Primer on Voting Rules
The best voting rules are inclusive, well centered, and decisive.
The results can make a group more popular, stable and quick.
|The tools get stronger from one voting task to the next:|
|Introduction||Tragedies of democracy: What's wrong?|
|Eras in Voting||Voting Progress: 19th Century, 20th Century, 21st Century.|
|A Small Example||Nine voters: Line up to vote, Plurality, Runoff, Two issues.|
|Chief Executive||Instant Runoff Voting: Principle, Merits, Patterns.|
|Council Elections||Proportional Representation: Principle, Merits, Patterns.|
|Funding Choices||Fair-share Spending: Old Problems, Principle, Merits. New|
|Policy Decision||Condorcet & Rules of Order: Principle, Merits, Patterns.|
|Philosophy. Conclusions. Prints. español. ↓ Next Slide ↓|
After this primer shows the need for better voting rules,
the voting workshop will show the simple steps in each tally.
The booklet (pdf) has both, plus pictures from PoliticalSim™.
So do the narrow screen and español editions.
What happens when a policy pendulum swings?
Jump to the next slide by clicking the gray link:
What's Wrong? ↓
The Northwestern U.S. was ripped apart for many years as forestry policies were reversed again and again. Hasty logging in times of weak regulation wasted resources. Sudden limits on logging bankrupted some workers and small businesses. The policy pendulum swings; it cuts down forests and species, families and towns.
Businesses and agencies often lose money and power when a council changes hands and changes laws. Repeated reversals are a major cause of war-like politics.
Can we end such raging or silent tragedies? Better tools give real hope; we can stop the tragedies caused by the old voting tools.
Will their votes have any effect?
But as soon as three candidates run for one office, the situation becomes more complicated. Then a yes-no vote is no longer suitable.
Sometimes what we want is not the election of a solitary official. We want to elect a whole council that represents all the voters. Then we do not need a system of dividing voters into winners and losers. Instead, we need a way of condensing them, in the right proportions, into their chosen leaders.
Such a council (or budget) receives far more than half the votes!
Eras in Democracy
Where only the largest party in a district wins a rep, only
A council majority sets policies (dark blue in picture). A small change in one district's popular vote can shift all power, making policies swerve from side to side.
Plurality politics is a war of winner take all.
Typical Council Elected By Plurality Rule
It elects several people to represent each large district. It gives a group that earns, say 20% of the votes, 20% of the seats. Thus PR delivers fair shares of seats.
So the side with the most seats (blue and black) forms the ruling majority which then enacts policies skewed toward their side.
Typical Council Elected By Proportional Representation
Most voters in the winners' wide base of support don't want averaged or centrist policies. They want policies to unite the best ideas from all groups.
Ensemble Elected By Central And Proportional Rules
A “compromise policy” tries to negotiate rival plans. But contrary plans forced together often work poorly; and so does the average of rival plans.
A “balanced policy” unites compatible ideas from all sides. This process needs advocates for diverse ideas. And more than that, it needs powerful moderators.
Old tally rules tend to cause one-sided results and tragedies.
An ensemble is inclusive; yet it is centered and decisive.
So it can make an organization popular, yet stable and quick.
The best rules for spending and policies can follow this pattern — as you will see.
A Small Example
High taxes, great gov. services Low taxes, poor gov. services
Ms. K is the candidate nearest four voters.
L is nearest two and M is nearest three.
Candidates L and M split the voters on the right.
A mere plurality gives the winner a weak mandate.
That is the authority voters give to winners.
K is nearest four voters. L is nearest two. M is nearest three.
Two voters who supported L now vote for M.
Do votes that move count more than others? Yes, No.
This winner has the power of a majority mandate.
Only four “wasted votes” fail to elect anyone.
(Later, these voters will use a rule that asks,
“Where is our center?”
And a bigger group will use a rule that asks,
“Which trio best represents all the voters?”)
Candidate M wins the runoff.
Here a group spreads out on two issue dimensions, left to right plus up and down. On the steps of their school, we asked them a second question. It was about an issue apart from taxes and services.
Which leaves more wasted votes, plurality or runoff? Which gives the winner a stronger mandate?
Kay wins a plurality. Em wins a runoff.
How does it work? You rank your favorite as your first choice,
and rank backups as your second choice, third and so on.
Then your ballot goes to your first-rank candidate.
If no candidate gets a majority, the one with the fewest
Here is an analogy: Each candidate puts out a box. A voter puts his ballot in his favorite candidate's box. The ballots are counted.
If the box gets a majority of the ballots, it wins. If not, the voter moves his ballot to another candidate's box. Or, he waits, hoping others will move their ballots to his favorite box.
To break that deadlock, we have a rule: If a round of counting ballots finds no winner, the box with the fewest votes is eliminated. Its ballots go to each voter's next (2nd) choice -- probably a candidate with similar views and more popularity.
These transfers make voters condense into large groups supporting strong candidates. Ballots are counted again to see if any candidate gets half of the current top ranks.
In practice, each voter ranks the candidates as 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd etc. Then election officials move ballots between boxes or a computer tallies them.
In South Korea's 1987 presidential election, two
progressives faced the aide to a military dictator.
The progressives got a majority of the votes but split
their supporters. So the conservative won under
a plurality vote-counting rule. These rules elect
whoever gets the most votes; 50% is not required.
The winner claimed a mandate to continue repressive policies. Years later he was convicted of treason in the tragic killing of pro-democracy demonstrators.
With Instant Runoff Voting, ballots for the weaker progressive could have transferred to help elect the stronger one.
The U.S. also has seen major elections in which two candidates on the left split their voters or two on the right split theirs. Sometimes this increased our national tragedies. (Can you name some split elections and their tragic results?)
From five factions to one majority.
In some places, people call this Rank Choice Voting, Preference Voting or the Alternative Vote.
IRV lets you vote for the candidate you really like. And even if that option loses, your vote isn't wasted; it goes to your next choice.
But bluish majorities win in all 3 sections.
And other voters get no voice on the committee.
Now bluish voters win 2 seats, a majority.
And other voters win the third seat.
That is, 60% of the vote gets you 60% of the seats,
not all of them. And 10% of the vote gets you 10%
of the seats, not none of them. These are fair shares.
Those Chicago Republicans were usually moderates. So were Democratic reps from Republican strongholds. Even the biggest party in a district tended to elect reps who were more independent. They could work together and make state policies more moderate.
(The transferable vote workshop shows one way to get PR.)
The number of women elected rose from 21% to 29%. The number of native Maoris elected rose from 7% to 16%, which is almost proportional to the Maori population. Voters also elected 3 Polynesian reps and 1 Asian rep.
Many people call this Full Representation or Proportional Voting.
Public campaign funding in Maine and Arizona lets reps spend less time with rich sponsors and more with voters. One plan would gives each voter $50 of vouchers to donate. The anonymous system avoids political paybacks.
Ballot access laws make it hard for minor parties to get nominees on the ballot. The two big parties make those laws largely because they fear spoiler candidates. Better voting rules can put that fear to rest.
Optical-scan ballots, post-election audits and open-source software check fraud by election workers and corporations.
Initiative voters get more choices and power with full-choice ballots and better tallies. They should set the political rules and ratify some laws such as the salary for reps. But minority rights to ballots, reps and funds need constitutional protection from the majority of the day.
Improve elections to improve everything a government does.
Proportional Representation distributes the council
Democratic rights fulfilled through history:
Voting for rich men, poor men, “colored” men, women.
Proportional Representation for large political minorities.
Fair-share spending by big groups of voters or reps.
Fair shares give minority voters some power.
Membership groups often shirk competitive elections to avoid conflicts and hurt feelings. But members still compete over money to fund projects.
Often, some members use tricks to capture a lot of the budget. When that injustice is felt, others may grow rebellious, or leave.
They want a rule that makes spending fair.
Many empty hands Fair Shares
The old way to set budgets blurs responsibility. Take deficit spending: Progressives may say too much is spent on big weapons and corporate subsidies; conservatives often blame the money spent on health, education and the environment. Every rep can claim, “I didn't spend too much.”
Protecting the environment is popular with both conservative and progressive voters. Reps don't dare attack it openly. So, to pay off some campaign gifts from corporate sponsors, reps slyly starve agencies that enforce environmental laws. Budget cuts have also starved OSHA, ATF and the auditors of corporate tax returns.
“Lower but constant funding is more productive than a roller-coaster budget that might average far more.” Alvin Trivelpiece, director, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
The Texas Super-Conducting Super Collider was a multi-billion dollar project in the 1980s. This effort to build the world's largest cyclotron was supported by a majority in Congress for a few years... then dropped. The only thing built was a “billion-dollar hole in the ground.”
Members might be more cautious about starting vast projects if they could not spend the opposition's share of the budget. And they should have the power to finish their projects with their own share.
The U.S. Congress lets a single rep “earmark” funds for pet projects in her district. In 1994, the 4,000 earmarks cost us $23 billion. Ten years later, the 14,000 earmarks cost us $45 billion.
Earmarks let powerful reps take much more money to their districts than most reps do. Each rep votes yes or no to a huge “omnibus” bill. It holds hundreds of earmarks, some good, some bad. This budget system makes it hard to prove which reps are wasting money.
At their best, earmarks let a rep use federal money to fund vital local projects that only locals see the need and chance to do. But there is a better, more responsive and democratic way to select projects, Participatory Budgeting.
Participatory Budgeting is a big step up for democracy. It lets local meetings research, talk and vote on how to spend part of a city's budget. In South America, it spread from 1 city in 1990 to over 1000 today. The World Bank reports that the Participatory Budgeting or PB process tends to raise a city’s health and education while reducing corruption.
For the last three years, a savvy alderman in Chicago gave his “Menu Money” to the PB process. It was a popular success. But due to an old plurality rule, more than half the votes were 'wasted': a majority of votes went to losers.
Even the winning votes were wildly unequal. A vote for the playground was worth $501. But a vote for the bike racks was worth only $31. That is 16 to 1 and it's too unfair; we can do better. We can give every voter the power to guide a fair share of money.
Voting reform is hard because unfair rules have become entrenched by centuries of use. Because PB is still young, we have a rare opportunity to introduce better voting rules now — voting rules that are more expressive and more fair.
Each proposal needs support
from a substantial group.
Every neighborhood and interest group controls its share of spending power; no one is shut out. This makes (hidden) empires less profitable.
If a plurality spends all the money, the last thing they buy adds little to their happiness. It is a low priority. But that money could buy the high-priority favorite of a large minority; making them happier.
In economic terms: The “social utility” of the money and goods tends to increase if we each allocate a share. Shares spread out opportunities and incentives too.
In political terms: Fair shares earn wide respect, as we each help big minorities to fund some projects. So our budget appeals to more people.
That is, 60% of the voters spend 60% of the money,
not all of it. A project needs grants from many
voters to prove it is a public good worth public money.
So we let a voter fund only a fraction of a project.
How does it work? Like IRV: You rank your choices.
Then your money moves to help all the favorites you can afford.
And a tally of all ballots drops the least-funded project.
(The movable vote workshop makes this process easy to grasp.)
Fair shares can set the budgets of departments too.
Each “line item” starts with most of its past budget.
You may write-in and rank higher budgets for the items.
Your ballot can afford to pay your fair shares for your
top choices. This is how it gives them votes.
Each budget level of an item is like a project:
One at a time, the weak ones lose and the money moves. The item that gets the fewest votes for its current top level, loses that level. Any money you gave it flows to your highest rank that lacks your vote. This repeats until each item has a top level that wins the quota of votes. Now all the items are fully paid for by their voters.
- Each item can start with all of its past budget: Voters rank the ones they are most willing to cut (with a share of negative dollars). That tally sets the starting points for the next tally. Voters then rank the items they most want to raise up.
Each agency starts with % of its current budget.*
A rep may refill only a limited share of each budget.
So it takes many reps to refill one, and more to raise it.
You repeatedly adjust your grants, causing and countering budget changes, until a timer stops the voting.
* To vote less than about % to basic services, such as
the police or public health, would be “stealing a free ride.”
BRV lets a majority reduce their grants to agency X. This undercuts a minority's grants to X. So, to maintain the total for X, the minority must give it bigger grants. Then the majority reduces theirs again, and this cycle repeats. With BRV, nobody apportions the budget as they sincerely want it. In contrast, the fair-share rule above gives all large groups positive power to fund their favorites.
Here is a second Pairwise test with the same voters.
K is nearest four voters. L is nearest five voters.
Thus Pairwise picks a central chairperson or policy.
Is it likely to elect diverse reps? Yes, No.
L is nearest 6 voters; M is nearest 3.
Option J tops option D if most voters rank J above D.
Each ballot's rank of J relative to D concerns us.
The numbers of first-rank votes do not.
If another rule picks a different winner our “round-robin tournament,” or Condorcet winner ranks higher on most ballots. So it wins a one-against-one majority over that other rule's winner.
Each voting test sorts all of of the ballots into two piles. If you rank option J higher than D then your ballot goes in the pile for J. The option with the most ballots wins that test. If an option wins all of its tests, then it wins the election.*
*If three or more lose to each other, then IRV can elect one of them.
(More merits of the Pairwise or “Condorcet” rule...)
Everyone helps choose our center.
The Pairwise winner is central and popular: Most centrist and progressive voters like it more than any conservative policy. At the same time, most centrist and conservative voters like it more than any progressive policy. All sides can join to beat narrowly-centrist policies.
This is an attractive service for consultants to offer clubs, co-ops, colleges and companies. It might become a popular reform. Even reps, who tend to oppose changing the election rules that gave them power, may favor legislative rules that reduce polarization and deadlock.
Conservative voters rank Bush [Major, Kohl] higher than Clinton. So to win a majority over Bush, Clinton must appeal to centrists and progressives.
In this Pairwise election of a moderator, a less controversial candidate might top each of these polarizing politicians. To pick a moderate, an election district needs diverse voters.
(A later page shows an interactive Pairwise tally table.)
The old plurality rule is the easiest to manipulate. But the Pairwise winner, L, doesn't change in this case. And Proportional Representation also resists gerrymanders.
Now K has 3 votes. L has two. And M has four.
Voting rules that give fair shares of seats and spending also reduce the payoffs to those who bribe the biggest party. It can no longer seize more than its share of reps or money.
Or people may talk about all options at once but never clearly tell (vote) their second and third choices. So a few people pushing a single idea can appear to be the strongest group. And one person with a balanced solution but no eager supporters might drop it.
The best rules avoid all those problems by ranking the competing options on one ballot.
Voting rules affect our laws — and our views on life.
By making us practice either winner-take-all or fair shares,
rules shape the way we treat each other and see the world.
These rules help make it safe and easy to cooperate. This favors people who tend to do it and leads others to do it more often.
The best tools help groups embrace diversity and freedom. So the group's size and resilience may increase.
|Happiness is strongly linked to good relationships. So a good way to raise happiness is to improve the tools between people.|
Why VoteGroups with little time and many issues or competing interests, often end a discussion by asking for votes not consensus. Their methods of discussion and of voting each affect the quality of their decisions and the group's morale.
The secret ballot can protect voters from all types of coercion.
The Condorcet policy can please members more. Broadly centered, it won't favor a fringe or status quo. (Constitutional issues can require more consensus.)
Fair-share Spending can give fair shares of power. Inclusive yet fast, it doesn't let anyone block action. It is co-operative decision making, not individual nor hierarchical, not consensual nor adversarial. Multi-winner rules are less about stopping rivals, more about attracting allies.
One set of policies sometimes cannot suit two groups with opposing values.
Moving to a better place is the surest way to get the policies you want.
This is often called “voting with your feet”.
That is practical when you have the freedom to move and diverse destinations to choose among. Such diversity is more likely when culture and technology give places economic independence through “local self-reliance”.
Even when you can't move to a better city or country, you may still avoid willful authoritarians. Build your democratic groups with fair egalitarians.
Democracy improves in eras such as The Enlightenment.
Benefits and Costs
Many people are excited to learn that voting
does not have to mean “winner take all.”
The best voting rules strengthen the ballots for voters.
This page shows that different voting tasks
Give fair representation to all major groups.
So the council enacts laws with real majorities.
The data make it clear: Advocates for education, health care, a clean environment and a clean government should all work for better voting rules. Donors should too.
If we are overwhelmed by urgent needs, we neglect the essentials, the structural roots of these problems. We continue to get bad public policies, due to bad representation, due to bad election laws.
Your work goes on giving to a school, club or town.
Election campaigns cost a lot all at once.
If you win control, you can help all issues for two years.
Reform campaigns cost no more than elections.
A win affects the whole council for many years.
Your work keeps giving to a school, club or town.
Which is more stable and quick?
Help your college, co-op, club or congregation.
Does your car have an 1890 steering tiller or a new, power steering wheel? Does your organization have an 1890 voting rule or a new, centered and balanced rule?
Today's drivers need the skill to use power steering — but they don't need the math or logic to engineer it. Same with voters and voting rules.
Many groups adopt a standard book of parliamentary rules; then they amend it with their own “special rules of order”. So they own a modern vehicle for making their decisions more popular, stable and quick.
Learn more in this e-book, Accurate Democracy.
Then build support in your school, club or town with
FairVote, The Center for Voting and Democracy.
Steps toward accurate democracy include:
This website has sim games and handouts,
This text is © CC BY-SA 3.0, so edit it as you will and add your own slides for other topics. For example, U.S. voters need concise statements of the principles and benefits in non-partisan redistricting, as practiced in Iowa, and public campaign funding, as practiced in Arizona, Maine, or North Carolina.
You may want to skip some topics or change the wording to suit an audience. For legislators you might change “voter” to “rep” or “member” and you would do the opposite for a direct democracy.
Thanks to Steve Chessin for writing the original version of the “elevator pitch” for Proportional Representation. He, Terry Bouricius, and Zo Tobi each wrote quick pitches for Instant Runoff Voting which were the basis for the IRV slides above. Overall editors include Tree Bressen, Cheryl Hogue, John Richardson, and Rob Richie. Many others have contributed ideas and writing.
Books:This primer is part of a free booklet for printers or tablets. The booklet has the workshop, colorful graphics from both PoliticalSim™ and the budget voting games, and data to compare nations. A few hardcopies are available for college libraries.
This page showed the need for better voting rules and their merits. The next page, a voting workshop, shows the simple steps in each tally and how they meet their goals.
After that, you may want to read the one-page introduction to each of the six voting tasks. These tell how a task is like and unlike other uses of voting, what it must do, stories of tragedy and success, the best rule's name, its ballot and its main merits.
Accurate Democracy is organized by uses of voting:
|Electoral Systems||Legislative Systems|
Ads versus info
Some people want a better Chinese translation.
And some people want a better Arabic translation.
Please help them.
Dos voluntarios han hecho traducciones al español (Spanish):
Democracia con precisión y Democracia Certera. ¿Cuál te gusta?