Voting is the act of registering a choice between alternatives - either between candidates, parties or questions. Since voting occurs on everything from town meeting questions to Presidential elections, it is no accident that voting systems have occupied a small, but active, part of political discussion.
This article covers electoral systems used in elections, and some of the electoral systems which are commonly used to produce the final result of the political will of the voters of a particular jurisdiction or district.
Information on the actual "election systems" (equipment employed and not the rules of competition) can be found at Diebold (there should be a broader overview, including mention of prior systems and open system advocates).
In any normal liberal democratic election, there are different and conflicting interests at stake in the outcome. One is the selection of the best candidate, another is the control of government by a party, another is geographic representation, another is the sense of participation of the electorate, and another is representation of a group, whether a faction of a party, or an ethnic or demographic group. Because of these competing interests, and the different rankings that individuals place on each in different circumstances, it is no accident that a number of different voting systems have evolved or been proposed to produce the "best" results, which are, necessarily, compromises between these different interests.
The kind of electoral system used is one of the various tools that political entities use to promote the kinds of political organization that they value. Different voting systems favor different kinds of political organization, by penalizing bodies of opinion which do not easily translate to victories at the polls. Voting systems cannot be looked at in isolation, systems which seem undemocratic at the individual level can produce results which are very reflective of the political will, while systems which seem democratic on the individual level can produce results at the top which are generally unreflective of the political will. For example, elections to a legislature may seem driven by personality on the local level, but in a legislature which is strongly majoritarian, voters who chose their favorite candidate on local issues could well be in effect supporting a larger set of policies which they do not subscribe to. Voters are often put in the situation of deciding which candidate is "the least worst", and voting against the candidate they do not want, rather than voting affirmatively in favor of the candidate they would want to support, simply because their vote would not translate into any political result. This is called the fear of "throwing ones vote away".
In some voting systems, the political outcome created by the voting system is likely to closely mirror the political makeup of the voting public on a particular interest - personality, party, regional, personal or demographic. Other voting systems consistently skew in some way or another from the political make up of the voting public. For instance, in US elections individuals do not vote for the President directly, but for "Electors" that their state choses, and these electors cast the final votes for President and Vice-President. Almost all states use a system which is "winner take all" for electors, thus magnifying geographically broad coalitions, and often allowing plurality presidents to have majorities of the Electoral College. Lincoln and Nixon both were elected with slightly over 40% of the vote in their respective first victories.
Alternative voting systems are often designed to address perceived flaws in an existing voting system.
Generally such systems center on one of two flaws, either the belief that the final result is not reflective of the political will, or that the voting system encourages voters not to express their personal preferences.
For example, many voting systems make it advantageous to vote strategically. In other words, a voter may better serve his interests by voting for candidates that are not his favorite candidates, or by prioritizing his choices for public offices in a way other than his true internal preferences for those candidates. For example, in our existing system, many people who see Ralph Nader as their favorite candidates, Al Gore as their second favorite candidate and George W. Bush as their least favorite candidate strategically voted for Al Gore, rather than their true preference, Ralph Nader in order to avoid helping George W. Bush. Strategic voting possibilities are a problem because they disadvantage voters who are unwilling or unable to vote strategically. Also strategic voting can veil a "silent majority" in favor of a candidate who is perceived as having a low chance of success. Hence, strategic voting can cause misperceptions to become realities.
Another important area for voting system reform is in representing groups that have been the targets of discrimination. In the United States, this often involves African Americans, in other countries women and lower caste groups have also been given special status in voting. Often this involves mixing of "at-large" seats with "districts", or setting aside quotas of seats for particular groups, but it also involves using proportional systems of voting.
Traditional - Single Member Districts - Majority or Plurality
The traditional method of balloting in Anglo-Saxon countries involves voters casting a single vote for a single candidate. In general, candidate receiving a plurality--the greatest number of votes--is the winner. If this is more than 50% of the votes, it is a majority.
This First-Past-the-Post electoral system, which is also called the Single Member District/Plurality electoral system is both simple to administer and count. However, it often yields undemocratic or perverse outcomes when there are more than two strong candidates or strong political parties. For example, in Britain, the Labor and Conservative Parties have secured majorities in the House of Commons with pluralities of 40% of the total vote.
Some elections require a majority rather than mere plurality to determine a final winner. In this case the usual solution is a "runoff election" in which a subset of the candidates take part in a subsequent election (e.g. in France). Usually this is between the top two placing candidates ensuring that a majority will be recieved. This style of runoff has a few different names including "French Runoff" or "Louisiana Runoff". The City and County of Denver, Colorado uses this system to elect its Mayor and single district city council persons. The City of Detroit also uses a similar system.
Often in "First Past the Post" systems without runoffs, there is a system of multiple elections - a primary election, where the nominee for each party is selected, and then a general election. In many cases the "primary" election for the dominant party's candidate is equivalent to a general election victory. Thus there are many cases where a candidate in a multi-candidate primary secured only a fraction of the partisan vote, as low as 25%, and then was elected to the seat.
Some elections (e.g. votes in most U.S. States to allocate the state's electors) are notable for not requiring runoff elections, and without runoffs it's quite easy to construct election scenarios where a population's preferred candidate does not win. But it's understandable why the US Presidential Election does not involve runoffs, and that's the expense. It's no small feat to have even one election every four years. But additionally, a series of elections is not the only or best available option.
One variant of traditional voting used in New York State allows a candidate to appear on the ballot in multiple places as the nominee of more than one party. For example, the same person may appear on both the Republican Party line and the Conservative Party line. This is referred to as "Ballot Fusion", and it allows political organizations to have bargaining power with respect to the two major parties, because securing the "party line" has a value. Voters can register their policy preference while still voting for a particular candidate.
See also Instant Run Off Voting.
Traditional - Multi-Member Districts
The traditional system is also applied in a somewhat different fashion when there is more than one open seat with multiple candidates all running against each other, such as in an "at large" election for multiple county commissioners or multiple city council members. Normally, each voter in a traditional system in this situation gets to cast one vote for up to as many candidates as they are open seats, but may not cast more than one vote for any one candidate. The candidates with the most votes win the open seats.
Some reforms of this system, however, which are aimed at preventing a narrow majority from voting an entire slate of candidates into office, give voters fewer votes than there are open slots, or, especially in the corporate director election context, allow "cumulative voting" in which more than one vote may be cast for a single candidate, rather than forcing voters to spread their votes out among more than one candidate.
Ranked ballot systems
Alternative systems such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or Condorcet allow prioritizing candidates. A voter would rank their candidates from most favorite to least favorite. IRV and Condorcet count the resulting ballots differently.
Instant Runoff Voting has electors rank their preferred candidates from highest to lowest. The first choice is 1, second choice 2 and so on for all candidates that individuals wish to cast a vote for at all.
In IRV a majority is required to win the election. If there is no majority winner, then the lowest polling candidate is eliminated and their votes are transfered to the next preferred candidate of each individual voter, until there is a majority winner.
In IRV, if your number one is disqualified by receiving the least votes in one round, then your vote changes to your #2, and so on. Simple ranking is open to strategic voting, as is IRV if a third party becomes viable.
Some people call instant runoff voting a form of proportional representation because in some instances it reduces the bias against third parties found in the traditional voting system, known as the spoiler effect. This is true when a third party has enough support to come second in some districts, where it may pick up the votes of the major party it defeated and win the seat. This happens rarely, however, and in some ways IRV reinforces two-party rule by ensuring that votes cannot remain with minor parties. It can, however, increase the bargaining power of minor parties, as major parties vie to secure their "preferences" on how-to-vote cards and party platforms.
Instant Runoff Voting goes by the term "Preferential Voting" in Australia, where it is used to elect the House of Representatives and all but one of the State legisaltive assemblies. The mathematics for IRV is identical with the mathematics for STV. IRV has been adopted as the voting method for local elections in Ferndale, Michigan; Takoma Park, Maryland; Burlington, Vermont; and San Francisco.
In the US, IRV is generally supported in states with a significant "flanking" third party to the dominant two parties, often by the major party that consistently loses elections to a flank challenge. Thus Alaska - which often has challenges to the libertarian right of the Republicans - and Vermont - which often has localist Progressive challenges to the left of the Democrats - have significant IRV support from a major party.
IRV has become the "meme" voting reform among the left, pushed as the panacea to lack of participation and other ills of the voting system.
A Website for Creating your own IRV election - Demochoice Polls
FairVote - IRV America - On November 7, 2006, IRV will be on the November ballot in four jurisdictions with a combined population of well over 1.5 million people: Minneapolis (MN), Pierce County (WA), Davis (CA) and Oakland (CA).
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Hare-Clark systems operate by a system of preferential ballots and vote quotas. Voters number candidates on the ballot in order of preference. A multi-member district is broken into quotas, for which the formula is QUOTA = (Number of Ballots Cast) / (Number of Representatives + 1) + 1. The quota formula determines the minimum number of votes necessary to fill the required number of seats and no more. Candidates that receive more than a quota of votes obtain a seat. The "overflow" votes (votes in excess of a quota that candidates receive) and votes of the least popular parties (who are "eliminated" as per IRV) are redistributed preferentially, until all quotas have been filled.
The STV system is complex but allows for a system of voting based on individual candidate preference to also produce a party proportional result. It is widely used in bicameral legislatures in Australia, most commonly for secondary houses of parliament, the Republic of Ireland and Malta. British Columbia is looking at moving from FPTP (first past the post) to STV.
STV is especially relevant in the US because it can be used to elect a single executive (the Irish president), a single legislator (Australian representatives) or a group of legislators (Australian senators and Irish deputies). The IRV math is identical with the STV math. One system where the voting instructions are the same for any office is a major advantage.
A Website for Creating your own STV election - Demochoice Polls
Condorcet (IRV-P Instant Runoff Voting - Paired / IRR Instant Round Robin)
- Main Article: Condorcet
In Condorcet, all rankings are reduced to one-on-one matches, and if one candidate can be found to beat all other candidates one-on-one, that candidate wins. Condorcet Voting is very resistant to strategic voting, but can generate ambiguities that reflect true ambiguities in the preferences of voters. These ambiguities are called Schwartz Sets. A Schwartz Set is the smallest set of candidates that are all preferred to all other candidates. The set itself is a circular tie, making it difficult to determine which member of the Schwartz Set is the true winner. For example, imagine college football scenarios where the top three teams have all beaten each other, leaving it unclear which team is best. In voting practice, these scenarios are rare. They can be resolved with mathematical algorithms, which could be seen as undemocratic, or they could be treated as other tie vote scenarios are treated.
By definition, given the same set of ballots, the Condorcet winner (assuming no circular tie) will beat the Instant Runoff winner in a head-to-head matchup, unless, of course, both methods pick the same candidate. The Condorcet winner will also beat the winner of any other method.
Another name for Condorcet voting is IRV-P or Instant Runoff Voting - Pairs or Paired. Since Condorcet can be seen as a race where everbody is in a run off election against everybody else with the winner of the most elections being the overall winner, the acronym IRV-P makes sense. A Condorcet purist would bristle at the notion of Condorcet being thought of as a subset of Instant Runoff Voting. However, since IRV has made inroads into common wisdom, it may be an easier concept to communicate. Further Condorcet as an English word has no natural meaning whereas Instant Runoff Voting - Paired does. Another name substitution is Instant Round Robin - "round robin" is a commonly known tournament term, and is exactly how Condorcet is counted.
A Website for Creating your own Condorcet election - Condorcet Internet Voting Service
In Borda voting, ranked ballots are translated to a score for each candidate. In its simplest (and most flawed) form, if there are n candidates, then the top candidate on a ballot is awarded n points, the second candidate is awarded n - 1 points, on down. This version of Borda is very susceptible to strategic and insincere voting, and considered flawed by many political vote theorists. There are improved formulas advocated by proponents of Borda voting, but even these are often criticized as being too susceptable to strategic voting. Borda has found uses in scientific applications (e.g. artificial intelligence) where strategy issues aren't a problem.
More information about this topic is available at the article on Wikipedia about Approval voting
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Another voting system is called "Approval Voting" and does not require ordering the candidates. The voter just checks "Yes" for every acceptable candidate. The candidate with the most votes overall wins. Despite its simplicity, approval voting is remarkably good at finding the Condorcet winner of an election. Approval voting is used by the U.N. to choose the Secretary General, and by several mathematics and engineering associations in their elections.
Many state constitutions specifically allow ranked balloting, which means that Approval voting could be argued as being unconstitutional in these states.
In range voting, each voter scores every candidate with a numerical score in some fixed range, for example 0 to 99. The candidate with the highest average score wins. It is also possible in range voting to allow explicit "intentional blank" or "no opinion" scores (often denoted "X"), which are not incorporated into a candidate's average. Approval voting is the special case of range voting when only two scores (e.g. 0 and 1) are permitted.
Range voting has also been called "score voting."
Nonobviously, 0-9 with X Range voting can be run on any voting machine capable of handling multiple plurality elections. This makes it significantly easier to adopt than Condorcet or STV. Range voting also permits voters to express different intensities of preference, also an advantage over STV and Condorcet.
Website for Creating your own Range Voting election make-range-ballot.
In a proportional representation system, all candidates in a legislative body are elected either at large (e.g. Israel), or in multi-member districts, and seats are awarded in proportion to how much support each political party receives.
The simplest form of proportional representation, has each voter choose a political party. The available seats are then divided based upon the percentage of support the each party receives from a list provided by the political party.
In Italy, a variation of this method has voters choose their favorite candidates from within their political party and vote for a political party at the same time. In Germany a party needs at least 5% support at all to get any seats, in an effort to prevent extremist fringe parties from getting representation in parliament.
The d'Hondt Method is the system used to elect individual members of the European Parliament. In it, voters vote for individual parties, who publish prioritized lists of their candidates standing for election. The winnners are calculated in a series of rounds (with on round for each seat available), where the winner depends both on the gross number of votes received, as well as the number of seats already won by the individual parties. As the numbers compared in each round are averages of votes per seat won, this method falls under the category of Highest-Average methods. Elections for the Mayor of London (UK) and the London Assembly use a modified d'Hondt system for the London-wide seats, with the remainder being riding-level first-past-the-post contests.
Another proportional representation system, often called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP has traditional single member district elections for most seats, but give political parties top-up seats to ensure the final resul is proportional. In New Zealand and Germany additional seats are granted to parties if their total number of single member district seats is less than their share of the popular vote in all the legislative races combined.
Other proportional representation systems gives groups of people who are geographically dispersed, the right to vote on separate ballots for their representatives. For example, New Zealand has a certain number of parliamentary seats reserved for those indigenous Maori people who choose to vote on the Maori ballot instead of on a regular ballot. Hong Kong has special seats reserved for members of certain professional groups. In Hong Kong this has the effect of preventing democratic leaning parties that secure 60% of the popular vote from obtaining a legislative majority.
In Japan, a set proportion of the chamber is elected proportionally and the rest in single-member districts. This is quite different from Mixed Member Proportional because when the propotional seats are allocated it disregarded that the big paties have already gained more than their fair share.
Illinois used a multi-member system to elect its state House of Representatives until 1980. Each voter had three votes, which could be cast for one, two or three candidates. In most districts, each party nominated two candidates. This voting system was eliminated in 1980 when a constitutional amendment was pushed through to reduce the size of the House by 1/3rd. Pat Quinn (D), currently Lt. Governor, was behind the initiative and there is still some bitterness among older House members.
Other PR ideas
A multiwinner PR form of range voting, called "reweighted range voting" has been suggested. It is like range voting as far as selecting the first winer is concerned. However, the votes that selected that first winner get deweighted according to a certain formula, and then the next winner is chosen using those reweighted votes. Then another reweighting occurs and the third winner is selected, and so on until the requisite number of winners have been announced.
Another idea is "asset voting". Those ideas are described by their inventor W.D.Smith in papers #77 and 78 on his web page, and #91 on that page is a survey of multiwinner systems.
These systems subtly change motivators in the election process, affect the wisdom of negative campaigning, allow major dissenting views more consistent hearing, and also can help reduce the cost of elections.
- Daily Kos diary: "Fundamentals of Vote Distribution Systems" (June 5, 2007)
- Wikipedia entry on Voting Systems
- Wikipedia Voting Systems Project
- Electorama wiki and mailing list for election methods enthusiasts
- Accurate Democracy
- Approval Voting Homepage
- Citizens For Approval Voting
- Center for Range Voting and CRV simplified entry page
- Election Methods - Condorcet
- The Center for Voting and Democracy
- The Dangers of Paperless Voting
- Election Selection: Are we using the worst voting procedure? -- by Science News
- VerifiedVoting.org's Voting Technology by State
A Website for Creating your own Condorcet (IRV-P) election - Condorcet Internet Voting Service
A Website for Creating your own poll which will be simultaneously counted with Condorcet, IRV and other methods - BetterPolls.com