Let’s Fix Our Voting System

Each of us gets a vote. Sounds fair right? Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s not.

Hi, this is Chris, the Amateur Ethicist, and on this channel we discuss the crossroads between convenience and technology. If you’re into that kind of thing, why not subscribe, like and share. But I just said our voting system isn’t fair. How can that even be?

Let’s talk about this.

An Austrian maths nerd named Goedel identified what he called the “Incompleteness Theorem” way back in 1931. Summarizing poorly, just about every system of rules is flawed. The flaws don’t always show up until after game-play begins. When you do spot them, you create a few extra rules to cover the exceptions. But sometimes, the flaws are subtle. Some of the game players may know a flaw and use it to its fullest potential until enough other game players catch on and decide to patch it. The second takeaway from the Incompleteness Theorem is that even as you continue to fix flaws in the rules, there will always be new flaws that people might find and hopefully repair. In 1951, an American maths nerd named Arrow cinched this concept further, suggesting that when there are more than two political parties, no set of voting rules will be completely fair. We’re going to look today at how we vote in the US. At first blush, problems with our current voting system may seem subtle or even superfluous, but on closer inspection, it becomes obvious. Let’s dive deeper.

Sidebar, I’m a maths nerd wanna be. I don’t have a degree in maths. Voting science is a rabbit hole with many side choices and a huge number of variables. I have only touched the surface of what has been studied and am likely to make mistakes in my assumptions in this video. Please be sure to comment below. That said, this video is more about revealing the current challenges with our US voting and shining a great big spot light in the general direction of something better. Deep breath…

Our voting system is called First Past the Post, Winner Takes All or Plurality Vote. Let’s call it Plurality for now. Essentially, whoever has the most votes wins, even if it’s not a majority of voters. At first glance, this might seem fair, but there are problems that the Constitution’s framers hadn’t thought about. And if you’ve watched my previous videos, you know that the framers of our Constitution designed it to be edited by future generations.

Prior to the Bill or Rights, the only reference to voting was in Article 1, section 4, which said that the States would choose how to elect their US Congress members and the President, with the possibility that sometime in the future, Congress might amend that. And they did. Amendments 15, 19, 23, 24 and 26 all deal with who gets to vote and when. But we still haven’t addressed how we vote. I’m not talking about sheets of paper in a ballot box, 1960’s voting machines, punch cards or computer touch screens. This is a whole other rabbit hole. Instead, I’m talking about alternative voting rules to Plurality .

It seems so trivial. Why even worry about it? Well, there are some really good reasons why Plurality is just bad. First, it always devolves into a two-party system. Second, it always causes those two parties to become increasingly polarized and even violent, vote after vote. Third, in our current system, because we have unregulated gerrymandering, it makes it easy for a minority party to take control of the voting process. Forever. Any one of these things alone is bad enough, but when you put all three together, citizens stop believing they are actually being represented. They stop voting and they stop caring.

In social, economic and environmental arenas, diversity has been established as the key to sustainability. We need more political parties. The two current established parties are old and no longer truly represent most of us. Consider. When you last voted, did you vote for the person you thought was a great candidate with promise to lead our country into a better future, or did you vote for the lesser of two evils? Or did you just say, “heck, I hate both options. I’m not voting?”

And how many of us have had this queasy feeling in the pits of our stomachs that the party we belong to no longer truly represents our views? Doesn’t it seem like the Republican and Democratic parties have become coalitions of several smaller parties putting on Republican or Democratic party costumes? Tea Party, Libertarian Party, Christian Right, Trump Loyalists? All of these vote mostly Republican. Progressive Party, Green Party, Social Democrats, Socialists? All of these vote mostly Democrat. But none of the former are really Republicans and none of the latter are really Democrats. They’re forced to choose one party or the other so they can at least have some say in the future of government. But in subsumming their party preference to another, they’ve immediately lost part of their voice. If you could vote for someone from a party you admire running in your district that isn’t a Democrat or a Republican that could actually win a seat in Congress, chances are, you would probably vote for that person.

There are a number of alternative ways to vote. And because of the incompleteness theorem, none of them are perfect, but just about any method — any method — except dictatorship — is better at representing people than Plurality. I’ve put several playlists and web links in the show notes for in-depth explanations of each method. Obviously some methods are better than others, but pretty much all of them — all of them — are better than Plurality. We have Ranked Choice, Range, STAR, Borda? Pfff. There are way too many to go over in one segment, and some of them are hybrids. So, First I’m going to outline five things to consider in a voting system and then I’m going to suggest some of the more popular or interesting methods.

Five considerations when choosing a voting system.

1. Single Winner or Multiple Winners

Are we voting for one winner, like a mayor or president, or are we voting for several, like counsel members or congressional representatives? Some voting systems are better for single winner. Other methods are better for multiple winners. In the US today, we’re just now starting to look at this on state and local levels.

2. Voting Systems

Our system is Plurality, meaning whoever gets the most votes wins, even if they’re not a majority. Some voting systems require a majority vote in order to win. Majoritarian systems may be more appropriate for single winner elections. Proportional systems may be better suited for multiple winner elections. There are even mixed systems like Mixed Member Proportional or MMP. This system is used for parliamentary elections in Germany and New Zealand. You can learn about MMP in CGP Grey’s playlist.

3. Formal Voting Criteria

In developing a fair system, it’s nice to have a fairness checklist. Each of these criteria are worth creating a separate video segment of their own, so there is no way to go over all of them here. Suffice it to say, a lot of smart maths nerds are continually debating which methods are fairest and how to measure that fairness. These are just a sample of the criteria that are considered when developing a voting system.

4. Explaining it to Voters

Some of these voting systems and fairness criteria are difficult to explain to voters, even if they are statistically fairer. For instance, a majoritarian system may seem fairer when it comes to that feeling of immediate voter satisfaction, but a more utilitarian voting system would likely favor more central, less extreme candidates who will get the job done. In some cases, the voting results could be surprising. For instance in some more utilitarian voting systems, it might be possible to win a single-candidate election where overall voters’ second choice wins because no single candidate has enough first-choice votes, but a clear majority of second-choice votes. The theory is that the popular second choice is likely to have less extreme views, and more likely to coalesce compromise while in office. And this is just one consideration – one of the fairness criteria. There are around two dozen criteria currently identified. And there are way more than two dozen fair voting systems. — It’s like building a microwave oven. I don’t have to know exactly how it works or how to repair it. I just want it to work consistently, and I want assurance from the smarty-smarts that it’s safe and effective. For now, it seems that voting advocates are choosing to promote easier-to-explain alternative voting systems, even if more complicated fairer systems have been designed. There is some merit to this path, because trying to explain microwave ovens to someone who isn’t prepared will necessitate glossing over some of the finer points. Perhaps as we get used to alternative voting methods, we will all learn together and help change the course of voting. We fail forward.

5. More Parties, More Compromise

Diversity is the key to sustainability. The overall value of having an alternative voting system is to increase the number of viable parties. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but for the last twenty years, almost nothing has been accomplished in our two-party US Congress. That’s something most voters can agree on regardless of party. We’re paying people to sit in Congress, and each party is so egged-on by the other party that they simply hold their breath. In an election year with people who haven’t had a raise in forty years while the cost of living keeps creeping up, that stance is beginning to wear thin on constituents. All constituents. With more proportional voting systems, the likelihood of a single party holding a full majority decreases. For that reason alone, the multiple parties will have to form coalitions along their commonalities and vote together on the legislation that their constituents desire. In other words, less elected officials will be sitting on their duffs and will actually be working for their constituents. I think that’s something we could all vote for.

Fun fact: Some states, counties and cities in the US are already adopting alternative voting systems. And the number of federal, state and local governments worldwide that are using alternatives to Plurality is increasing. I’ll leave a link to some examples in the show notes.

Popular or Interesting Voting Systems

Let’s briefly glance at some popular voting systems that are being used today that are better than Plurality.

Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV)

IRV is fairly common throughout the world today. Basically this is a version of ranked choice that is appropriate for single candidate elections. Most people will be satisfied with the outcome of this type of vote. However strategic voting can compromise the outcome in some circumstances.

STAR Voting

STAR is an acronym for Score Then Automatic Runoff. Most people would be satisfied most of the time, but there isn’t always a majority. You can be surprised at who actually wins if you’re not familiar with the system, but you won’t likely be outraged because of some unexpected horror win scenario. This one isn’t popular yet, but seems likely to gain in popularity.

Approval Voting

This is an abbreviated version of Instant Runoff Voting. You either approve or disapprove of one or more candidates, but you can’t rank them. This type of vote is once again more likely to steer the consensus toward a more centrist candidate that most voters can accept.

In my last video, I said the next Constitutional amendment we should consider is the abolishment of gerrymandering. In this video, I’m suggesting another amendment. We should consider abolishing Plurality voting at state, local and federal levels in favor of something fairer. Perhaps we could adopt one or more well-respected alternative voting systems federally, but then suggest that if states or smaller governments want to adopt something different, voters can decide, so long as it’s no longer the Plurality system. There are so many great voting systems. You may already have some preferences. Why not share them in the comments below?

Voting is a right. This much is incontrovertible. If you’re tired of feeling unrepresented, now you know why. This video shines a light on the path toward fixing it. How we vote is up to us. It’s time for us to get off our duffs and make our voices heard at all levels of government that we want a better voting system. Chances are, someone is already working on this in your area. Why not get on social media and find out how you can help? If nobody is working on it locally, why not get the ball rolling? Voting is so crucially fundamental. Let’s make our voting system work for us.

So that’s what’s going through my head today. I hope I got you thinking. I hope you learned something. If you have, please subscribe, hit the like button and ring the bell icon so you won’t miss any future videos. Visit my website and share this channel with your friends. Thanks for crossing the road with me today. This is Chris, the Amatuer Ethisicist, and I hope you’ll see me in the next video.

Check out these playlists about voting systems.

CGP Grey – Politics in the Animal Kingdom

Carnaedes.org – Voting Systems

Countries and Their Voting Systems (Wikipedia)

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