The RCV/ballot access dilemma
This November 5th we’ll elect a new Minneapolis mayor, along with other ballot items. But it’s in the context of the mayor’s race that we’ll try to make sense of the prospect of 35 candidates, three ranked choices and huge disagreement about the fairness and efficacy of this whole process. In the public debate, opinions range from “there should be even more candidates!” to dismay, from praise for the bold direction our city is taking to embarassment and to attempts (the League of Women Voters being a case in point) to artificially limit the scenario to something “normal.”
(The LWV has chosen to use campaign contributions as a test of who’s worthy of a seat at the debating table. Um, no.) The corporate media vacillates between treating its list of marginal candidates as wacky entertainment and ignoring them entirely to ponder the relative merits of its ever-changing list of “serious” ones.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) was designed to offer more choice, while saving the time and money of primaries and runoffs. It’s much studied by political scientists and mathematicians. I have read a load of the literature (so you don’t have to).
One thing that makes it hard to evaluate our election against the models is that the models never have more than five candidates. Still, I have found there are a lot of interesting mathematical features about RCV. For example, one of the things the pro-RCV side never talks about is that counting must be centralized.
Mathematicians construct cases (which have occurred in reality) where A wins in both precincts 1 and 2, but B wins when you count the two precincts together. And, contrary to the adspeak from FairVote, it’s quite possible to elect a winner without a majority. (In fact, in a diffuse field of 35, it’s almost guaranteed.) There is a checklist of features that the theoretically perfect voting system would have. RCV scores better on it than traditional systems, but only slightly better than a non-partisan primary system. It’s not perfect.
The most relevant feature, and the hardest to analyze for Minneapolis 2013, is the so-called spoiler effect. RCV reduces the spoiler effect. Its advocates claim it eliminates it, but it doesn’t. The spoiler effect comes with several variations. An interesting one is the no-show paradox. Space requirements don’t allow me to explain, but it’s basically a scenario where a voter can “help” their chosen candidate by not voting. An example of this may have happened in the RCV mayoral election in Oakland, Calif., in 2010. Related is the “undervote,” where voters just ignore RCV and vote for one.
But what does “spoiler” even mean when you have so many candidates? There is no clear favorite, no line of demarcation by political alignment, which is what the spoiler effect is about, normally. To counter the spoiler effect in traditional first-past-the-post, voters use “strategic voting.” My conclusion is there is no way to vote strategically with this pack. There is a way to “waste your vote,” though. If you vote a more-viable candidate in first place, and then less-viable but preferred in second or third, you are doing it wrong. You should vote first for the person YOU most want to win, regardless of their chances, then, second, for someone you would quite like who is more likely to win. Third should be from the Strib’s Favorite Five, whomever you least hate. But none of that will guarantee that any of your votes will count toward the final showdown between two. And does the no-show paradox apply? No way to tell with such a large field, but probably. Only voting for one choice may “help” some front-runner you really loathe.
Some, like candidate Captain Jack Sparrow, think ranking all 35 will solve this issue. Apart from the technical challenge of that, and the fact that few would bother even if it were offered, it’s not a solution. To get a “good” result, you need turnout, a transparent process and a clear majority winner. Counting all 35 rankings would be transparent, IF the electorate trusts the process, while having only three of 35 choices means an opaque process and loads of exhausted ballots, reducing the final count to a mere fraction. But 35 choices would also reduce the turnout, and few of those who do vote would rank all 35. You may get a “true” majority—but of a very small percentage of the electorate.
Many see this as a test of RCV; FairVoteMN is trying to soothe fears and educate the public. I am not sure that their approach will accomplish what they really want, which is a high turnout. But if voters are being turned off by the prospect, is it the daunting task of selecting three? Or is it the overwhelming specter of 35 candidates to study, rather than a more usual number? I won’t try to predict November’s winner, but there are predictions one can make: Turnout will be even lower than 2009; the mayor will be elected with a plurality of 20% to 35%; there will be a lot of spoiled ballots and deliberate undervotes; pundits’ opinions will swing wildly back and forth; there will be recriminations after the dust settles; and, for good or ill, this election will have a place in history. None of this is strictly the fault of RCV but rather of the ridiculously easy ballot access, and THAT is largely due to overzealous cheerleading for RCV by the gullible and innumerate.