Democracy for Hong Kong

On Wednesday April 22nd, 2015, Hong Kong's local government unveiled a new election reform package outlining a process by which candidates for Chief Executive will be pre-screened by Beijing loyalists. The initial proposal set off widely publicized protests last year, and this latest update offers only minor changes from that. This has led to backlash from pro-democracy lawmakers and activists who desire free elections without filtering by mainland China, which will virtually guarantee the exclusion of any pro-democracy candidates.

The proposal is set for a vote requiring 2/3 of the 70 local legislators to support it for passage. While the 27 members who are overtly pro-democracy could veto the bill, such a move amounts to a game of chicken, as they might not be able to subsequently negotiate anything better.

As a co-founder of The Center for Election Science, I've spent nearly a decade studying electoral system design with a focus on game theory. I believe there's a simple way to mitigate the divisiveness of this proposal. We have to convert  from an inflexible all-or-nothing approach to a "tunable" compromise-friendly approach. Here's how.

Consider that what's really at issue is not whether Beijing has influence on the process, but how much influence.  Virtually everyone accepts the reality, however painful, that Beijing will have some influence. The current proposal allows the 1200-member nominating committee to select 2-3 nominees via Approval Voting, with those candidates then being elected by a popular vote using Plurality Voting, aka First-past-the-post.

The catch is, all nominees must be approved by at least half of the committee. But that 50% threshold is tunable. Imagine it was instead set to something like 25%, for example. And imagine there was no limit on the number of nominees. This would still give Beijing a great deal of influence, but would offer Hongkongers a significant amount of real choice.

The problem is, Plurality Voting is not well-suited for elections with more than two candidates. The vote splitting (or "spoiler") effect means that an unpopular candidate may win simply because the majority who opposes him is split between two or more rivals. We saw this in the US state of Maine in 2014, when they reelected an unpopular Republican governor merely because his Democratic rival was challenged by a strong left-leaning independent. This predictably led to calls for independents to betray their conscience and vote Democrat.

But this is easily fixed if we extend the use of Approval Voting to the general election. As Hong Kong legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said herself:
"approval voting" has the advantage of fostering the selection of a consensus candidate, a person who attracts the least objection and is most capable of accommodating diverse interests and factions.
My advice to pro-democracy activists might be to suggest Approval Voting in the general election, combined with a the removal of the 2-3 candidate limit. In other words, let all candidates who clear the 50% threshold run in the general election with Approval Voting. Then leave that 50% threshold on the negotiating block for a future time. In this way, both sides can negotiate something that is flexible rather than playing a rigid game of chicken.


Understanding Google Drive permissions

Let us define our terms.

node - a file or folder in Google Drive, whose permissions we are interested in
assigned permissions - the permissions directly assigned to the node
effective permissions - the actual permissions used by Drive to determine access to the node

In determining a node's effective permissions, Drive determines which has more recently changed:

  1. The assigned permissions of the node
  2. The assigned permissions of the node's parent folder

If #1, then the node's effective permissions are its assigned permissions.

If #2, then the node's effective permissions are its parent folder's effective permissions.

Observe that this makes the definition recursive, and you start to realize how complicated this actually is.

I'm pretty confident of this after doing quite a bit of experimenting, but please correct me if there's more to it than this.

Six reasons to support IRV = more IRV falsehoods

The following is a response I wrote in response to this op-ed by Maine representative Dick Woodbury.

In his recent op-ed, Dick Woodbury says discusses six reasons it’s time for instant runoff voting in Maine. Unfortunately almost every claim is false.

Consider the 2009 IRV mayoral race in Burlington, VT. The Progressive candidate won, despite a majority of voters favoring the Democrat to the Progressive. But remove the Republican spoiler from consideration and re-tally the ballots, and the Democrat wins. So much for Mr. Woodbury's claim that "there is no such thing as a spoiler candidate" with IRV.

Republican voters who preferred the Democrat to the Progressive were punished for supporting their favorite candidate. Doing so caused the Progressive to win. Had even a small number of them strategically ranked the Democrat in first place, then the Democrat would have won, giving them their second choice instead of their third choice. So much for Mr. Woodbury's claim that "voters can cast their vote for a preferred candidate without the strategic dilemma of potentially helping a candidate they oppose."

Finally, we're told that IRV is "exactly like an actual run-off election." Tell that to San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen, who was elected in the 20th round in her 2010 IRV race. She had the third highest first-place votes, meaning that she would not have even made it to the second and final round of a traditional delayed runoff.

The ranked voting proposal does have some merit. It likely would have elected independent Eliot Cutler in the 2014 gubernatorial race, who was preferred by sizable majorities against his two major party rivals. However, Mr. Woodbury unfortunately undermines his case by demonstrating serious misunderstandings of the the very reform he's advocating.

Clay Shentrup
Berkeley, CA
Co-founder, The Center for Election Science


The Netherlands should pursue election reform for the USA

I was just listening to a book on Audible, called The Agile City. The author mentions that almost 65% of the Netherlands' GDP is at risk from climate change. I.e. it is imperative for the country to decrease CO2 emissions.

The United States emits over 16% of the world's CO2, and has the highest emissions per capita of any country (aside from a handful of countries with minuscule populations). This is second only to China (24.65% of total output, although China produces a mere one-third of the USA's per capita output). The per capita output for the European Union is only a bit higher than that of China, and the EU's entire output is still far below the USA's at 11.04%.

Thus it would be to their great benefit if the Netherlands' could somehow cause the USA to adopt policies which would reduce those emissions. I mean, this should arguably be their top priority, since we're talking about a huge fraction of their GDP being at risk from climate change. But how could a small European nation convince the world's "greatest superpower" to change such policies?

Easy. Fund election reform efforts by American political activists.

I'll give you an example. This past November 2014, a climate-change-denying Republican governor won re-election in the state of Maine. He was deeply unpopular, but his opposition was split between two climate realists, allowing him to win anyway. This vote splitting was possible because of the USA's use of the horrendous plurality voting system, where voters are limited to voting for only a single candidate.

But a multi-site exit poll indicates that the finish order would have been completely reversed had Maine used approval voting. Independent candidate Eliot Cutler (who was massively preferred head-to-head to both major party rivals) would have won instead. Cutler seems objectively the better representative, based on data from numerous opinion polls.

Approval voting simply means that voters can select as many candidates as they wish. This addresses the vote splitting issue, and makes it always safe to vote for your sincere favorite candidate. But that same exit poll revealed that even the overly complex and error-prone instant runoff voting system (IRV) would have gotten the winner right. Plurality voting is the only system I'm aware of that would have produced such a terrible result. But this is the system used in nearly all US elections.

Better voting systems can also reduce the impact of money in politics, which in turn reduces the influence of powerful interests who would very much like to thwart any policies which might reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There are groups working to reform US democracy right now. But they suffer from widespread apathy, and general ignorance on the relevance of electoral systems on political outcomes. For a mere few million dollars, low lying countries such as the Netherlands could help American election activists establish a beach head and remove a massive obstacle to climate change policy reform. This is a bang-for-the-buck bargain that is simply unrivaled by anything they could achieve via e.g. UN bureaucracy. Countries such as the Netherlands ignore this opportunity at their peril.


The kindness of Rob Richie

This past November 2014, we at The Center for Election Science (with generous help from some Maine residents) conducted a exit poll for the Maine gubernatorial election. Our goal was to compare ordinary vote-for-one "plurality" voting to alternatives. We asked voters:
  • Who would you have voted for using approval voting, where you can vote for as many candidates as you wish?
  • Who did you actually vote for?
  • How would you have ranked the three candidates in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd)?
In the real election, Republican Paul LePage was re-elected. With approval voting and instant runoff voting, independent Eliot Cutler won. LePage actually came in last place with approval voting.

When we initially mentioned this to FairVote executive director Rob Richie, he replied via email (on Nov 14, 2014):
Interesting -- thanks. Do you describe the reweighting process somewhere and walk through the actual results in the ballots you had and how they were adjusted into this final result?
Then, on Nov 20, he randomly replied:
This exit poll isn't close  to science. It truly is embarrassing for CES.
He cited not one iota of evidence for that claim. No criticism of any of our statistical model. Nothing. This is interesting, given that our statistical analysis was performed by a Princeton math PhD with over a decade of experience focusing on elections, as well as a computer scientist who formerly worked in the D.C. office of independent US senator Angus King. Not exactly a fly-by-night operation.

I stressed to Richie that the poll also was a positive for his favored instant runoff voting system, but he replied, "We won't touch it with a 10-foot pole."

Apparently, some of his colleagues in the voting reform world have different standards. On Dec 8, the Rank Your Vote Duluth campaign posted on Twitter:
Such a terrific article from our friends who are gaining steam in Maine
And on Dec 9, FairVote Minnesota posted:
"Independent Eliot Cutler Would Have Won Maine Governor’s Race under Approval Voting"
I thank these two IRV advocacy organizations for their kindness.


How not to concede an election loss

So the Berkeley campaigns season is finally behind us. Unfortunately not everyone is accepting defeat gracefully. For instance, Berkelyside reports this news on District 1.
[Alejandro] Soto-Vigil, who is also an aide to Kriss Worthington and a member of the Rent Stabilization Board, took an aggressive tone when he conceded defeat Tuesday night.
“I gotta say I am actually sad for the District 1 residents,” he said. “Looking for the last five and a half years at the City Council composition, looking at the platform of what’s been on the agenda, the voting record, it’s a travesty really.”
Maio said she was “sorry” to hear Soto-Vigil’s remarks.
“It is not usually what we do in a campaign,” she said. “We try to be gracious in a campaign. You honor the democratic process.”
But things got a little nastier in District 8. On his campaign web site, candidate Mike Alvarez Cohen published a concession article (ironically entitled "Perspective") which included this jab at opponent Lori Droste.
A material percentage of D8 voters want more women and/or LGBT elected officials (even if they’re not necessarily the most qualified candidates). I couldn’t appeal to them, but another candidate did.
It's odd that Cohen singles out Droste. Of the two other candidates in the race, Jacquelyn McCormick is a woman, and George Beier is gay.

It's unfortunate that Mike resorts to reducing Droste down to her gender and sexual orientation. Berkeley is a small pond where even the losers in these contests have plenty of opportunity to influence policy, whether by joining our robust commission system, or speaking directly with city council members. I hope that Soto-Vigil and Cohen will remember that, and work to promote their ideas in a productive way. Let's respect the democratic process, as Linda Maio says, and be gracious for the opportunity to run for office in a city with such a fair and functional democracy.


How not to be wrong on voting methods

On page 419, Jordan Ellenberg in his 2014 book  How Not To Be Wrong, the power of mathematical thinking,  writes:
One voting system to which Arrow's Theorem doesn't apply is "approval voting," in which you don't have to declare all your preferences, you just vote for as many of the people on the ballot as you want, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins.  Most mathematicians I know consider approval voting or its variant to be superior to both plurality voting and IRV;  it has been used to elect popes, secretaries-generals of the United Nation, and the officials of the American Mathematical Society, but never yet government officials in the United States.


Misinformation on Instant Runoff Voting by The League of Women Voters of Oakland

I just came across this flier from their Oakland branch, which contains numerous common falsehoods about Instant Runoff Voting.
IMPORTANT FACT TO REMEMBER: The person in office can be either good or bad after being elected by either the Primary or Ranked-Choice Voting system; don’t blame the voting system for the actions of the person in office.
But the voting system has a tremendous impact on the quality of election outcomes. According to Bayesian Regret figures from a Princeton math PhD named Warren D. Smith, who has been studying voting systems for at least 14 years and was a prominent figure in William Poundstone's book Gaming the Vote, the choice of voting system appears to be the biggest single factor affecting the quality of leaders.

As far as we can tell, the authors of this flier have no particular expertise in voting theory, and likely could not even describe or define Bayesian Regret, or numerous other core election theory concepts.
HOW TO VOTE STRATEGICALLY: Vote your favorite as your first choice, regardless of his or her likelihood to win, then choose from the front runners for your second and third choices. If your first choice is eliminated early, your second and third choices of the front runners still have you in a strong position to help choose the winner.
This is simply false. Here's a short layman-friendly video explanation by Andy Jennings, a co-founder of The Center for Election Science, whose PhD thesis was on the mathematics of voting.

This scenario happened in Burlington, Vermont, in their 2009 mayoral race. A group of Republicans, who unsurprisingly favored the Democrat over the Progressive, got their least favorite of those three when the Progressive won. But if just a handful of them had insincerely ranked the Democrat in first place, then the Democrat would have won instead. I.e. voting for their favorite candidate hurt them. Sincerity was not their best strategy. Here's a deeper explanation for the mathematically inclined, describing why strategy is always advisable, even if you don't know whether it's going to help in a particular election.

Later in the flier, the authors hammer home this falsehood even further:
Strategic voting: a voter can vote for the candidate they really like best. Near election
time it becomes clear who the front-runners are. But voters can still give their first vote
to the candidate they really like, even if they think he/she won’t win. Then they can
decide which of the front runners to give their second and third votes to. Each choice
empowers the voter. There are no games here. We each have one vote, but we can
indicate backup choices according to our sincere preferences. That’s the best way to
make sure our votes count, and Oakland gets the mayor, city council members, and
school board leaders we deserve.
As we've now seen, virtually everything in this paragraph is incorrect.
[IRV] makes it possible to elect local officials by majority vote without the need
for a separate run-off election.
IRV does not guarantee the election of a "majority winner". It is possible for Bad to win even though a huge majority of voters preferred Good to Bad—even if Good got many more first-place votes. Here's an example, with the other two candidates arbitrarily named X and Y.
35%                   X > Good > Y > Bad
17%                   Bad > Good > Y > X
32%                   Good > Y > Bad > X
16%                   Y > Bad > Good > X
That is, 35% of the voters prefer X over Good over Y over Bad, and so on. Note that Good has almost twice as many first-place votes as Bad (32% vs. 17%). And Good is preferred to Bad by a huge 67% of the voters. But Bad wins. Don't take our word for it—count it for yourself.
Why Ranked-Choice Voting is a good thing
• More people vote in November than in a June primary so decisions are made by a larger proportion of citizens. RCV provides instant runoff.
• More people of color, less-well off, younger, with lower-level jobs vote in November; in June the majority of voters are white, older, well-off, well-educated. 
This has nothing to do with IRV. This is about the date that the elections are held.
Candidates outside the mainstream have a chance—third party candidates in partisan elections;
Actually, IRV has produced two-party domination everywhere it has seen long-term widespread use. E.g. in Australia. By contrast, in most of the 27 or so countries that use a traditional top-two runoff (like Oakland and other Bay Area cities used to have) there are three or more successful parties. So one could argue that IRV explicitly hurts minor parties.
• Saves money.
o Eliminates the $800,000 cost of a June primary. 
From Warren Smith:
Yes, one round is cheaper and easier than two, but with IRV, that one round is more complicated and it cannot be done on ordinary "dumb totalizing" voting machines, whereas both rounds in delayed runoff can be done with such machines; and IRV is non-additive (no such thing as "precinct subtotals") and non-monotonic; and the second round in delayed runoff often does not happen. (Top-two runoff also is non-monotonic, but each of its two rounds, in isolation, of course is monotonic.) In view of those facts, it is not at all clear to us that IRV actually saves money. And in any event, the money spent on elections is negligible compared to other government expenditures, so it is more important to get quality in elections, than to save money. Thus "saving" money would be a false economy that surely would actually cost more in bad government than it saved in election expenditures. For example (2006), a pro-IRV group was recently arguing that Oakland California should switch to IRV because each runoff election under the old delayed-runoff scheme cost Oakland "hundreds of thousands of dollars," which was their way of saying $200,000. However, they did not mention that Oakland's annual budget is over $1 billion so that the "cost savings" they were lobbying for was of order 0.02% fractionally. Surely there are superior ways to save Oakland's money! Also they did not mention that it cost (neighboring, comparable size) San Francisco $1,600,000 to upgrade its voting machines to run IRV two years before. So the payback time required to justify this cost "savings," as you can see, would be very large, perhaps 30-40 years assuming elections every 2 years and runoffs required half the time. Quite probably Oakland would be re-replacing its machines before that time, in which case the costs never would be repaid.
The LWV's next argument:
o Candidates raise money for only one campaign, not two. 
This has nothing to do with IRV per se. You could just eliminate runoffs altogether, and not adopt IRV, and you'd still have this savings.
Who opposes RCV?
• Voters who are unhappy about the candidate who won. The problem is the candidate, not the election system. A two-candidate runoff can also result in a winner many voters do not like in office.
I repeat, the voting system has a major impact on average voter satisfaction with election results. It is completely reasonable to put some probabilistic blame on IRV. However, one saving grace in this instance is the fact that the traditional top-two runoff system is also among the most terrible voting systems ever devised, and so one cannot confidently say whether things would have been much better with the old system. We can, however, say that things would have likely turned out much better with any of the other alternative voting systems: Score Voting, Approval Voting, Borda, or Condorcet voting.

They also forgot to mention the majority of election theory experts with math and/or political science credentials. IRV is widely considered to be the worst of the five commonly discussed alternative voting systems.

Clay Shentrup
Co-founder, The Center for Election Science


Mock 2014 Maine Gubernatorial election, using Approval Voting

A recent article informs us that, "Maine voters are looking at the three-way 2014 governor race strategically." This is because there are three major candidates, and independent Eliot Cutler is considered by many to be a potential "spoiler".

But there's a simple solution to this problem. Rather than urge Cutler to drop out of the race, Maine voters could push for a switch to Approval Voting. This simple alternative system is identical to the present system, except that it allows voters to select as many candidates as they wish. The candidate with the most votes still wins. You never have to fear a vote for your favorite candidate, because you can still support a more electable "lesser evil" compromise candidate if you wish.

Try it out for yourself, by voting below in a mock version of the election, using Approval Voting.

Vote for one OR MORE - the candidate with the most votes wins
pollcode.com free polls 


Approval Voting is better than Plurality Voting, even in multi-winner races

There have been some cases where Approval Voting, which is ideally intended as a single-winner voting system, has been criticized when used in multi-winner "at-large" elections. The gist of it is, suppose you have the following scenario:

Voters are roughly split into three groups: left, right, and center. There are three candidates from each of those factions (i.e. nine total candidates), and we're electing three winners.

The critics will argue that a reasonable outcome would be one that is proportional, such that you get one winner from each faction.

Approval Voting will tend to elect all three centrists, which is less representative. Although note that this still gives a body with the same ideological center as the electorate, which is crucial.

While this is true, and is a fine argument for favoring Proportional Approval Voting over ordinary Approval Voting, it certainly doesn't favor at-Large Plurality Voting. That system could easily give you two leftists and a centrist, or two rightists and a centrist—a result which creates a body whose ideological center is significantly divergent from that of the electorate.

Incidentally, here's a video demonstration on how to tabulate Proportional Approval Voting in a spreadsheet, with a few simple formulas.