Oscar Votes 123: February 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Search For Perfect Election System

There’s a good story in today’s Congress.org about IRV and the Academy Awards. It was a balanced article and I want to address some of the opposing comments. No election system is perfect, but that doesn’t stop critics from piling on IRV.

Anthony Gierzynski was quoted that with IRV;

"You start overwhelming voters and you start losing people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale,"
I hope that doesn’t mean that Americans are stupider than Australians or the Irish? I don’t think so.

Look at the situation where I live in Washington’s 3rd Congressional district. There’s an open US House seat where there are currently nine candidates running. That could mean that SW Washingtonians have an overwhelming number of choices on the ballot. But at least they’ll get only one choice in the primary – and that could hopefully soothe any fractured psyches.

But hey, Washington State has a two-round majority voting system. This means that if your first choices loses the August primary, you the voter, get a second choice in the November general election.

And perverse results? With nine candidates in the race – so far – that means the threshold to get into the top-two runoff is 11 percent. A candidate seemingly not favored to win can get into the general. KKK leader David Duke has gotten into the runoff and even elected in the Louisiana top-two majority voting system. The separate runoff is supposed to act like a “safety valve” where an extremist candidate like Duke cannot win the election itself when squared against another candidate in the general.

But he did get elected. Elections produce winners and losers – just because you don’t like the winner doesn’t mean you should dog-pile criticisms on the election rules. It’s like IRV has to somehow be more than perfect.

Then there’s Joyce McCloy and her wrecking ball style of political activism. Indeed, no election system is perfect – but neither is McCloy’s reasoning. Here’s her quote;

There will be people that lack confidence in the outcome, because whoever gets the most first choice votes may not win," McCloy said. "Whichever movie is the most mediocre could win, because it could get the most second- or third-place votes

Oh brother! First, IRV makes results that overwhelms voters, and now the results are mediocre! These criticisms are much like a handful of boiled spaghetti – throw it at a wall and see what sticks. IRV is new to most voters and the goal of these critics is to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Instead of conjecture regarding primary / general election dynamics, let’s look at what a University of Washington study on IRV says;

"In summary, one criticism leveled against RCV / IRV – that candidates who do not obtain the most votes in the initial iteration of voting can go on to win the election outright – is also a function of a traditional primary and general election dynamics."

I put the emphasis in bold because it brings us back to the point I made in the example regarding the open seat in Washington’s 3rd CD. Would it be a big deal if the second place winner in the primary won the general election? And would any winner be mediocre? Perhaps to the many voters who will vote a second choice in the general election! And even if they were somehow mediocre - just like the article says – “whether or not that scenario is bad is a matter of opinion”

IRV is a majority voting system with similar characteristics as a two-round runoff. There was a need for IRV with the Academy Awards. And if voters think there’s a need for it in pubic elections, it will happen – as it does in places that use it. This is neither mediocre nor overwhelming, it just is.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Looking At Majority Voting Systems

Who will win the Academy Award for Best Picture? According to the new rules for the Oscars, a majority of Academy members will decide.

This year there are ten nominees for Best Picture – the rules were changed from the previous number of five. With this wider field, I can see how the ballot tabulation rules needed to be reconsidered. With the old plurality system, ten nominees meant the threshold to win would have been 10% +1. That means a film with little support among members could win the Oscar.

This morning’s award announcements give us an opportunity look at majority voting systems. One way to conduct this kind of election is through multiple ballots. If there’s no majority on the first count, the last place vote getter is dropped off the list and ballots with the remaining nine are given to voters. If there’s no majority on the second ballot, the last place vote getter is dropped off the list and new ballots with the eight remaining nominees are given to voters. This process would continue until a majority (50% +1) picks the Best Picture.

Multiple ballots work good in places like meetings, conventions -where people are together. But when ballots need to be mailed to voters, the logistics can be cumbersome. Washington State has a majority voting system that winnows candidates down to the top two vote getters. There’s a primary election followed by another Top-Two election at a later date.

With either of these systems, some voters, whose first choice was knocked out in a round of counting, have to then consider a second choice on a later ballot. To accommodate this dynamic, the Academy used a preferential ballot. Voters rank their choices on a single ballot. For example, you put “Avatar” as your first choice and “The Hurt Locker” as second, “District Nine” as third and so on down the ballot. This way, Academy members are mailed a single ballot. And tabulation is basically the same; if there’s a majority on first count, the election is over. If not, the last place vote getter is dropped and that nominee's voters second, third and subsequent choices are distributed to the films remaining in the counting. This process continues until the majority threshold is met.

With expanding the number of nominees for an Oscar, the Academy needed to look at voting methods. Ranked ballots didn't create all the choices - it only accommodates them. And by giving members choices by preference, a voter can feel invested in more films. It's like. "Heck, my first choice lost but I did rank the winner high on my ballot so I'm happy."

Krist Novoselic serves as Chair of FairVote Board of Directors.