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                           (An Analysis and A Proposal)
                                                                                        March, 2012

In her important piece on the dangers of PAC money to our presidential
elections (NYRB, Feb. 23, 2012), Elizabeth Drew implied that aside
from this problem "that the system for nominating and electing a
president is essentially fair."  Unfortunately, that statement and the
whole thrust of the article's focus fail to appreciate that the domestic
process for picking our president and representatives at the federal
level is seriously flawed in another important aspect--the voting system
itself.  As William Poundstone pointed out in his 2008 book "Gaming
the Vote" the system we overwhelmingly use in our primary and general
elections is "about the least sensible way to vote!" 

If one were wanting to design the worst way to vote, we could do three
things.  First, "Force voters to say the least possible amount--name
just one candidate" in your vote.  Second, "Make it reward voters for
not voting for whom they really want."  And third, "Make it operate
over time, in such a way as to diminish the number of choices to the
minimum--only 2 (or 1, meaning no choice at all)."  The above three
quotes are taken from the Range Voting website where it is pointed
out that this describes our current system of plurality voting.

Plurality voting--in which a voter can cast only one vote and the person
who gets the most votes, not necessarily a majority, wins--leads to
vote splitting, the spoiler role, and the wasted vote all of which compel
groups and voters to coalesce around and vote for one of two major

This has two important consequences for the issue of how democratic
our elections processes are.  First, as almost everywhere the system
has existed (e.g., in the UK) the system engenders two-party dominance,
the primary reason why we have had no credible third-party presence
in over two hundred years of American history.  And second, it all too
frequently leads to poor outcomes in reflecting "the will of the people"
as the most glaring example in living memory, the 2000 Florida
presidential fiasco, amply illustrates.

In looking at the performance of voting systems the most important
question to ask is how well the outcome reflects the preferences of
those who voted in an election.  As the late prominent British
philosopher Sir Michael Dummett has pointed out in his excellent
book "Principles of Electoral Reform" (Oxford University Press, 1997)
there are two criteria that one can use to assess this in single
member constituency elections like our presidential and congressional
elections.  First, the degree to which a voting system chooses the
Condorcet candidate.  Or second, the degree to which it selects the
candidate with the highest Borda count.

In the Condorcet case we are speaking about selecting in a
multi-candidate election, any election with three or more candidates,
the candidate who in all the pairwise (one-to-one) contests possible
from the field of candidates can beat all the others.  In the Borda
case we are speaking of an election in which voters rank candidates
one by one with the candidate ranked first by each voter getting
n-1 points, where n equals the number of candidates, the second
n-2 on to the last who gets n-n or zero points.  The Borda count
is the sum of all the points earned in such elections and, as Sir
Michael Dummett pointed out, represents the total number of votes
each candidate would get in all the pairwise contests possible from
the field of candidates.

Although these two criteria seem quite reasonable, each in practice
runs into its own problem.  In the case of the Condorcet criterion
while preferences for each voter are transitive, if a voter favors a over
b over c over d, he or she doesn't favor d over a, they may not be
transitive when voters preferences are aggregated and one can have
the situation in which voters favor a over b over c over d but d
over a--the Condorcet paradox which is well illustrated numerically
in the technical literature.

In the case of a real Borda election there is, as Sir Michael
Dummett has pointed out, the problem that the system easily
lends itself to tactical voting in which a voter's true second choice
is listed last because that candidate most threatens the voter's
first choice, which if widely practiced leads to results that are not
truly representative of voters' preferences.

An alternative criterion for determining how well a voting system's
results reflect voters' preferences is the degree to which a voting
system assures that the winning candidate is acceptable to the
largest fraction of the electorate, the basic principle underlining
approval voting.

The problem with our system of plurality voting is particularly
acute in traditional multi-candidate primary elections.  The
difficulty with a number of proposed popular solutions to this
is that their advocates are often ignorant of how the alternative
systems they propose actually behave and perform.  A good
example of this is the top two runoff system that was adopted
in California with the passage of Proposition 14 in the June
2010 state election.  Under that system all candidates run
together in an initial primary with the top two candidates
irrespective of party going on to a runoff if no one gets a majority
in the primary.

But as William Poundstone points out in his long Prologue to
Gaming the Vote, this system, because of vote splitting in this
variant of plurality voting, can easily lead to unrepresentative
candidates getting to the runoff.  That was the case of the 1991
Louisiana election when the "lizard," a former corrupt governor
who subsequently went to federal prison for corruption, beat
the "wizard," David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard.  A
similar situation occurred in the 2002 French presidential
election when the unpopular Chirac, the incumbent, ran
against the radical rightist Le Pen in the runoff.  It's astonishing
that the then Governor of California and the money interests in
Silicon Valley who backed the 2010 proposition did not understand
this problem.  They clearly hadn't read Poundstone.

Rank-choice voting, better known as instant runoff voting (IRV),
is another case in point.  This system involves voters ranking
candidates.  If in the vote count no candidate gets a majority of
first place votes, the candidate with the least first place votes is
dropped and his or her voters' second place choices are reallocated
and the votes are recounted.  Again if no candidate has a majority,
the process is repeated until one candidate emerges with a
majority of the votes counted.

IRV is the best know alternative to our current voting system.  But
it also has serious problems as many of its supporters like Rob
Richie, the Executive Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy,
Fair Vote, don't seem to understand.  As Professor Steven Brams
of New York University has pointed out there is a science of voting.
If one looks at that literature, especially Sir Michael Dummett's
book on electoral reform, it is very clear that claims as to the
advantage of IRV turn out on critical examination simply to be
bogus, especially on two important matters: fairness towards
third parties and fairness towards the voters.

First, it is doubtful in the extreme that IRV is really more
sympathetic to third parties.  Like our current system of
plurality voting, IRV tends to drive voters towards two big
parties and under-rewards third parties for the support they
win as the Australian example amply illustrates.  Second,
under IRV a shift in public opinion towards a candidate
can cause the candidate to lose, and a shift away from a
candidate can cause the candidate to win!  Many supporters
of IRV assert that such cases are very rare--perhaps once
in a century.  Unfortunately, the evidence does not support
this.  Of the two IRV elections I know about in the US in
2009, both evidenced this pathology (Burlington, VT and
Aspen, CO).  The same occurred in a state by-election
in Australia in the same year.

Work done by Professor Robert Norman and Joe Ornstein
at Dartmouth College suggests that this pathology can
occur in up to a fifth of close elections.  You could
achieve the same results with plurality voting by simply
mandating vote stealing in a fifth of the contests in close
elections, you don't need to have IRV elections to do this,
though that is clearly the consequence of IRV's use in
American elections.

There are other alternatives to our current voting system that
have been proposed, the most notable ones being a Condorcet
election, or true-majority voting as the economist and Nobel
laureate Eric Maskin labels it, and voting systems with a range
voting flavor.  The Condorcet type election is now feasible
since, given voters' ranking of candidates, it is possible using
computers to simulate all the pairwise elections possible from
the field of candidates to determine a winner  The range vote
types involve voters giving scores, grades, or descriptors to
candidates with a suitable algorithm to aggregate them into
global results to determine a winner.

Both of these alternatives suffer from two problems which
raise questions about their suitability.  First, under current
conditions it is questionable that we have the appropriate
voting infrastructure to implement them today in a timely
manner for our current elections.  Second, there are problems
with both systems in the area of transparency.  In much of
the literature I have seen on voting systems a sharp distinction
is often made between voting sincerely and voting tactically.
It is my contention, as I argue in Appendix 2 of my electronic
book "Third Parties and Voting Reform: The American Dilemma"
on my website, that it is important
for voters to be able to do both.  But to do so, one needs to
have a simple, or transparent, voting system and feedback
mechanisms, e.g., pre-election polls, to help voters on this.
For this, voters need to have information on percentage voter
support for candidates, not  information on a complex array
of candidates' ranking or scoring for candidates by voters.

There is a simple alternative to these systems which does
not have these drawbacks, could be easily instituted in federal
elections this year, and has numerous advantages.  And that
is approval voting.  Under approval voting, voters can give one
vote each to the candidate or candidates they support with
the candidate having the most votes winning.  It is that simple.

Approval voting has the advantage that it gets rid of the wasted
vote, the spoiler role and the necessity of vote splitting.  As
such, it levels the voting "playing field" for third parties.  It
allows voters to vote both sincerely and tactically at the same
time to better reveal, given the constraints of other voters'
preferences, their preferences in voting.  And it has a strong
tendency to select the Condorcet or Borda Winner.

Contrary to Rob Richie's assertion in his response to Professor
Brams's letter advocating approval voting in the New York Times
on February 11, 2012, it is very doubtful that "the system devolves
into plurality voting when used in meaningfully contested elections."
The 2000 Florida presidential elections and simulations by Ka-Ping
Yee, which can be found on William Poundstone|Author Site under
the article "A Test Drive for Voting Methods" on the web, amply
substantiate this which belies Richie's assertion quoted above.

Approval voting is fairer to voters and candidates alike and can
be implemented this year to allow better, more democratic
elections.  As Brams and Fishburn summarize it at the end
of the first chapter of their book "Approval Voting" (Springer,
Second Editions, 2007):

     Moreover, by letting voters express themselves
     better at the polls, approval voting would greatly
     enhance democratic choice.  This essentially
     costless reform thus seems well suited for voters,
     parties, and the heightening of competition among
     candidates that maximizes a voter's viable options.

Given that neither the presidential field nor the congressional
field in terms of the Republican alternatives are very encouraging,
the American people can and should want to do something
about the voting situation we face this year.  In light of the
potential results of a workable voting reform this year, Thomas
Friedman's assertion (New York Times, Feb. 11, 2012) that
a needed third party presence to break open our political system
is a long shot could turn out to be incorrect.  But to open up
our political system to meaningful third party participation
we need to do two things.

First, some of our good politicians, not an oxymoron, ought
to form a National Renewal Party that  nominates an alternative
presidential candidate and also nominates candidates in
appropriate congressional races.  And secondly, it should work
with a party like the Modern Whig Party to prevail on the
American people to petition Congress on voting reform this
year along the lines of the following provisional text:



If we want to improve governance in this country, a necessary, though
not sufficient, condition is to open up our political processes to
responsible third parties to get away from the political duopoly
enjoyed by the two major parties which have become so dysfunctional.
This cannot be done without voting reform which moves away from our
system of plurality voting that is largely responsible for the
political duopoly that has existed throughout most of American

The most effective way of doing this is to institute approval voting in
federal elections and to ensure greater ballot access in them.  Under
approval voting in multi-candidate elections, elections with more than
two candidates, voters are allowed to give one vote each to that
candidate or candidates they support with the candidate having the
most votes winning.  Had approval voting been in place in the 2000
Florida presidential election, those voters voting for Nader could
have also cast a vote for a more realistic choice as well; most likely
Gore, who clearly would have won under this much fairer system.

To accomplish this, the Modern Whig Party and the National Renewal
Party ask your support in petitioning Congress to pass a bill also
putting them and a third party, determined through a national
competition, on the federal ballot under a system of approval voting
and with a change that effectively gets rid of the electoral college
without a constitutional amendment.

                            THE PETITION

We the undersigned ask Congress to pass the Equitable Voting Act as
proposed by the American Coalition for Election Reform.  We further
state that we intend to take into account our representatives' actions
on this request in our voting in future elections for the House and

                      THE EQUITABLE VOTING ACT

GIVEN the need of the American people for a more equitable voting system
and given Article 1 Section 4 and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution
and the precedent in Oregon v. Mitchell, Congress hereby mandates the
following for all federal elections:

1.  Henceforth, federal elections for president and vice-president and
for members of Congress shall be conducted by approval voting.  Under
approval voting, voters can give one vote each to the candidate or
candidates they support with the candidate having the most votes

2.  Henceforth, five political parties shall be present on the federal
ballot, four occupied by the top four in terms of the number of votes
cast for their candidates for president in the previous election for that
office or by the number of votes cast for party candidates in the previous
congressional mid-term election and the fifth position filled by a nation
wide competition open to other parties and groups.  In addition, no
state shall deny the right of three write-in votes for each office on the
federal ballot.

   a.  Following the passage of this act, the Democratic Party, the
   Republican Party, the Green Party, the Modern Whig Party, and
   the National Renewal Party shall initially appear on the federal

3.  The Federal Election Commission shall be responsible for
administering the nation wide competition for fifth place according to
the number of legitimate signatures on petitions for ballot access.

   a.  To assure that access is for a party of national importance,
   no signatures from a single state in excess of 20% of the total
   collected shall be used in calculating the valid totals for each
   petition effort.  The party with the highest number of legitimate
   signatures so calculated shall be on the federal ballot.

   b.  In carrying this out, the Federal Election Commission shall
   set reasonable conditions and a reasonable time period and
   deadline for the petition process which are fair to parties and
   groups in terms of organizing their efforts and fairly allows the
   winning party to effectively participate in the following federal

   c.  The Federal Election Commission shall be compensated by the US
   Treasury for the costs entailed in carrying this out.

4.  No nominee for president and vice-president of the five political
parties on the federal ballot shall be denied the right to
participate in the national debates held under the aegis of the
Commission on Presidential Debates or any other appropriate entity.

5.  The procedures for nomination of party candidates for federal
office whether by primary elections, by caucuses, or by party
conventions or rules shall, consistent with the observation of
democratic norms, be determined by the political parties themselves.
But in the case of public primary elections for congressional
candidates, the voting shall be by approval voting on each party's

    a.  All federal incumbents not on any of the official party ballot
   lines but eligible for reelection shall be guaranteed their own
   ballot line for reelection unless they inform the U.S. Secretary of
   State of their intention not to run.  In the latter case, no tallies
   shall be made for them nor considered for them in the election results.
   The rights of representatives in this matter shall not be prejudiced
   due to redistricting following the decennial census.

GIVEN the desire of the American people to elect their president and
vice-president by popular vote and given Article 1 Section 10 of the
Constitution, Congress authorizes the creation of an interstate
compact to allow the allocation of state electors to those of the
candidate with the most popular votes nationwide as long as that
candidate has at least a 50% approval rate nationally.