Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Pros and Cons of Single Transferable Vote (and the electoral college)

A few months ago I stumbled across this video on an alternative voting system called Single Transferable Vote. 

I loved it, in part because I wholeheartedly support any and all attempts to make voting more reflective of the many nuances that factor into people’s political preferences. The current system of winner-take-all is infuriatingly over-simplistic, and it’s also what enables the two-party stranglehold on power that pressures people to vote for whoever they hate the least.

The video intrigued me enough that I spent over an hour on Wikipedia trying to understand the nuances (if you really want to get down in the weeds, look up things like Droop quotas vs. Hare quotas – it gets real mathy). In addition to the benefits described in the video, this system has several things I like:

1. It solves the Condorcet's paradox:
2. It could do away with the irritating “run-off” elections in states like Louisiana, which may determine the Senate this year but which inconvenience voters in ways they needn’t if we just gathered all their preferences at once.
3. It might also do away with the need for primaries (although not necessarily, because if the party puts up too many candidates, and spreads its supporters to thinly between them,
potential winners with broad second-preference appeal may be eliminated before they get a chance to receive the second-preference votes of other candidates) 
4. It decreases the importance and need for parties in the first place, which I would like.

However, I also see three minor problems with it in practical terms:

1. You would need some way to make sure the second choices (and the third, and so on) of the winning candidates “excess” votes were representative of the second and third choices of his or her voters overall. For instance, if we just did it chronologically, the excess voters would disproportionately come from the West Coast relative to their supporters, which might skew which combinations of fallback preferences they would be likely to have relative to the total population of people who voted for that candidate as their first choice.

2. The size of the precincts still matter. Smaller precincts help large parties, and larger ones help minor parties. Gerrymandering would be less of a problem than it is presently, but I imagine we would see the major parties rush to make districts super tiny to help them out.

3. The system lacks what’s called “monotonicity”, such that it does in some situations make strategic sense for voters to lie about their preferences. To understand why, read this:
Even so, STV is one of the best I’ve seen, and would provide an immediate improvement to the status quo in almost all elections.

What of the electoral college? It’s an imperfect system, and this system wouljd be cooler, but I do prefer it to the national, popular-vote-plurality system that most critics assume would be the alternative. Either way, candidates will give disproportionate attention to certain areas (presently they give it to “swing states,” under the popular vote system they’d give it to densely populated areas) and that’s not good, but which groups get disproportionate attention seems morally arbitrary to me. We need some minority protection, and the electoral college was a precondition for many of the states to ratify the constitution in the first place, so it’s not fair to the underpopulated states to retroactively change the conditions of the contract they agreed to. As cool as it would be to see Rhode Island secede in protest, that might not end well for anyone involved.

Lastly, don’t get your hopes up that any of this will actually happen – it makes too much sense.

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