Monday, 7 January 2008

Is there a better voting system?

The Democratic and Republican candidates have been voted on in Iowa, the first state this year to select presidential candidates. Iowa doesn't vote the way that most states and democracies do; they have a caucus.
An Iowan registered as a Democratic Party member would go down to his local school or church hall on January 3 to register his support. The first thing he sees are clusters of people, some wearing stupid hats, who support the same candidate. The Obama supporters stand in one area, the Clintonites in another. The man caucusing joins one of the groups, though is free to move to another. After everyone has chosen their first-choice group, the small groups--those with fewer than 15% of the people--must join the groups of more popular candidates. This is when the shouting, chanting and cajoling begins. "Hope, Hope, Hope!" begins the Obama crowd. "Change, Change, Change!" say the Clinton supporters. Eventually, and very publicly, everyone chooses a candidate's group. The numbers are counted. If that caucus was allocated, say, 15 delegates (representative votes from that local area), 6 might go to Obama, 4 to Edwards, 4 to Clinton, and 1 to Biden.
Needless to say, this is problematic. Fewer than 10% of Iowa voters turn out for this harrowing ordeal, where their choices are made public, questioned, criticized, and then misrepresented. However this hidebound system is traditional, and is therefore immune to change anytime soon.

Standard voting is not fair. It does not represent properly the feelings of electors, particularly those who have nuanced opinions about the candidates. If three people seek the victory, I may only choose one, and I must choose him absolutely. In countries like America where there are only two viable parties, a third-party or independent candidate does little but 'spoil' one major party's chance of success by siphoning off a crucial sliver of support, as Nader did to Gore in 2000, turning a Democratic majority into an incredibly narrow race with Bush.

The author William Poundstone recently wrote a book about alternative voting systems, some dating from the early days of French suffrage. He examined the following systems, from worst to best.

Plurality Voting: the current system, also called 'first past the post'. Voters select one candidate.
Instant Run-off Voting: voters rank candidates by preference. Loser candidates are dropped and their voters' rankings applied to popular candidates.
Borda: candidates are ranked from best to worst. Is open to abuse.
Condorcet: voters rank candidates and whichever beats the others in head-to-head matchups is the winner. Can result in strange ties.
Approval Voting: voters tick all candidates they approve of.
Range Voting: like Olympic ice-skating scores, all candidates are given a number on a range of, say, 1-10.

Poundstone evaluated the system by allowing people to 'vote' under the various schemes, then surveyed their overall satisfaction with the outcome.

Major parties resist voting reform which might increase representation for small parties. Thus instant run-off voting has been put forward as a potential system, despite it being more confusing and only slightly better than plurality voting. Its virtue seems to be that it gives the illusion of more choice while resulting in a two-party race. Range voting is simple and representative, but would generate more ambiguity. A President may be elected with only 40% of the vote, which raises questions about a mandate to govern. While parliamentary systems are open to power-sharing coalition agreements, federal positions (like President) are zero-sum games. You can't put Gore's legs on Bush's body, with Nader's left testicle; it's winner take all.

No comments: