Miriam and I were at Biebrach Park in San José the other night. Daylight Savings Time being over, it was before 6 but the sun was almost gone. Miriam and I are playing on the climbing ropes thing, when, slowly, a homeless guy appears, wheeling his cart towards us. I give him a friendly greeting and I get a friendly reply, and he sets about positioning (slowly) his cart near the end of the climbing structure.
Enjoying the chance to exercise my creativity, I tell Miriam that he’s going to be putting up his fort there and camping for the night. Miriam acknowledges but isn’t particularly moved.
The next morning, I tell Miriam she should tell mommy about the man who was building a fort at the park yesterday. Sheila’s confused…”Fort? Huh?” Miriam walks over to me and whispers in my ear…:
"Dad, mom would have an easier time understanding what you’re talking about if you just told her that the man was homeless."
For better or for worse, Miriam’s how-do-I-process-homelessness-brain is up and running, and probably at least half-solidified. She’s not quite 6 years old. Not particularly proud or sad about the particulars of how it solidified, but I hadn’t realized how quickly the solidification would come.
Not sure if something worthwhile will come out of my fingers, but I am going to take a stab at articulating some feelings I’ve been having as I watched the vote and the subsequent reaction to the gun background check legislation.
There’s part of me that ra-ra-ras along as politicians from my side of the spectrum excoriate the senators who voted no. I also ra-ra along as I see my friends lamenting how gun manufacturers have used money to fund the NRA, who in turn have threatened senators to vote no despite apparent public support.
The biggest feeling I have when I see all the feelings on the issue is confusion about why people don’t see that the system is working as expected. All the blame seems childish to me. Fury and recrimination against some senator from some state I don’t live in…I understand it feels good to envisage ones enemy, but you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re committed to an issue just because you hate the personification of it.
You want to do something about Congress’s inability to get this legislation through? Think about it: We have an election system that allows for out-of-state funds that stem from all sorts of sources (including corporations) to heavily influence election outcomes. Blaming the NRA for championing their perspective with the help of their monied supporters is like blaming lions for eating antelopes: It’s a foregone conclusion that such things would happen.
Humans are worth trying to influence with rhetoric, but if you want to influence how the NRA influences the laws that get passed in this country, step back and think about how to change the system.
Here’s a hint: Election reform.
There are a lot of excuses we all come up with when we’re told to write to our elected officials about an issue. Here are a few that come to mind for me:
Meh. That issue isn’t very important to me, I’ll let you folks fight that one out.
Hmmm. I’ll keep my eye on that one and see if it amounts to something.
Yeikes! My baby’s diaper needs to be changed and my other kid just started building a fort in the dishwasher.
YES! My representative is already a champion of that issue, no need for me to contact them about it.
ARGH! My representative is strongly opposed to what I think about that issue, contacting them would be a waste of time.
Proportional representation — the umbrella term for methods of electing legislative representatives in proportion to their popular support — can’t help me un-fort my dishwasher, but it can help make it much more likely that I’d elect at least one representative who’s interested and motivated to listen to my views.
Consider the case of Representative Maud E. Rhet and voter Connie S. Vertif. Is it worth Connie’s time to write to Rep. Rhet to beg and plead for her causes if she knows that Rep. Rhet’s views on those causes are diametrically opposed to hers? It’s certainly a noble thing to register dissent, but it’s hard to imagine it would change the way Rep. Rhet will vote, especially if Connie’s view isn’t already popular. As Connie gets out her quill and ink to write to Rep. Rhet, it occurs to her that if the shoe were on the other foot, the best she herself could do is be polite, but not actually change how she’d vote on this issue, because of the views in a letter that are out of step with A) what she believe in and B) her constituency; which only needs to be 50% + some safe margin of the electorate. And so, the quill and ink are put away.
The same holds for situations in which a representative strongly agrees with a given citizen: Picture the happy voter; every morning his representative in the newspaper fighting for 4 out of 5 of the issues he cares about. Sure, it might be worth it to write about that 5th issue (if you don’t already know that your representative disagrees strongly with you about it), but even so, 4 of those 5 issues are things that aren’t ripe for influencing the way your representative will vote by contacting them.
Political systems should be structured so that expressions of voters’ will — expressed both at the ballot box and the times in between — influence how governments behave. With proportional representation, the situation described above would likely play out differently: When a voter is represented by a delegation of, say, ten representatives, it’s much more likely that there will be at least one representative who could be influenced by a voter reaching out and expressing their opinion. And representatives have something to gain under proportional representation systems for paying attention to such a voter, because figuring out a position that strongly appeals to smaller groups of voters makes sense under proportional representation, whereas in a system like we have today, issues are often fought on one side or the other of a two-party divide. Not only is a voter likely to have representatives who are ripe for influence, but a voter is also likely to have one or more representatives who strongly agree with their position in the first place (a 50-50 prospect at best in the “single winner” district system of today).
No election system will ever be a magic bullet for everything, and the same is true for proportional representation: It won’t change my kid’s diaper, but it does offer the change to increase civic engagement by knocking several big items off of the list of reasons not to engage, which is just one of many big improvements proportional representation brings over traditional election methods.
I’m firmly convinced that we’re only ever going to get politics as good as our election system, and for that reason I’ve decided that my biggest priority for political engagement is going to be supporting electoral reform. I am a member of Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER), which is an organization that advocates for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV, also known as RCV) and Proportional Representation. Occasionally, I run across like-minded individuals who like the idea of changing our election methods but either don’t like IRV or like an alternative called Approval Voting better (not going to call it AV because some people call IRV “Alternative Vote”). I’m writing this post to put my 2 cents onto the Internet about why I think IRV is the right choice for electoral reform.
The Center for Voting and Democracy (FairVote) has a great write-up comparing IRV to other voting systems. I’ll expound on some of the points from the FairVote piece and throw in a few pearls of wisdom of my own.
Approval Voting Doesn’t Effectively Solve the Spoiler Problem
The classic example of the “spoiler problem” is the Bush/Gore/Nader election of 2000. There is some percentage of voters who might prefer to vote for Nader, but are afraid to do so because it will hurt Gore and end up helping elect Bush. IRV solves this problem by allowing voters to select Nader as their first choice but to list Gore as their second choice, and in the event that Nader is eliminated their second preference is counted. Advocates of Approval Voting will tell you that Approval Voting also solves this spoiler problem, because a voter can approve of both Nader and Gore. I think that’s right in this particular example, but it’s not true in lots of other examples.
Consider the example of Alice, Bob and Charlie running for office. Alice is a right-wing candidate, and Bob and Charlie are similar left-wing candidates. If a voter prefers Bob or Charlie but doesn’t have a strong preference between the two of them, Approval Voting works fine and the voter can simply approve of them both and hope that one of them wins. But what about the case where the voter definitely prefers Bob to Charlie, but prefers Bob or Charlie to Alice? Now the voter is stuck in the spoiler vote morass: The voter could approve of Bob and Charlie, but approving of Charlie could help Charlie get elected over Bob. This is illustrated by the results of the 2012 Dartmouth Student Government Elections (raw election data): Only 1.2 approvals per voter for president in a field of 5! (“If just 16 of Kantaria-Danford voters chose tactically not to vote for Klein and Joshi despite approving of them, then that was the difference.”) This is a huge issue in my view, because what we need is a voting system that allows a voter to encode what they want without having to worry about whether they’re being strategic (our current system incentivizes strategic crossover voting…ugh). One might argue that no voting system is perfect (and I admit IRV isn’t perfect), but in my view this weakness in Approval Voting illustrates the biggest problem with it of all….
Approval Voting Doesn’t Motivate Civil Campaigning
In the example above, Bob and Charlie are motivated to campaign hard against each other, because convincing voters who might approve of both of them that they should only approve of one of them is the best path to victory for both Bob and Charlie. IRV doesn’t eliminate all negative campaigning, but it does motivate like-minded candidates to work together to seek second-preference votes.
Giving credit where credit is due, Approval Voting does do a better job in a situation where there are two extremist candidates and a centrist candidate. If you have 39% of voters whose first-choice preference the left-wing candidate, 41% whose first choice is the right wing candidate, and 20% whose first choice is the moderate, but the moderate is also approved of by 80% of the voters who favor extremist candidates, Approval Voting will anoint the moderate the winner, whereas IRV will eliminate the moderate in the first round (since IRV eliminates the candidate with the least first choice votes in each round). This behavior of encouraging moderate candidates is something Approval Voting fans are quick to point out. IRV advocates sometimes reply that candidates should have strong first-choice support to be elected, and would argue in this case that electing the right-wing candidate is a good result, and that in other cases IRV can select a moderate candidate if they have decent first-choice support, which would allow them to emerge as the second-choice votes of extremist candidates are transferred. I have mixed feelings…Condorcet is the ultimate solution for a situation like this in my opinion, but for myself I’ve concluded that IRV is the right balance of agility in dealing with real-world voting situations without being too complex to be comprehensible to the average voter.
Summing up, I am a fan of Approval Voting in so far as I think it’s a lot better than our current system, but I think IRV has more to offer in terms of fixing real-world election problems.