Preserving this electoral reform moment

My name is Clay Shentrup, and I am a co-founder of The Center for Election Science, a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation which seeks to promote election reforms which we believe will best promote the general welfare.

While the prospects for today's UK referendum on the Alternative Vote are looking somewhat grim, voting reformers around the world should feel heartened. That a sizable fraction of the electorate, in one of the world's most powerful countries no less, has expressed an interest in (or even awareness of) this subject, is something that I would not have fathomed when I began my work as a voting method researcher nearly five years ago.

The question now is, how do we preserve this reform momentum and keep this conversation alive? There are people all around the world who have been actively discussing the need for better voting methods for years, particularly since the advent of the modern web. Yet it has so far proved very difficult to convey the true importance of voting systems to the average person. Before we go much further, let's talk about just how much importance that is.

Back in the year 2000, a Princeton math Ph.D. named Warren D. Smith conducted an extensive series of computer simulations of elections, designed to measure voting method efficacy (welfare-increasing effect for the electorate) using an objective "economic" metric called Bayesian Regret. Here is a crude graph of Bayesian Regret values for a host of voting methods, taken from page 239 of the William Poundstone book Gaming the Vote.

What we see here is that an upgrade from Plurality Voting (aka First Past the Post) to Score Voting (simply rating the candidates on a fixed scale, like 0-10 or 1-5) causes as big an improvement to democracy (more specifically, to human welfare) as the original advent of democracy in place of "random winner" (say by accident of birth, or successful coup). That makes such an upgrade essentially the most potent welfare-increasing reform known of. Even the less optimal systems listed in this graph are all better than Plurality Voting, which surely has to be the poorest voting system every seriously considered for use in a democracy.

Put in this perspective, I believe there is a moral imperative for modern democratic societies everywhere to make voting method reform a centerpiece of their policy agenda. But how are we going to do that if we can't even pass IRV, a reform which is comparatively gentle to the existing political establishment?

Some hope may lie in countries which already have proportional representation (PR). You see, with PR, a party which gets about 20% of the vote gets about 20% of the seats. And because political parties are generally allowed a fair amount of freedom as to how they conduct their internal decision-making, they can serve as wonderfully open-minded reform testbeds.

For instance, the German Pirate Party has used Score Voting and Approval Voting to nominate the candidates for its party lists. The Queensland Green Party is reported to be using Condorcet voting.

Presumably, parties which use better voting methods will be more successful over time, and thus more likely to have their ideas copied by rival parties. Eventually it is plausible that they could even be adopted by governments for use in general elections, once enough voters have had direct experience using these systems internally. Those governments may eventually even come to use better proportional methods, like Reweighted Range Voting or Asset Voting.

But if we are to use this knowledge strategically, things get a little complicated. What we're talking about here is forming a global coalition of election reform activists, crossing international borders. One potential model is for them to vote on a PR country (or countries) to which they would emigrate, in order to focus their reform efforts. Say a bunch of said reformers move to Germany, New Zealand, or Australia for instance. It takes some years before they can vote, but in the interim, they can work to promote better democracy by being active in local parties that are more progressive and open to new ways of voting. Once they have voting rights (as a co-worker of mine who moved from Bangalore to Melbourne eventually earned), they can take full advantage of their new political opportunities. In essence, if they can't get PR to come to them, they go to it. They opt in to a new voting system by relocating.

Obviously this tack is not to be taken lightly. Few people are willing to move to a different country in order to promote their political ideals. Nevertheless, we as a species simply cannot afford to let this movement die if the referendum fails. We have won the lottery by the sheer fact that millions of people currently know what "Alternative Vote" even means. We can't resign ourselves to doing no better than Plurality Voting.

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA

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