Monday, September 1, 2008

They knew in Vertmont back in 2006 that IRV wasn't all it was cracked up to be!

After all the depressing stuff on Gustav today, I decided to have some fun. I googled "IRV sucks" and came up with some fascinating stuff. One of them was this entry in the Vermont Daily Briefing from May 2, 2006 -

Here is an excerpt:

During Burlington’s last mayoral election — the city’s first use of Instant Runoff Voting — Political Science professor Tony Gierzynski mobilized an army of exit-pollers and gathered massive amounts of data.

This data he then crunched. Crunched it real good.

It took a great deal of time and foresight, but the results were utterly unique: no one had done such a study anywhere in America.

This is true - they sure as hell haven't done anything like that in NC. And I don't see anything in the study where they tolerate a paid IRV advocate doing the survey work, both deviating from their instructions and faking a southern accent.

So I went to the survey - located at and, as usual, I went to the end where the juicy stuff is. Here is some of it:

The relationship between education levels and awareness and understanding of the IRV ballot in our exit poll is similar to the findings of the exit poll conducted during San Francisco’s recent experience with IRV (see discussion above) and is one of the main concerns with this method of voting. As the experience of Florida in the 2000 presidential election demonstrated, certain voters are likely to have enough difficulty with complex ballots so that their votes do not end up counting. The percentages of people who were unaware of IRV or found the ballot confusing in the Burlington election were low even for the lowest levels of education (undoubtedly due to the City of Burlington’s effort to educate voters on IRV). The number of confused voters represented by those percentages, however, would be much greater in elections in larger cities or in statewide contests. Additionally, the higher level of voter turnout in statewide elections means that a larger proportion of the electorate would be composed of groups that, according to both our results and those of the San Francisco exit poll, had more difficulty with IRV, namely, those with lower levels of education. To illustrate, the percent of eligible voters casting ballots for governor in Vermont in 2004 was 65.1%25 compared to the 30.3% turnout in the 2006 mayoral election in Burlington. Only 12% of voters in Burlington’s mayoral election had a high school degree or less, while 26% of voters in the 2004 presidential election had a high school degree or less.26 Because they represent the group that had the most difficulty with IRV, a higher percentage of voters with a high school degree or less would undoubtedly inflate the percentage, as well as the number of those uninformed about IRV and/or confused by it. In other words, there is a good possibility that the difference among voters based on education levels would be intensified in an election with a higher voter turnout.

Here is a place where IRV advocates point to success in IRV elections, yet a study done in their own version of the Institute of Government shows there is a good possibility that IRV could cause voters with less education to become confused by the IRV ballot.

So what did that report conclude?

The exit poll results do, however, raise a couple of concerns about IRV. There appear to be both education and partisan differences in the reaction to IRV. The relative lack of awareness and confusion voiced by those with lower levels of education suggests that IRV has the potential to engender some inequities in the electoral process based on class. The partisan divide found on IRV in Burlington — Progressives and Democrats liking the system, Republicans disliking it — poses a problem for the perceived fairness of elections and the legitimacy of those elected.

While a sound argument can be made that IRV functions in a manner to select candidates based on majority preferences, the minority party may see it as an unfair changing of the rules of the game that deprives them of a chance of winning when their opposition is in such disarray as to offer multiple candidates. Were any of the potential voting paradoxes discussed above to arise in an election (especially if a Republican candidate had the lead in the 1st round and lost after the second round) there would surely be attacks on the legitimacy of that election in the press. Then there will be a real test of the public's understanding of IRV.

Other questions remain to be answered regarding the effect of IRV elections. It is unknown how IRV affects campaigning. It may ensure more congenial elections since candidates would not want to alienate any potential 2nd place votes from supporters of their opponents. But, it could also make it so candidates play down their policy differences for the very same reason—not wanting to alienate any potential 2nd place votes—making it less clear to the voters what their choice really means in terms of governance. Nasty campaigning, it should also be noted, could simply go underground as it may have in the Burlington mayoral contest. It also remains to be seen how IRV affects voters’ decisions. Despite claims of its supporters to the contrary, IRV does allow for, and even encourages strategic voting (as opposed to pure preference-based choices). What voters’ strategy would be and how it might differ from their calculus in the typical single-vote system used in the US is unknown, as is the way that such differences might affect the outcome of elections.

In the end, elections are about building governing majorities. IRV offers an opportunity to have an electoral majority without doing the hard work and compromise necessary to build it. How that dynamic might affect the ability of elected officials to govern is a whole other matter to be seen.

Recent readings of mine suggest that IRV could exacerbate the problems we are having getting a census government - it could lead to a "balkanization" of American politics and make matters worse, not better. Why should we experiment with a voting method that might make matters worse, not better.

That is why this voting activist doesn't favor experimenting with votes using IRV to see if it can be made to work. The laudable goals of IRV could be achieved without all the risks that even the NC State Board of Elections knew were posed by IRV way back in March 2007 - even before the first communities were considering taking part in the first round of the pilot program.

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