Yves here. America’s simple two-party system means we are unfamiliar with coalition strategies and complex preference-registering systems. Some of them like ranked choice are starting to be adopted in the US. Our Terry Flynn digs into where two approaches, ranked choice and more-least, produce similar and divergent results.
By Terry Flynn, an NC regular who writes at Terry Flynn PhD and thinks hard and rigorously about matters like polling, voting, and other real-life areas where the interpretation of data matters yet is often done badly. Originally published at his website
I recently realised that two systems proposed as “PR-lite” or “a step towards full PR” can produce radically different outcomes IN REALITY and not just as a THEORETICAL CURIOSITY. The two are “single candidate ranked choice” and “most-least voting – MLV”, most notably when there are just three candidates.
Here’s the deal. Under ranked choice you must rank all three candidates, 1, 2 & 3 (most preferred to least preferred). Under most-least voting you indicate only the “most preferred” (rank 1) and least preferred (with 3 candidates, rank 3). The OBSERVED set of data should be the same. (I’m not going to get into the issue of why they might not – that gets into complex mathematics and I’ll do it another time).
For those who don’t want to get bogged down in the following discussion of the maths, here’s why the two systems can, given EXACTLY the same observed count data, give a different “winning candidate”. Ranked voting essentially tries to identify the (first or second best) candidate that the people-supporting-the-losing-3rd-party-candidate are “most happy with”. Under MLV, if both “first” and “second” preference candidates are diametrically opposite (and mutually hated) then NEITHER should necessarily be elected. The candidate who came a (very very) distant third can be elected if (s)he is NOT HATED by anyone. Essentially, if you polarise the electorate you are penalised. A “centrist” who hasn’t either “enthused” or “repelled” anyone will win under MLV.
I tended to think this was a “theoretical curiousity”. However, upon looking more closely at the 2016 Iowa Democratic Presidential primary I realised this ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were essentially tied on about 49.5% each in terms of their “primary first preference vote”. Hillary had the edge, and the 3rd candidate, O’Malley dropped out (but too late so he got votes). Yet he was actually the key influencer, if either ranked voting or MLV had been used. Under ranked choice, either Hillary or Bernie would have won (determined by who the majority of O’Malley’s supporters put as second preference). Under MLV, and assuming that the “much talked about antipathy between Bernie and Hillary was real” then each candidate’s supporters would have put the other as “least preferred”. The “most-minus-least” counts would have been slightly negative for one and likely both candidates. O’Malley, on the other hand, would have obtained a small positive net most-minus-least vote (getting 1 to 2% of the vote, with few/no people putting him as “least preferred”). MLV simply subtracts the “least preferred” total from the “most preferred” total for each candidate giving a “net support rating”.
Under ranked choice voting either Hillary or Bernie would have won. Under MLV both would have been denied the win in favour of O’Malley, because he “pissed nobody off”.
Here’s the more detailed discussion.
Most-Least Voting (MLV) is a special case of a more general method of “stated preferences” called Best-Worst Scaling (BWS). Declaration of interest: I am a co-author on the definitive CUP textbook on BWS, was involved (along with its inventor) in much of the theoretical development and application in various fields (most notably health). HOWEVER I have had no involvement with the theory, parameterisation or application of MLV. Indeed, once I became aware of this method of voting, on checking the bibliography, it became clear that the authors were not actually aware of BWS and due to the “silo effect” in academia, had come up with it largely independently of what we had already done. Incidentally some of the Baltic States have used or do use MLV in certain instances so it isn’t just a “theoretical curiosity”.
OK, having got that out the way, what do I think of MLV? In short, I think it is worthy of serious consideration and wish we’d thought of it first! Like ranked choice voting with single member constituencies (something in use or proposed in various Anglo-Saxon countries like Australia, the UK and USA), it is not “proper” Proportional Representation (PR). However, it can be considered either as a nice compromise, or as a stepping stone to “full PR”. In terms of its similarities to ranked choice voting: suppose there are 5 candidates in your constituency. Under ranked choice, for the maths to not be horribly skewed and potentially very very gameable, you should be forced to rank all five, 1,2,3,4,5. The problem, known since the mid 1960s, is that people are good at “top” and “bottom” ranks but get very “random” and arbitrary “in the middle”. MLV exploits this. It only asks for top and bottom. Thus it may be considered to be the “minimum change to first-past-the-post – FPTP – possible” so as to “make things easy for people”. You only provide ONE extra piece of information – the candidate/Party you like least. If you do not provide both a MOST and a LEAST choice then your ballot is spoilt. This is IMPERATIVE for the maths to work, and for the system to be demonstrably “equitable”. (Most-minus-least vote totals must sum to zero.)
The common question is “Suppose there are only three candidates – aren’t ranked choice and MLV the same?” NO. See above for a real life example. Ranked choice MIGHT be unconstitutional in certain countries (if the mathematicians and lawyers got together because not everyone has the “same influence” mathematically).
So what is happening in practice? The authors conclude that if the “FPTP winning” candidate espouses (say) a very extreme policy on (say) immigration or something, that all other parties abhor, then (s)he is likely to lose. All other parties “gang up” and place that candidate as “least”. Most-minus-least vote tally is net (highly?) negative. A more “moderate” candidate likely wins. Indeed, the authors claim that “centrists” likely prevail a lot of the time – though they might be an “O’Malley with 1% primary vote”. Though if a candidate would get a MAJORITY (and not just a PLURALITY) under FPTP, they’ll still win under MLV. So “majority” (non-coalition) governments still can happen – they’re just harder to achieve and “third parties” (etc) much more easily get a foothold. I happen to think that this “centrists rule” conclusion is a little simplistic when you move from a single dimension (left/right) to multidimensional space. Yes, maybe you get a candidate closest to the centroid across all dimensions but “how strongly people regard each dimension” can affect results. So, as they frustratingly say in academic papers, it’s “an empirical issue” as to what will happen. However, I will venture a conclusion that “extremists” will naturally get weeded out. Whilst some extremists might be generally considered bad (consider dictators who were first voted in via pluralities in 1930s Europe), others (painted as “extremists” by the MSM like a Sanders today or an Attlee or FDR of yesteryear) could be considered necessary and without them society would be much worse off. It gets necessarily subjective here…!
TL;DR: Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem still holds. MLV doesn’t solve all problems but it is attractive in addressing a lot of the most commonly made criticisms of voting systems used in the UK and USA. However, it isn’t the ONLY system that can address these criticisms – it is merely the “simplest” in terms of practicality and requiring “minimum extra effort by voters beyond what they do now”. Whether you “like it” depends on your “values”.