Voting Reform: Single Transferable Vote

December 12, 2016

I’m going to cheat with this post. Rather than follow up my voting reform post with another big bunch of words, I’m going to let the guy who introduced me to this solution do the talking. His nom de guerre is CGP Grey, and the following videos, in order, are mandatory viewing. They will show you why our current voting system is broken, and how we can fix it.

(Seriously. If you do one thing today, watch these. Stop reading my books if that’s what your doing. I feel that strongly about this. Watch. These. Videos. There are five of them in the main series, it won’t take that long. Do it!)

Here they are, in order:

This one lays out, through the non-partisan example of an animal kingdom undergoing democratic reform, what most of us already know: the system we’re using right now is broken. This is true across much of the world, and it’s definitely true in America. Gerrymandering is referenced briefly, but more on that soon.

This video details a slight improvement that would solve one of the problems our current system labors under: the spoiler effect. Libertarians and Greens, you’ll love this one, though don’t get too excited. It gets better.

If you want to put a bee in my political bonnet, get me talking about gerrymandering. Which is why I’m going to spend extra time on this one. First of all, watch the video, and get righteously angry.

For further context, I invite you to look at the congressional districts of Austin, TX. It has six of them. Six! They snake in from all around the state, grabbing 20% of Austin here, 10% there, and insuring that the influence of the city’s predominately Democratic voters is as diluted as possible. It makes me think of a Vox article I read over a year ago, and specifically this opening paragraph:

Years back, a law professor told me that when she teaches a class on the drawing of legislative districts, she leaves the issue of multi-member districts for last because it solves all the problems too well and makes the rest of the material uninteresting.

It really, really does. Let’s take Texas as an example, since I just mentioned how ratf**ked it is. (I still need to read that book, though I have a feeling I’d agree with it.) If Texas votes 53% Republican, 42% Democratic, and 3% Libertarian, like it just did in November 2016 (using the presidential vote as a proxy), and if it still has 36 seats (let’s assume it’s one big district for now), that would yield 19 Republican, 15 Democratic, and 1 Libertarian representatives. This is as opposed to the current 25 Republican and 11 Democratic representatives. The people would be more accurately represented.

(The same would be true of Massachusetts, which has 9 Democratic representatives currently even though it voted 34% Republican in the recent election. This isn’t about my team winning, it’s about setting up the system so that the politicians have to compete for votes in a way that’s healthy for the country.)

Okay, clearly gerrymandering is a bit of a sore spot, as it’s the problem I’ve known about for the longest. But just knowing it’s bad isn’t all that useful. We need a fix.

(For more on gerrymandering, two bonus CGP Grey videos: Multiple Party Gerrymandering, and The Shortest-Splitline Algorithm: a Gerrymandering Solution. I highly suggest the former, while the latter is delightfully nerdy.)

This penultimate (main) video gets most of the way to the solution, though it’s not the ideal. That’s because, while mixed-member proportional focuses explicitly on being as proportional as possible, and it does that well, it doesn’t allow for every voter to (almost always) have a representative they specifically voted for—that is, a specific congressperson whose name they know and who they more often than not mostly trust to have their back in government. Not only do I think that this buy-in is important personally, I think a system without it wouldn’t fly in America. (The idea of a cabal of party leaders deciding who is in line for half of the seats in particular rubs me the wrong way.) Thus, we move onto the final video.

Single Transferable Vote is the answer. It does something unique among the systems discussed. Instead of aiming to make the legislature as proportional as possible, which feels like the fairest method but requires voters to vote for parties instead of the actual people who will govern them, it aims to maximize something else: the number of citizens who are happy with the election results.

That doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but it’s huge. Proportional representation is still a worthy goal, and should be a strong priority, but giving as many citizens a representative they can feel comfortable approaching—someone they voted for, even if the candidate wasn’t their first choice, and who they feel more represented by than not—is vital to the health of the system. It helps maintain the people’s faith in their government, and guards against the cynicism and disenfranchisement that’s overwhelming many modern democracies.

STV has additional benefits. One of the biggest ones is that, since secondary and tertiary votes are desired, politicians and parties will have incentive not to go overly negative—scorched earth tactics may work when only first choices count, but not when second and third choice votes are what actually get you elected. Gerrymandering also ceases to be a problem as long as districts have sufficient representatives.

(Bonus videos on STV: Extra: STV Election Walkthrough, which will answer most of your questions on a more complicated STV election; Footnote * from STV: Proportional Systems vs STV, for more on why STV is preferential in my (& CGP Grey’s) opinion; Footnote † from STV: Switch To STV, on making the switch and the proper number of representatives per district to prevent gerrymandering (spoiler alert: 5-9); and Footnote ‡ from STV: Hare Vs Droop, which is super nerdy and explains why the Droop method is superior.)

This is the system that would have given the left-leaning me representation back in Texas, and would give my right-leaning friends representation where I live in Oregon now. This is the system that would have made Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin viable options during the 2016 election, instead of potential spoilers. This is even the system that would have allowed Bernie to run all the way to the end without sabotaging Hillary, where Biden could have gotten into the game if he wanted, and where Jeb, Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz could have competed effectively against Trump—and I’m pretty sure many of them would have done better than Cinnamon Hitler, because while Trump might have been a disturbing amount of people’s first choice, I have a feeling he wouldn’t have garnered many second or third votes.

This is the system that could have saved the republic before it ever came as close to the edge as it is right now.

There are other fixes that could be made—racial disenfranchisement is still an issue, election day should be a national holiday that takes place on the weekend, and I’m a huge fan of voting by mail like in Oregon—but adopting Single Transferable Vote would go a long way toward making voters more engaged, because our voices would be heard, no matter where we live.

I’ll be talking more about STV as time goes on, but for now if you’d like to get involved in trying to implement ranked choice voting in your area, FairVote is a non-profit that’s working on the issue (though I need to do more research on them before I give a full-throated endorsement). Let’s all work on improving our democracies all over the world, so our representatives actually represent us, and so they have to work for our votes.

Finally, a bonus: voting for normal people. This one, at least, I’ve tested personally, and it works.

Let’s change the world.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

5 Comments

  1. Reply

    Steven

    I may come back to this after I finish watching the videos. In the meantime though it’s nice to see something we agree on: STV (and a holiday weekend for voting).

    I’m curious, how would you feel about making the vote mandatory? I feel like that would do more than nearly anything else to force politicians to speak to the whole country rather than just whip up their base to boost turnout.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Unsure. I like the idea in theory, though I wonder if it wouldn’t lead to a lot of people writing in ridiculous candidates. Though would that even be a problem? Nonsensical votes are no different than absent votes, and candidates would act a lot different if they KNEW their base (and everyone else’s base) was going to show up. It might necessitate striking down all sorts of voter disenfranchisement laws too, which would be nice.

      So I’m tentatively in favor, though I’d have to think on it more. I say that since there are potential downsides—I feel confident jumping straight to voting on a weekend, I’ve thought about that a bunch, and the holiday thing is something that, even if it’s completely ineffective (which I VERY MUCH doubt), I don’t see it hurting anything. But likely in favor too.

  2. Reply

    John A

    Yes, I do like the STV and the holiday or weekend voting. I think holiday voting would make more sense than weekend though. Many people still work on weekends, so having a national holiday were essentially everything shuts down so voting can happen would be a great benefit. Force it to be a paid holiday too possibly.

    Overall, I like our federal republic, and STV may make some of that separation go away (like the electoral college). Personally I’d like to see direct voting for our EC candidates instead of party voting like my state currently does. Possibly using STV to vote for the EC members would make the most sense if we wanted to keep the system as-is. Remember, we don’t actually have “federal elections” in the US. We have state elections for federal positions. Each state is in charge of it’s own elections and how they are handled. You can petition you state to accept STV voting for all levels of government, local/city, all the way to federal. But each state would need to reform individually short of a US Constitutional amendment.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      I see no reason to not do both the weekend and the holiday. Definitely would need to be a federal holiday, and maybe paid if possible, though I’m not familiar enough with labor law to know how that’d work.

      The electoral college is tricky. Voting for them would risk demagogue-sympathetic EC members getting swept into position at the same time as the demagogue they’re meant to protect us against, so that wouldn’t help much. Not that they’re certain to do the job without that. Honestly, I think the electoral college should be made obsolete, through reforms like the ones in this post. What I worry about, though, is accidentally getting rid of some of the protections the constitution provides us—the baby with the bathwater problem. That’s something I need to think about more.

      I didn’t go into implementation here. Yes, it’d probably need to be a state-level thing, though I bet there’s a way to do it from a federal level—and there’d need to be at some point, lest ineffective voting systems in some states overwhelm the most sensible ones elsewhere. Constitutional amendment is fine with me, it’s just not easy.

      As a point in your case (though I never disagreed with it), Maine just voted to adopt ranked choice voting for governor, congress, and state legislature. It either didn’t, couldn’t, or decided not to do it for other offices (at federal: senator, president), and I believe multi-member districts are currently against the law. So congress’d have to get involved at minimum to implement STV.

      1. Reply

        John A

        I think the main reason they may be holding off on it for federal positions it likely do to the federal election oversight that happens. They probably want to try it out first at a more local level and show some proof that it’s working before possibly fighting a legal battle over it in a federal court. I’m just pulling straws here, but that’s my theory.

        That’s great news though, It almost makes me want to move to Maine.

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