Memo to Nick Clegg

                                          January 12, 2010

 

To: Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats Party Leader

From: John Howard Wilhelm, Ph.D., Economics

Re: Reforming the UK/US Voting System Now

 

     "Like great artists, great politicians see possibilities

     others cannot and then seek to turn them into reality."

     Michael Ignatieff, New York Times Magazine, August 5, 2007

 

Even with single-member constituencies, which voters in both the UK and US seem to strongly favor, it is possible to make a change in our voting system now that could significantly improve both of our political processes and the fairness or our elections.

 

 

Given your situation, I believe that you are in a unique position to bring this about in your country and to help promote the idea in my own country where such a change is also sorely needed.  I am writing you to urge you to give this high priority.

 

In doing so, I need to point out to you, and to the others to whom I am copying this note, that the Jenkins Report on Voting Reform has two serious flaws of which you need to be aware: 1) Its misguided advocacy of the Hare system in its reform proposal as Lord Alexander partly recognized in his dissent to that report and 2) Its failure to consider approval voting as an alternative to the current system of plurality, or first-past-the-post, voting in single-member constituencies.

 

Both the single transfer voting system and the alternative vote, or instant runoff voting as it is labeled in the US, are based on the Hare system which has very serious flaws as a voting system as the technical literature clearly demonstrates.  In the case of instant runoff voting, IRV, which is the most widely know voting alternative in the US, there are serious problems which the system encounters: 1) The problem of its opacity, 2) The complexity it entails for the existing voting structure and 3) The fact it does a poor job in reflecting voters' preferences in the outcome.

 

The reason that IRV or AV does a poor job in reflecting voters'

preferences stems in part from a flaw that infests the system that Sir Michael Dummett has pointed to--its great and even chaotic response to even minor preference changes among the electorate.  In the course of arriving at a result for an election, IRV can exclude the candidate most acceptable to voters early on in the runoff process.  Worst yet, under this voting system a candidate who would have won can wind up losing if he or she garners more first place support in the course of his or her campaign.  This occurs under such a system because the increase support the candidate garners in the course of the campaign changes the order in which candidates will be dropped and votes reallocate in the course of arriving at a result.  In the technical literature this is referred to as violating for a voting system the monotonicity condition--the idea that if a candidate gets more support this should not adversely affect his or her prospects.

 

In a November 2005 lecture at the Mathematics Department of the University of Michigan, Professor Steven Brams of New York University suggested that the monotonicity problem arises in approximately ten percent of IRV, or AV, elections.  This, however, clearly understates the seriousness of the problem since surely a proportion of the other 90% would involve cases where a candidate with a first place majority could not be adversely affected by additional first place support because of the absence of a need for a runoff process.  In a recent work, Joe Ornstein showed that in close elections, those for which it is claimed that IRV is particularly suitable, the proportion can be as high as 40%.  The upshot of this is that under IRV voters cannot know for sure whether a vote for the candidate they favor will help or hurt that candidate.  Even plurality voting, with all of its flaws, does not suffer such a problem since under that system no candidate set to win an election could lose by gaining more support at the expense of the other candidates.

 

Given this consideration and given the fact that "if IRV [AV] is ever actually adopted, we will likely remain struck in the old two-party system, just as Australia still is, despite the fact that it has used IRV since around 1920," Britain was fortunate that Blair opted out of putting the Jenkins Commission's recommendations to a referendum.

Otherwise the country could have been stuck with an even worse voting system of whose very serious flaws the electorate would have been ignorant due to the system's very opacity.

 

Next to plurality voting, approval voting is the simplest voting system one can have.  Under approval voting every voter is allowed to give one vote each in a multi-candidate election to that candidate or those candidates of whom they approve with the candidate having the most votes winning.  As opposed to IRV, or the alternative vote, the system is quite transparent and easy to adopt on existing voting hardware (e.g., paper ballots, voting machines), since determining its results involves nothing more complex than additional counting.

 

The main advantage approval voting has for the voter is that it allows a person to vote both sincerely and strategically to better reflect his or her preferences.  In doing so, it has a strong tendency to select the Condorcet candidate--the one candidate in an election who could beat all the other candidates in all the pair wise (one-to-one) contests possible from the field of candidates.  If it does not elect the Condorcet candidate or if there is no Condorcet candidate due to the Condorcet paradox, approval voting still has the advantage of electing the candidate acceptable to the largest number of voters.  It has the additional advantage of getting rid of the wasted- vote syndrome and the spoiler role in elections.

 

Had approval voting been in place in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Gore surely would have won since a large proportion of those voting for Nader would clearly have given an additional vote to Gore given Nader's realistic chances.  Such an outcome would have better reflected the preferences of those voters whose votes were counted in Florida in 2000.  In the case of the upcoming British general election, were approval voting used it seems quite likely that the outcome would yield a less skewed result in favor of the Conservatives.  In those constituencies with a Conservative plurality alongside a majority divided between Labour and Liberal Democrats which does not prefer the Conservative candidate, the majority under approval voting would have the tools to reflect this fact in their voting patterns and the outcome.  Should approval voting be adopted in US elections it would give voters the necessary, though not sufficient, tools to break up our two-party system which has become so dysfunctional.

 

Given these considerations, I would urge you to push in the current Parliament for introducing by a statutory act approval voting in single member constituencies.  Such an act would be fairer to British voters than the current system.  It would also surely have a better prospect of being enacted now since both your party and the Labour Party have a clear majority in the Commons and presently a shared interest in a fairer voting system.  Given his concerns, you might even be able to enlist a Douglas Carswell, MP on the Conservative side for such an effort.

 

If you could succeed in getting this in your country, it would surely help those of us in the US who would like to see similar reforms in our country.  To give you some more background on approval voting, I enclose with this a copy of an unpublished op-ed I wrote on the system in the US context and a copy of an article on approval voting by Professor Brams.  I hope that you might find this note and the enclosed useful and that we might have further exchanges on this matter.

 

                                       John Howard Wilhelm

 

Enc.: Two items as per text.