking rules could theoretically change the outcome, the likelihood of that occurring in any given real-world election is remote.

Q. In a small election, what about letting the majority of voters settle ties along the way?

A. If you allowed the rest of the voters who don't support any of the tied candidates to pick which one of them to defeat, you are allowing the dominant group to overwhelm the smaller constituencies.  It would be fine to allow the dominant group to settle ties if there was no interest in diversity and assuring minority inclusion.  But if the goal is to elect a fully representative body, the dominant majority should get to pick their share of seats, but not also weigh in and limit the possible winners among the minority constituencies.

Recent Articles
October 19th 2009
A better election system
Lowell Sun

Election expert Doug Amy explains how choice voting can "inject new blood" into the elections of Lowell (MA), and give voters a greater incentive to participate.

October 16th 2009
Haven't Detroit voters spoken enough?
Livingston Daily

In Detroit, there have been three mayors in the past two years and the current one has come under scrutiny. Perhaps a system like instant runoff voting will help bring political stability to motor city.

August 21st 2009
Black candidate for Euclid school board to test new voting system
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Limited voting, a form of proportional voting, will be used in Euclid (OH), in the hopes of allowing better representation of minorities.

July 2nd 2009
Reforming Albany
New York Times

FairVote's Rob Richie responds in a letter to the editor making the case for proportional voting systems to bring substantive reform to New York's legislature.