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
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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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
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?
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.