Monday, April 9, 2007

Coöperative Democracy

Greetings, citizens.

Today I'm going to talk about ways in which we can improve democracy by changing the way in which we vote. Specifically I'm going to point out a few flaws in the widespread "plurality" system of voting, then I'm going to promote an alternative: approval voting.

What's Broken?

Before I go into my proposed changes, let me persuade you that there is room for improvement in the current system, especially vis-a-vis vote splitting. Vote splitting is what allowed the Nazi party to take power in Germany, and what let LePen into the final round of the 2002 French presidential elections. In both cases, the majority of the electorate detested the above ultra-conservatives, but since the right was united their total vote count was large enough to give them disproportional power.

A similar situation happened in the 2006 Canadian federal election, where only 36% of Canadians voted for the Conservatives, but since there is only one significant right wing party and there are three left-wing parties the Conservatives took power.

Problems with Plurality?

Vote-splitting is a problem in any democracy where the winner is determined by a plurality, or first-past-the-post system. Since the candidate with the most people voting for them is the one that wins, one of the most tragic ways to lose a pluralist election is to have many good politicians agree with you. I suppose in some ways the threat of splitting the vote might be a good thing in that it encourages politicians with similar platforms to amalgamate, fostering simplicity; but this small good in my opinion is outweighed by occasionally electing extremist governments which don't reflect the will of the people.

However, given that there are going to be a few maverick politicos who refuse to take up another's banner, the reasonable parts of the political spectrum will become crowded with egotists whose best chance at getting ahead is by sabotaging their fellows' images, and politicians adopting unreasonable views will enjoy unsplit votes and my be able to wield disproportionate power.

The poor voter's only recourse is to vote tactically: to give power to a lesser evil to defeat a greater evil. Such tactical voting systems result in meta-stable power structures with all the appeal of a prisoner's dilemma; let's look for something better.

Alternative 1: Approval Voting

My favorite alternative to a plurality system is approval voting. Under approval voting, each voter is given a list of checkboxes next to the names of each candidate. She checks off each candidate which meets her approval. The candidate with the highest approval rating wins the election.

Under this system, one can check just one box (if one approves of just one party), one can check a whole range of boxes corresponding to parties that are all compatible with the voter's views (perhaps along with a few one-issue parties to show support without throwing away a vote), or one can officially show disgust with the entire slate by leaving all boxes empty, indicating that the voter trusts none of the meager offerings this year.

Aside from solving the vote-splitting catastrophe, approval voting discourages mud-slinging among politicians, since discrediting others doesn't behoove politicians as much. Politicians can build platforms partially atop of one another: one could declare "my views are similar to the popular Mrs. X's (which are reasonable and well-considered), with the distinction that I would pander less to the unions than she" without fearing vote-splitting disaster. It would finally make reason and politics more miscible than oil and water: it would be a genuinely good strategy to adopt good policies regardless of "whose turf" they belong to.

It goes without saying that the two-party fiasco of the United States (which in my opinion has done harm by dividing the nation into tribes) could be instantaneously remedied by approval voting: if any new party could win power through good centrist policy with bipartisan support, I would expect a lot less extremism in American politics. Sane policy is awaiting your approval.

Alternative 2: Borda Count

Another vote-counting system is to allow each voter to rank each candidate, potentially letting unranked candidates tie for last. While this method seems appealing since it allows voters to give more information than even approval voting, it suffers from complexity and from odd consequences of tactical voting, as will be described.

Assume that, like any current ballot, a Borda-count ballot has a few big shot politicians and alongside a motley crew of amateurs. The tactical voter who wants to maximize her chosen big shot over the other predominant big shot will rank the former first and the latter last, filling in the middle positions with dimwits whom everyone knows won't get elected. The trouble is: I don't trust voters to rank the filler politicians randomly: perhaps there will be a tendency to rank the unknowns from #2 at the top of the page through #(n-1) at the bottom. This will mean whichever dimwit #1 at the top of the ballot (who will be ranked #2 by pretty much every tactical voter) will have a higher voting score than either of the two leading choices (who will get a roughly 50-50 split between first and last place from each tactical voter) and we'll elect only dimwits. That would be horrible!

Borda himself acknowledged the Borda count's vulnerability to tactical voting. From Wikipedia (so beware the source):
In response to the issue of strategic manipulation in the Borda count, M. de Borda said "My scheme is only intended for honest men".
Let me know if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that there's no advantage to voting tactically in an approval voting system: if you don't like a candidate, there's never an incentive to endorse her, and if you do, you should always endorse her. The only potential for failure might happen if a few "single-issue" parties (like the marijuana party) get more approval than any other; if this is the case thought than the leading parties clearly have missed the wishes of the electorate and deserve what's coming to them.


So far, my favorite system of vote counting is approval voting. It gives everybody an equal say, remedies vote-splitting, is invulnerable to tactical voters and encourages collaboration among politicians. Let's start adopting this simple yet powerful method for expressing one's political opinion, and let the reasonable, collaborative, centrist policy begin.

PS: More on Voting Systems

Alas, there is no one perfect method of voting which allows voters to express a nuanced set of preferences, and always elects the best candidate under any criterion. Mathematicians have thus gone berserk in their search for esoteric methods for determining who gets elected; each one is "optimal" for a given view of what should be. If you're interested in the diversity of vote counting systems out there, take a look at the following Wikipedia articles (I'm just amazed by how many there are):

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