Vermont Election Method-Expert Bristow-Johnson Discusses Reform and Reducing Money in Elections
Democracy Chronicles founder Adrian Tawfik conducted an exclusive interview series with an international group of election method proponents including prominent signers of the Declaration of Election-Method Reform Advocates. The best place to start off is the Democracy Chronicles introduction and then take a look at each of these interviews:
- Richard Fobes – Election Method Reformer Speaks With DC
- Aaron Hamlin – Interview With President of Center for Election Science
- Andrew Jennings – Redistricting, Vote Splitting and Honest Voting
- augustin – Writer Discusses Election Reform and New Website
- Michael Allen – Election Method Reformer Seeks Radical Changes
- Jameson Quinn – Election Expert Discusses Reform in US and Guatemala
- Michael Ossipoff – Democracy Chronicles Author Discusses Approval Voting
- Robert Bristow-Johnson – Expert Demands Reducing Money in Elections
Also see the DC Interview With Creator of Wooden Models of Voting Methods with artist Peter A. Taylor.
In continuation of Democracy Chronicles’ series of interviews with prominent members involved with “The Declaration of Election-Method Reform Advocates“, we now turn to another who has not signed the declaration, a self employed election-method expert from Burlington, Vermont, Robert Bristow-Johnson. Mr. Bristow-Johnson discusses his own views of election method reform and Burlington, Vermont’s aborted attempt to institute Instant Runoff Voting.
Interview with Robert Bristow-Johnson:
Democracy Chronicles: You have not signed the ‘Declaration of Election-Method Reform Advocates’, why?
I had a couple of problems. Two that I remember are that it cited the 2009 Mayoral election in my town, Burlington Vermont, as an example of the failure of Instant Runoff Voting, and indeed, IRV did fail that year (and has been repealed the following year, by a small margin).
But the reason given for the dissatisfaction of Burlingtonians mentioned in the declaration is not accurate. The Burlington voters are not as sophisticated as folks on the election-methods list or otherwise engaged in election reform. The reason given is more of a reflection of what persons who study these different methods have for rejecting IRV, but voters that voted to repeal IRV in Burlington believed (incorrectly, in my opinion) that IRV robbed the Plurality winner of his legitimate election. Most of us on this list understand that the root to the failure of IRV that year was that the Condorcet winner (a.k.a. the “pairwise champion”) was not elected.
The main problem that I had not signed was that the message of the solution is diluted among many alternatives, most in my opinion, have an ice-cube’s chance in hell in ever being adopted in a governmental election. I am convinced that only the Approval ballot or the Ranked ballot (which is the same ballot used in IRV) has any chance of adoption. Except for contests (like the Olympics), I am convinced that the Score ballot (used also in Majority Judgment) has utterly no chance of ever being adopted. This is mainly because that complicated ballot structure and instructions will be rejected immediately by voters and legislatures.
My objection to the Approval ballot is that it leads immediately to burdening voters with a tactical decision (which is the main reason we adopted IRV over Plurality in the first place). The voter has to decide whether or not to approve of his/her 2nd choice (and possibly his/her 3rd choice) and, even if the voter is savvy, making the best decision (to best promote this voter’s political interests) requires accurate polling data so that voter knows which candidates are truly contending for the elected office.
That leaves the Ranked ballot (the same as IRV and it has also been used historically in Bucklin voting), but a Condorcet-compliant method of tabulating these ranked ballots is far better than IRV. I think Bucklin is just too goofy to be used for anything, and had been surprised to learn that it had actually been used in governmental elections in the U.S. in the past.
Democracy Chronicles: Briefly explain what characteristics you think are most important for a voting method to have?
Fairness. This mostly means equal influence by each voter with franchise (One person, one vote). Any method should resolve the election precisely as the “simple majority” method would between two candidates. This means simply, that if a simple majority of voters express on their ballots that Candidate A is a better choice than Candidate B, then Candidate B should not be elected.
Simplicity. Both in ballot form and instructions. Voters should not be faced with some complicated ballot when all they want to do is vote for the candidate(s) they like. And the method of tabulating the ballots and picking the winner should be conceptually simple, even if it might take a computer to do it.
Avoiding the burden of tactical voting. This is related to “simplicity” but it is an issue only if there are more than two candidates. We do not want to place a burden upon voters to have to decide whether to vote for the candidate they really like vs. compromising and voting for the candidate they think can get elected and isn’t one they hate. It’s about avoiding the typical “spoiler problem”. This is also necessary so that Independents and Third Parties have an even playing field in the election.
With Plurality, many voters who might prefer an Independent or Third-party candidate will think that only the major parties really can get elected and they will not want to waste their vote. So they vote for the major-party candidate that they dislike the least and two major parties are entrenched in our politics. Then we all are stuck with a choice between Dumb and Dumber in some elections when there exists a Smart alternative.
Decisiveness. Delayed runoffs are a bummer. When an election goes to runoff, then all sorts of money gets poured into the race as the legitimate loser tries to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat. About half as many voters turn out for the runoff as do for the original election. Elections decided by fewer voters are less “democratic” (representative of the will of the electorate) than those where the turnout is large. Elections should be fully decided the evening of Election day, unless the vote margins are sooo small that a recount is in order.
Transparency. IRV has a problem that has neither Plurality nor Condorcet nor Approval nor Score voting. IRV is not “precinct summable” because, for the entire jurisdictions ballots are transferred from one pile (belonging to a candidate who is being eliminated) to other piles (the voters’ alternate choices) and this must be done at a central location. So the Precinct or Ward Clerks cannot simply count votes on location and provide these sub-totals to interested parties (like the media and the campaigns) for them to total up separately to check on the official election results.
A physical instrument representing each ballot (usually a thumb drive) must be transported securely from the precincts to the central location where all the ballots are dealt with. Some people might wonder if something fishy happens in that transport or even in the software that does the counting at the central location. This can sometimes reflect negatively on the legitimacy of the election.
Democracy Chronicles: What do you think is the most important election reform needed where you live (either locally or nationally)? Why is this reform important?
We must reduce the influence of big money. The most important reform of our time in the U.S. is reversing the Citizens United ruling and previous Supreme Court Rulings that equate free speech with money. Doing so will reduce the election season (which is continuous with the U.S. presidential election, Romney has been running continuously since 2006 or 2007) and save literally billions of dollars.
I think that, in a utopian context, the Ranked ballot decided by a Condorcet method should be routinely used in all elections. I would like to see the virtual stranglehold of influence of the two major parties reduced. Reducing Money in Elections Is Key!
Democracy Chronicles: What is your opinion on other aspects of election reform such as reforming money’s role in politics or redistricting?
Well I consider the money problem to be even worse than the Plurality problem. I do not have a solution to redistricting (here in Vermont, it is not a very contentious issue, they are finishing it now and it has tri-partisan support), but I think it should be left to commissions, not the legislatures who are exactly the people affected by the decisions.
Also, I am not sure that the method of Congressional apportionment (the “Huntington-Hill method”) between the states is the method that makes the most sense from a mathematical and simplicity point of view.