Counting the ballots
A Fair Process for Choosing Winners

Given our special attention to the impact of voting systems on election results and participation, we took special care in devising a fair process for determining the winners.

Volunteers, interns and staff of the Midwest Democracy Center and Center for Voting and Democracy initially reduced the nearly 9,000 submissions to approximately 300 semi-finalists. These essays then were read and evaluated by four staff members and board members of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which resulted in reducing the number of finalists to 36. These essays were then sent to our judges.

Judges were asked first to rank each essay on a scale of one to ten and then to indicate whether they would approve of the essay being chosen as the grand prize winner and as a winner in the appropriate college or high school student category. We then used a combination of approval and instant runoff voting for choosing the voting for choosing the grand prize winner and the best and second-best college and high school essays. We used the choice voting method of proportional representation to choose the eight honorable mention winners. You can read longer descriptions of these voting systems elsewhere on our web site.

Following is the description of the counting process that we sent the judges, along with information on what happened in the tabulation.

Selecting the Winners

Judges' ballots will be tabulated as follows. First we will learn which essays are acceptable as winners in each category by at least one-half of judges. This system is known as "approval voting." When people vote sincerely -- without much calculation, as they are likely to do in voting on matters like essay contests as opposed to electing candidates for public offices -- approval voting is a very good way to measure the consensus opinion of voters. If there is only one essay that crosses this 50% level of "acceptability," it will win. If there is no essay that meets that criteria, however, then we will lower the bar of acceptability to appearing on 45% of judges' ballots (and so on, dropping by 5% each time).

If there is more than one essay with 50% acceptability, than we will use an "instant runoff" to determine the winner -- see the enclosed commentary by Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker magazine that describes how a form of instant runoff voting worked in the recent London mayoral race. We will take your ratings and turn them into a rank-order list, as if you had ranked the essays from 1 to 36. (This is why you might want to indicate your preferences among essays to which you give the same rating.) These rankings then will be used to conduct an instant runoff. The instant runoff is designed to reward a combination of core support (it helps to be the top choice of a substantial number of voters) with broad support (it helps to be a high choice of supporters of other candidates).

What happened: Leila Rouhi's essay was the only one which was acceptable as a grand prize winner by more than 50% of judges - 17 of 28 judges indicated they would approve of her essay being a grand prize winner. Note that using numerical rankings derived from how judges' rated essays, Leila Rouhi's essay also had the most first-choice preferences and would have won using other voting system like the Borda count (a point system) and instant runoff voting. In both the college and high school category, there were more than two essays that had 50% acceptability. Instant runoff voting then was used to pick the high school and college winners and the runners-up.

Selecting the Honorable Mention Awards

We thought that the winning essay should be decided in a majoritarian process, but that the eight honorable mentions should reflect a process more representative of judges' different opinions. Therefore, we will use choice voting (called "the single transferable vote" and "preference voting" in much academic literature) to award honorable mentions. Choice voting is a proportional representation system that is used to elect the parliament in Ireland, the senate in Australia and the city council and school committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If all 34 judges were to turn in their ballots, then it would only take four first-choice votes (about one-eighth of the total vote) for a particular essay to win one of the eight honorable mention prizes. If your first-choice essay has weak support from other voters and is eliminated, however, your ballot will count for your second-choice. To conduct this choice voting election, we once again will turn your ratings into rankings in order of choice.

What happened: Reflecting the number of essays that made the final cut of 36 from college students compared to high school students, we decided that we would pick five college student / non-student essays and three high school student essays. Choice voting was used in these two categories for two separate elections, making the "winning threshold" five votes (out of 28 ballots provided by our judges) for college students and eight votes for high school students.