Fixing our Voting System : part 1

Whether you were happy with the results of the election or most likely you weren’t (like most of the people who may read this) one thing I think we all can agree on is that the way we vote in America is terrible. And this, this is one of the few ways as citizens that we get to participate in our government. I mean, of course, if we don’t like how things are going, we have the ability to vote out the people who are governing. Right?

But how fair is our current system of representation? How easy is it for us to vote? How fair is the math involved in counting our votes? Hopefully I can show that the answer to all of those questions is : not at all. And hopefully I can motivate you to do something about making change in our system of voting.

Let me get an easy one out of the way right off the bat. It is hard for most Americans to vote. We have to Elections are held on work days. Elections are held during (mostly) working hours. We have to register to vote which in some states only happens at an office that is also open during working hours. Registration deadlines vary by state. Sometimes you need to get registered 90 or more days before election day. Once we are registered and finally get time to to the polling place to actually vote we find huge lines awaiting us.

None of this needs to happen this way. There should be little or no hurdles to voting. We should be registered automatically when we turn 18. The state knows who we are when tax time rolls around so they should know who we are when we vote. For national elections we should have a federal holiday. Why don’t we?

And now for something that I spent a lot of time studying and talking about voting systems. If you do any amount of research in this area you soon learn that everybody who studies voting agrees on one thing : Plurality Voting (our current system) Is The Least Fair System We Could Choose to Use. And I know you’re going to get bored fast so I will try to explain this simply. If a group of people have to choose someone from another group of people (more than 3) there are many ways they can do it. Currently we give each person (each _elector_) a vote for one of the candidates and the person who has the most votes is the winner.

At first this seems fair and in the field of voting theory there are many ways to define and measure “fairness” but I’m not going to go into them here. But at first, this seems a fair method because clearly the candidate with the most votes is the one the group prefers. But do they? A simple example would prove this wrong right away:

In this election there are 3 candidates: A, B and C. (You can substitute in whoever you’d like for those letters). A is hated by most of the electorate, B and C are universally liked by the group that hates A. If I can show you a case where A wins would you be convinced that plurality is bad? Ok. Here you go:

Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 99 votes, C gets 99 votes.
Out of the 298 voters this means: A gets 34%, B and C each get 33%

Candidate A is the winner even though they did not gain a majority of the votes. Is that result fair? Is it acceptable to you if you are a B or C voter? Of course not. But variations of this effect occur all the time. Look at any primary that Donald Trump won in the very beginning of his campaign. As an example look at South Carolina

Election Results: Trump 32.5%, Cruz 22.3%, Rubio 22.5%, Bush 7.8%, Kasich 7.6%, Carson 7.2%

Could you tell me that all of the supporters of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, et. al would have preferred Donald Trump to be their nominee? What if they knew the eventual outcome of the presidential election? Would the Bush, Kasich and Carson voters have banded together with some of the Rubio voters to defeat Mr. Trump?

In what world can we say that someone who gets ⅓ of the vote should be the winner of an election? But we do it all the time. Shouldn’t elections strive to reflect the wishes of the voters?

There is a number of ways to run elections that are more fair and more accurately reflect the will of the people. One is Ranked Choice where you list who you prefer to win in order of preference. This is often combined with Instant Runoff where the votes are counted in successive rounds. Another is called Borda Count where you assign points to various candidates. There are countless systems that mathematicians consider to be more fair but my preference is one that is simple, fair and easy to implement with our current voting machines.

It’s called Approval Voting and it’s so perfect that a number of scientific and math societies use it to elect their leadership. Here is how it works : When you go to vote, you vote for _all_ of the candidates you ‘approve’ of and the candidate with the most votes wins. How amazing is that?

Let’s apply it to my hypothetical ABC election above. I said there was a large number of B and C voters that hated A and were equal in their like of B and C so they would vote for B _and_ C so the totals could be something like this:

Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 198 votes, C gets 198 votes.
Out of 298 votes: A gets 34%, B and C get 66%

Of course this is not considering that some of the A voters would maybe approve of B or C and some of the B and C voters may have just voted for B or C alone. But what you see here is that A wouldn’t win and B or C would. Most importantly B or C would also have a majority of the votes in the election! This would mean that the candidate elected would more likely be the will of most of the electors! Wouldn’t this be an amazing system?

Having a system like this would also minimize the effects of strategic voting and reduce our chances of voting for ‘The lesser of two evils’. Imagine if we used this in just the 2000 presidential election: The ‘Nader effect’ would not have mattered and Al Gore would have won. Imagine we used this in our primaries. If we did and we had these huge fields of candidates we would more accurately see who the people would be happy with instead of seeing who can just convince 20-40% of them.

These changes I’m proposing make great sense so why don’t we have them now? I would say that there are a lot of reasons but the main one is that the two dominant political parties don’t want them. They right now control everything. The Democratic and Republican parties (which are not government institutions but private entities) enjoy enormous power in keeping things as they are. They can dominate the message, they can consolidate the power and they effectively make elections feel like we the people have a say when in fact we don’t.

Letting more poor and working people vote, and making election day a holiday would add more control of the system to more of the people the system is aligned against. Changing the voting counts would allow other parties and other candidates a chance to be counted which would dilute the power the D and R’s have over the system.

But we can pressure for change here. We as citizens can and should study up and learn that there are other ways to elect our leaders. We can and should advocate for a system that puts the control over who is elected back into our hands. It is our moral imperative.

All of the things I’m talking about start on the local level. You need to go visit the office of State Senator and go visit the office of your State Representative. You need to talk to them and find out how you can physically help make these changes happen. You need to talk to your friends and convince them of the changes I’m proposing here.

What is happening is that we as a people are being distracted by these huge important issues that we have little direct control over. This is by design. Please understand that making change starts with this simple, wonky boring changes. We need to get control over our government.

There is a lot more I want to say about our electoral system and I will be talking about gerrymandering, primaries and the Electoral College in later posts so please stay tuned.

Go California

voterCalifornia is a kind of a cool state when it comes to Democracy. Unlike every other state, the voters there have the ability to propose referendums and then vote them into law – totally skipping their representatives. In 2010 they made two very significant changes to the electoral system.

The first was that all districts were drawn up based on geography and they were made by unaffiliated professionals. This contrasts almost everywhere else in America where the politicians get to draw the lines of their districts which has led to districts where the politicians almost cannot be removed from office. See this from 2010 as an example of the gerrymandering I’m talking about.

The second change was that the state primaries were to become non-partisan where everyone regardless of party could vote for anyone running in the primary and the two top vote getters (regardless of party affiliation) would face off in the general election.

These two changes are HUGE and will go a log way to making elections more fair in California. This year there are a number of candidates running for congress there that would never have had a shot otherwise. I urge you to read this short article from Time magazine explaining the current election cycle there.

Before I tell you what else needs to happen I want to take a second to applaud the voters of California for these changes. They are game changers and they need to be implemented universally across the country and I urge all of you to publicize these changes and write to your representatives to beg them to make these changes. Sadly we won’t see this happen almost anywhere else because the people able to change things are the ones who benefit the most from keeping them the same. There’s always revolution…

Anyway, California needs to go further and I’m going to take a second to tell you why. For years now, mathematicians and others have studied voting and have pretty much unanimously decided that plurality voting for more than 2 candidates in a field is the worst system one could possibly use . The reasons are many. But they mostly boil down to the fact that not all of your wishes as a voter are being counted in the math deciding the winner. If you simply choose who gets the most votes, that candidate may very well not be the one most people would choose.

For example, lets take an election with 3 candidates. One (candidate R) is a hard core Right Wing candidate, another (candidate D) is a hard core Left leaning candidate and one (candidate M) is right in the middle. Say that many of your voters are strongly biased towards candidates R and D and that all of those strongly biased voters would gladly vote for M if they knew that R or D would win.

 

Say that after the results are in the voting comes out to something like : 40% R, 30% D, and 30% M. Is this a fair result? Is it the right one? The only happy voters are the R voters. The D voters are thinking “we would totally have taken M, we hate R”, the M voters could be thinking the converse “if we had chosen D instead of M we’d be in great shape” (remember the Nader voters who swung Gore out of the presidency?).

A system like this leads people to strategically vote : They vote for a candidate they don’t really like much because they think they have the best shot at beating a candidate they hate. This is called Tactical Voting and it pretty much kills third party candidates that would have a legitimate shot if people had a way to say “I want D but I’d also accept M.. just not R!”

Here’s another example that’s illustrative. Imagine if there are 10 candidates and they get 11%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, and 9% of the vote. Who should be the winner then? Would that be fair?

There are many other problems with plurality voting, just do a tiny bit of research and you will see what I’m talking about. This is the problem in California that they need to fix and there are many ways to do it.

The way I propose is called Approval Voting and it’s so fair that the American Society of Mathematicians use it for their elections (at least they did last time I checked). The way it works is simple. You vote for all the candidates you like and you don’t vote for the ones you don’t and the one with the most votes wins. It’s not perfect, but it’s 100 times better than what we do now.

There are other systems like the Borda Count and other Ranking systems, but in terms of simplicity and ease of implementation Approval is by far the clear winner. So California, you are almost there, just change your primary voting system and I will move there!

 

You can do it

Is this where we are headed?
I am discouraged today. I’ve actually felt this way for a number of years now. It’s been so long I can’t even remember when it began, but that’s not really important. What is important if for you to know why I feel this way. It’s important to me that you read this and think about what I’ve said and do something, anything, as a result. Comment, pass this along, tell others in person… I don’t care, just do something. Because the lack of anyone doing anything is what has me so discouraged.

If you look back at this blog and other places where I post things (facebook, my news feed, twitter, etc.) you will see that the majority of things I post about are things that are wrong with the world (particularly America) politically and socially. I know ‘wrong’ here is biased towards my own beliefs but I really feel that my perspective is general enough that any reasonable person exposed to the things I post would feel similar to how I do. But in all this time I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt that anyone has responded in a serious way to anything I’ve posted.

And this is what discourages me. Every day I read or learn something new that makes me want to scream out in anger or frustration. Every day I have to take a moment and ask myself, what can I do to make the world a place where things like this don’t happen again? So I post, and I donate to causes and I participate in politics by voting, and I genuinely think about how things affect the greater good. But it doesn’t change anything. And that inertia tends to make me more depressed. So I start to just give up and say ‘fuck it, if people would rather care more about mindless shit, then they deserve to get what they get’. We deserve the America we live in right now. The one where our liberties have been eroded in the name of security. The one where we can’t afford to educate our children because of wars we’re fighting for possibly flimsy reasons. The one where we have floods and tornados and odd weather every day and yet we deny that global warming is real. And on and on.

But I can’t sit back and do that anymore. In the last 2 years myself and many of my close friends have had their first children. So now instead of just saying “I’m dead in 60 years, it can’t get that bad”, we’re all now forced to say “what kind of world will our children inherit? And what about their children?”. Now things matter even more, and yet, I can see no change at all.

So what do I want? What would a perfect world be like from my perspective? What would I want you to do? It’s simple really. I want two things. First I want many people (many of the people I know) to take 10-15 minutes a day to read things that I (and other trusted friends) post and talk about. I want this because I don’t post things that are time-wasters. In my perfect world you all would trust that. Second I want you all to be motivated by the things I post to actually do something on your own. Maybe write about what you read, or talk to friends and family, or vote for candidates that support views that coincide with positions you read about, or maybe even debate with me the merits of what I post. In short I want you to take some time to react to what I post.

I can see why you don’t. We are constantly barraged with stimulus. And most of it has the effect of making us feel ok. Why allow ourselves to willingly feel bad about our world when we can so easily feel good about it? We are wired to suppress bad feelings and our media, our very lifestyle enables us to follow that path so easily. So I know it’s hard. But it’s so important to fight that urge to take the ‘soma’ and take a look at the world without our rose colored glasses. You don’t need to do it all the time, just once and a while. Please, I am literally begging you. We as a society are already failing because of ambivalence. Don’t let us fail completely!

huh? I’m ashamed to be a Democrat

Ok.. so as if I haven’t complained enough about the fucked up primary process we use to choose our nominee here comes something else to piss me off. Howard Dean is calling for Obama and Clinton to get into a room and decide who is going to be the nominee.. forget the convention and the delegates and the ‘democratic’ process (the way the super delegates and primarys work are hardly democratic, but that’s another story)… he thinks that we should just anoint someone right off.

Now the election at this point is coming down to who can raise more money and last all the way to the convention since clearly neither is going to win this thing before then. However, if one has to drop out due to money issues, well.. you can see how that would work out.

In some ways I think that the primaries are for us, the democratic voters to decide who we want to represnet us, but on the other hand it’s really up to the DNC right? I mean, they decide weather states can pledge delegates to their convention (see florida). They choose the rules of the whole deal. Why should we expect that we could simply have some transparent way to choose? Why can’t we just have a nationwide popular vote to choose our nominee?

I wish there was some other way to be involved in politcs.. some other party I could choose.. but that’s just hope and in America that only gets you so far.

New Hampsire and my favorite company Diebold

http://www.legitgov.org/nh_machine_vs_paper.html

also some good stuff on bradblog (http://bradblog.com/) about this same topic.. The interesting thing is that there are paper ballots for these counties but it would take a challenge by Obama to force a manual recount and I would bet that he wouldn’t want to look like a sore looser here so I highly doubt they will do anything. These are the same machines that were on “Hacking Democracy” one of my favorite documentaries on the subject.

There is no doubt in my mind these machines were hacked.. none.

Good news/Bad news

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for about 3 years now about the fraudulent recount effort of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio that would (in my opinion) have proved that the election was stolen by the evil slimy Bush bastards. It was also recounted quite well in the HBO documentary “HackingDemocracy“. Well, two of the election workers involved were charged with rigging the recount and they have been found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in jail. This is good news. The bad news is multi-faceted. First I’m upset that they only got 18 months. Clearly what they did was tantamount to treason and they should have at least gotten life in prison for subverting our constitution. Second I’m upset becasue you won’t find anywhere in the MSM this story.. I looked with no luck and I’m sure you won’t see this on TV. Lastly, I’m most upset because this does nothing to remove Bush from the White House.. at the least, congress could investigate.. According to Bradblog only 6 Kerry votes in each Ohio precinct would have made him the winner. oh wait.. the ballots have been destroyed even though a Judge ordered them saved.. hmn.. interesting. Fuckers. Why aren’t more of us upset about this?

The Iowa caucus should be outlawed!

I fucking hate the Iowa caucus.. it simply determines too much. And its not all their fault either.. it’s the god dammed media attention it gets. Fuck those assholes man..

oh.. a much more well written piece that is similar in view to mine is found on Slate.

60,000

There are almost 1.5 million people living in Philadelphia. In the first election where Street won, less than 300,000 voted. If that were to happen this year that would mean that the first candidate (of the 5) to get 60,000 votes would win the election. That means that in the worst case, 4% of the city population is going to choose our next mayor. Is that a good system?

It’s not, but there’s nothing we can do about it in the next 8 days so we should vote very carefully. What I mean is that you need to decide who you want to win and who you don’t want to win. My list is as follows : Brady, Nutter, Evans, Fattah, Knox. Now. My thought is that the election if it were held today would give us: Knox, Nutter (in a very close heat) followed by Brady, Fattah and Evans.

Since I don’t want Knox to win at all and would rather see anyone in office over him, I should actually vote for Nutter since I think that he has the best shot at winning. If you are a Fattah or Evans supporter, you shouldn’t vote for either of them either. Any vote that isn’t for one of the 2 front runners will be a vote for the leader (probably Knox). So, be careful, we don’t want another Ralph Nader situation here.

We need to seriously think about changing our election system. With more than 2 candidates the entire system breaks down and becomes unfair to everyone.

But, no matter what I say, if you don’t vote, you’ve made the worst mistake of all and you have no right to complain about anything anymore.

The Tide is Turning

This is good news.. The Dems in congress are getting ready to introduce and pass a resolution mandating paper trails for all voting machines before the 08 presidential election. In addition it appears that they are going to try to get a handle on the proprietary source code issue as well :

It would also require state elections officials to hand over to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a federal agency charged with overseeing the shift to electronic voting machines, all of the source code and other ballot programming files associated with the machines they certify. In a move that could prove controversial, the EAC under the bill would have to make that information available “for inspection promptly upon request to any person.”

This is really, really good news. We need to keep an eye on this bill and make sure we pressure our senators to pass it as well!

Justice Partially Served

Finally some good news on the voting front.. First off it seems as if the state of Florida is going to outlaw paperless touch screen voting systems and mandate the usage of optical scan machines.. This is really good since it would allow meaningful recounts.. Secondly, and much more important 2 of the election workers in Ohio are going to jail for the fraud they perpetrated during the 2004 presidential election recount (You may have seen the story on the HBO special on Bev Harris a while back.. man was I mad when I saw that!). The sad thing is that their bosses (who were clearly part of the conspiracy) got off.. Now I wonder if we can recall Bush over this…

source : “Florida to scrap touchscreens; convictions in Ohio recount-rigging