Tags: RCV, “ranked choice voting”, IRV, “instant runoff voting, constitution, election Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is supposed to eliminate the need for Primary Elections. Advocates of RCV make the following claims:
- RCV saves the government lots of money because it eliminates a primary election.
- Primary elections are needed to winnow the field of candidates for major political parties down to one candidate per political party. That is why primaries are called “Partisan Elections.”
- Candidates do not have to spend precious campaign funds to win a primary election. Political parties have more time to elect party officers and delegates, seek and train members, raise campaign funds, and do other things needed to support the election process.
- Minority parties and independent candidates have a better chance of winning an elected office.
Sounds good, but are these glorious claims valid? Are these claims too good to be true? Is the “cure” for the ills of the Partisan Primary worse than the illness? Skeptics claim that Ranked Choice Voting is complicated to administer, confuses voters, and makes vote counting a major ordeal. It could become a labor-intensive and money guzzling nightmare for government to do a manual ballot recount if it is required to certify an election result. The effort to determine a winner for an office increases when a large number of candidates compete for an office. There are questions about the ability of RCV to pass muster of the “one man one vote” constitutional principle if work-saving methods are used to count votes.
Politics is by nature a messy business. Election law seems to evolve into a result that nobody wants but is equally unfair to all. Political candidates invariably find a way to “play the system” to their advantage. Political interest groups help them do that. People who are (or pretend to be) eligible to vote allow them to do that. Political parties try to “winnow the field” through the party endorsement process. Sore losers invent their own political party name or call themselves “independents” to crowd the ballot and steal votes away from a major candidate they do not like. Major candidates even convince “straw candidates” to run for office so they can steal votes from opponents.” Ergo, the primary election cannot fully fulfill its intended purpose.
What is ranked choice voting?
Instead of voting once only for your first choice, you also vote for a second, a third, and maybe even more ranked choices, depending on election rules. If your first-choice candidate is defeated, your second-choice candidate is counted to determine the winner. If your second-choice candidate is defeated, your third-choice candidate is counted to determine the winner. If your final choice candidate is defeated, your ballot is eliminated from the race (exhausted).
How do they count the votes and defeat candidates along the way?
If the candidates compete for one job (e.g.: Mayor), the election counters use a procedure called “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV). If there is more than one seat available for the same job (e.g.: two seats on the Board of Estimate and Taxation), another method is used called “Weighted Inclusive Gregory Method” (WIGM). Actually, IRV is a special case of WIGM because the number of seats is 1. Is vote counting complex? Yes. Is it fair to all? It depends upon whom you ask. Does it consume an immense amount of time and resources? Yes. Is it prone to human error? Yes.
Is ranked-choice vote counting hugely expensive?
Of course it is expensive. After all, this is a government program to save money. Do you know of any instance where the government actually saved money by trying to save money? They cannot even save money with a forced government shutdown. Government welfare and back pay for “essential services” eats up the savings. Add in the economic fallout and it becomes a financial disaster. Saving money is not in the government’s genome.
How are the votes counted?
Step 1 – Screen ballots for errors:
For each ballot, present the voter with errors found. The voter can either allow the machine to correct the errors using ranked choices and a list of programmed logical rules, or the voter can spoil the ballot and start over. The only ballots that are accepted by the machine are either valid or fixable. The machine also displays a running total of ballots accepted as an audit procedure to detect ballot stuffing. The machine must do these functions. It may and could do more, depending on its programmable features and local election needs. Here are some examples:
- Use two bins. The machine shoves all valid ballots in the main bin. The machine shoves all ballots it had to fix, under-voted ballots, and ballots with write-in candidates into the second bin. If a recount is required using paper ballots, the judges do not have to fish through the entire pile and find all problem ballots. They are in a separate bag. This is a huge time saver.
- Serial number the ballots it fixed and provide a list of errors it fixed by serial number in a separate list at end of day.
- Provide the scan results for each ballot in a removable mass-storage device such as a flash drive. The electronic output also could consist of an array of ranked choices for each office per ballot (accepted as valid or fixed). The entire WIGM and IRV vote counting can be done by a central computer using the flash drive input from each machine. This avoids manual hand counting of paper ballots at a central location.
- Accumulate counters in an array for each candidate within office. The array could consist of first-choice votes received, and arrays of ranked-choice votes for each of the other candidates. If the number of candidates for the same office is large, this candidate array would be huge. For example, if ten candidates compete for the same office and the number of ranked choices is 3, the array contains 1 + 9 + 9 or 19 numbers. If 35 candidates compete for the same office and the number of ranked choices is 6, the array contains 1 + 34 + 34 + 34 + 34 + 34 or 171 numbers. At end of day close, the machine prints a tape of the accumulated information for each candidate along with the same information in electronic form on a removable device such as a flash drive. This eliminates the need for a central location to calculate this information from the ballot detail.
- The machine should not perform any rounds of WIGM elimination at the precinct level. All elimination rounds must be done at the aggregate level, not at the precinct level. That is why the flash drive is essential. The machine may even use a wireless connection to the central location to store and accumulate ballot-level detail real time. With this feature installed, tabulation could begin as son as the last precinct closes. Note: Anything that forces a recount on legal grounds creates a nightmare if the paper ballots must be used in a recount.
Step 2- First-choice votes:
Add up the total first-choice votes for the office. Divide that total by the number of seats plus 1 and add 1 to the result. That answer is the number of votes a candidate needs to win a seat for the office. If it is for one seat, the answer is one half of the votes counted rounded up to an integer. If there are two seats, the answer is one third of the votes counted rounded up to an integer. This number, called the “win threshold” cannot change. When a candidate’s ranked vote total equals or exceeds this threshold before all seats are filled, the candidate wins. When all seats are filled for an office, vote counting stops for that office. If there is a tie for the seat, the election judges choose the winner by lottery (e.g.: flip a coin). If at least one seat is still open, proceed to step 3.
Step 3 – First round elimination.
Sort the candidates by first-choice votes in descending order. All “bottom-list” candidates that could not possibly win are defeated. Their first-choice vote total is set to zero. How do we identify the candidates that cannot possibly win? Once we identify them, how do we allocate the ranked-choice votes? Good questions.
The devil is in the details.
We first need to know the total alternate-choice votes for the current candidate from all candidates below the current candidate in the list. Add the result plus the first choice votes for the current candidate. Let’s call this total the “elimination threshold.” If the current candidate’s elimination threshold is less than the first-choice votes above the current candidate in the list, they cannot possibly win. How do we allocate the defeated candidate’s ranked-choice vote totals to their respective surviving candidates?
The “illegal way:” (I will call it a “Weighted Approximation.” It sounds nicer.)
Allocate the eliminated candidate’s second-choice votes to the“ first-choice” totals of the other referenced candidates, then set the current candidate’s second-choice totals to zero. If a second-choice candidate is also eliminated in that round, the allocated total is lost. According to the classic rules, this shortcut doesn’t work. How do we know which ballots voted for an eliminated second-choice candidate? We are obliged to use the third-choice votes for these (and only these ballots) because their second choice failed. Answer: We don’t. Another illegal (oops, Weighted Approximation) shortcut is to add up all of the first choice votes for the candidates below the current candidate. If the sum is less than the first choice votes for the current candidate, all candidates below the current candidate are defeated as a group. This also doesn’t work. Some of the candidates about to be defeated may offer alternate votes for a candidate that will (but should not be) defeated that is higher in the list. Also, alternate candidates below the current candidate in the list could increase the vote total above the current candidate. This candidate should (but will not) be defeated. However, this would be cleaned up in the next elimination round.
The correct way (disputed):
We have a computer, so let us use it. Forget about eliminating the “cannot possibly win” candidates and just keep lopping off the bottom candidate. That works. Use the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). Gather the ballot-level detail from ballots that voted for the defeated candidate at the bottom of the list. For each ballot gathered, disable the ranked choices for defeated candidate. Allocate the ballot’s highest unused ranked-choice vote to the appropriate surviving candidate’s first-choice vote total. Are you confused yet?If there is a winner for all unfilled seats, we are done. Otherwise, go to step 4.
Step 4 – Iteration – Defeat the bottom candidate.
Set the candidate’s first-choice vote total to zero. Next, allocate any unused ranked-choice votes that voted for the defeated candidate to surviving candidates.
The illegal way (oops! Weighted Approximation).
Find the candidate’s highest ranked-choice array that contains non-zero votes. If found, allocate them if the referenced candidate is a survivor and set them to zero. If the surviving candidate is defeated in subsequent rounds, the total is lost. Ballots for that candidate with undefeated ranked choices are ignored because we do not have ballot-level detail in electronic form.
The correct way (also disputed):
Gather the ballot-level detail from ballots that voted for the defeated candidate. For each ballot gathered, disable the ranked choices for defeated candidates that are unused. Allocate the ballot’s highest ranked-choice unused vote to the surviving candidate’s first-choice vote total if one exists. Otherwise, the ballot is exhausted. If there is a winner for all unfilled seats, we are done. If there is a tie, flip a coin. Otherwise, (WIGM method) allocate the winner’s surplus votes (Actual minus Win-threshold) and allocate them based upon their percentage (Actual / Win-threshold) to the other survivors in the list, and then repeat step 4. Are you confused now?
A theoretical municipal election is committed by charter amendment and city ordinance amendment to use ranked-choice voting. Each voter gets 6 ranked choice votes. They run a test election for a Mayor race with ten candidates and 40,000 ballots. It takes over 50 people sixty-two work days to determine a winner by hand-counting the ballots. That is later than the mayor’s first day on the job.
They could save time by using more people to do the ranked-choice elimination at the precinct level first, because they could work independently of each other at the same time. Once the precinct winner is determined, the precinct winners could be aggregated into a combined list ordered in descending sequence. If the winner does not meet or exceed the win threshold, the bottom candidate is eliminated and the second-place candidate’s vote total represents that precinct’s vote total for its second candidate instead of the precinct votes for the defeated winner. The process iterates until a winner equals or exceeds the win threshold. If no candidate could possibly achieve the win threshold, the largest vote count wins. If there is a tie, they flip a coin.
The city tries this alternate method. They find a winner using the precinct approach in 2 work weeks at half the labor cost. They estimated that they could save even more labor cost and eliminate another 2 days if the precinct voting machines did the first elimination round using the “weighted approximation” algorithm and had 2 bins to isolate the fixed ballots. Unfortunately, they already bought the new machines and found out they had only 1 bin.
You are a candidate. What problems do you see that would affect your probability of winning the race? Would the shortcut method pass muster with a constitutional “one man one vote” mandate? Is ranked choice voting better than a primary election? Why or why not? Want source references to help you decide? Try these search arguments:
- “Weighted Inclusive Gregory Method”
- “ranked choice voting”
- “instant runoff voting”
Now ponder this scenario. You are the City Clerk, responsible for running city elections. According to the city ordinance, a candidate for any office can get on the city ballot for a filing fee of $20. They do not need a petition with any list of voter signatures. The city has 35 candidates for Mayor, up to 5 candidates each for 13 council seats, and at least 2 open seats for two Boards. The city received 70,000 ballots from 117 precincts. The city ordinance requires ballots with three ranked choice votes for each office. Two referendums also are on the ballot. They do not involve ranked choice voting. The vote is close enough to require a recount using paper ballots. The warehouse space is used for voting equipment, election judge training, and vote tabulation. The voting equipment from the precincts rolled back to the warehouse the day following the election. That leaves little floor space for vote counting.
The restroom facilities are overloaded by the army of vote counters, onlookers, and supervisors. Can you imagine the experience of using a portable toilet outside a warehouse building in November with a wind chill temp below freezing?
Note: Yes, this is an ice sculpture.
A fictional e-mail from a political researcher to a candidate for a mayor’s campaign manager might go something like this:
Lenin, in his writings to the Communist faithful, had this to say. “It does not matter who votes. What matters is who counts the votes.”
We have a very powerful and dominant political machine behind the city government, determined to keep it that way. This is a powerful incentive for people to be skeptical about ranked choice voting (RCV) the city will use in the current election cycle. Anyone with a logical mind that dominates their emotional mind knows how it is supposed to work. None of us are sure if the vote counting process will work like it is supposed to work. Truth is one. We hear people (who should know what they are doing) proclaim multiple “truths.” What they preach as “the way” seems to be based upon obsolete information. The city ordinance provisions were amended by mass replacement of most of its wherefore and whereas provisions. The nitty-gritty details are missing or vague. We both know that the devil is in the details.
If the city voting machines do anything beyond screening ballots and reporting ballot-level votes, such as jump-start RCV eliminations at the precinct level, the procedure violates the “one man one vote” principle enshrined in the US Constitution. If the hand counters at the central location do any RCV elimination at the precinct level before aggregation to the office level, that action also violates the “one man one vote” principle. It also violates the RCV standards that are followed internationally (well, sort of followed).
The procedure used to eliminate candidates who cannot possibly win requires more effort than a separate round for each candidate. Any shortcut formulas will cause ballots to be exhausted prematurely. Can you imagine the time it would take to add up the first-choice votes below every candidate and add up all of the second and third choice votes of these candidates for each other? After you complete that exercise, you need to add up the second and third choices of the candidates below them who voted ranked choice for the one above them.
With 13 candidates and 70,000 ballots, how long would that take under worst-case circumstances? It doesn’t work unless a machine does it. How could you even explain to a tabulator how to do it? It would be easier to write a procedure (no drawings or pictures allowed) a barefoot tribesman could use to tie his or her first shoe and print the instructions on a shoelace package.
Another sticking point is a tie in one or more rounds of elimination. Vote counters flip coins.
Another sticking point is the procedure for multiple seat winners called “Weighted Inclusive Gregory Method” or WIGM for short. The winner is supposed to allocate excess votes above the winning threshold to the voters below the winner based upon the ratio of their vote total to the win threshold total. The result could knock out the second placed candidate and move third place into second place.
I think the city fathers created a monster.
For your consideration,
Fu Ling U
Fictional reply from recipient: Huh?
Tags: RCV, “ranked choice voting”, IRV, “instant runoff voting, constitution, election