Ballot exhaustion, STV edition

In a ranked-choice election, ballot exhaustion refers to the share of ballots that do not continue to the final round of counting. A ballot exhausts because the voter has not ranked a front-runner (should one exist). Analyses of single-seat elections sometimes show that, due to ballot exhaustion, the winner was not supported by a majority of voters. According to FairVote, this has occurred in 27.6 percent of modern “instant-runoff” races (which had three or more candidates).

What about ballot exhaustion in multi-seat elections (i.e., under STV)? This is a concern for the seat-maximizing party (taken here to include multi-party coalitions and party-like entities). If ballots do not flow among co-partisans — e.g., due to bullet voting for only the most popular candidate(s) — ballot exhaustion can be blamed for having changed a seat distribution. (I will not cover vote leakage here, which is a separate but related issue.)

The plot below gives rates of ballot exhaustion for three historic cases. Two of them, Cincinnati and Worcester (MA), were the subject of my 2018 article in Electoral Studies. Robert Winters provides the data for Cambridge (MA), which still uses STV. (See this blog post, with thanks to Mirya Holman, for a sense of more recent data.)

These figures are based on total ballots cast, not the valid-ballot totals, but a quick look at the data suggests they wouldn’t change too much (although they would be somewhat higher).

Also, these figures are based on exhausted ballots from the penultimate round of counting. Why? Say we have two parties squaring off. Competition is for the final seat, which either of these can win. Computing exhaustion from the final-round count would be akin to including votes for the ‘main loser’ in an IRV contest. Neither of the papers above does this.

I make no claims about what is a “normal” rate of ballot exhaustion under STV.

That said, it is possible to speculate about the variation. Worcester likely had the highest rates due to its weak Democratic Party (i.e., one that could not, for whatever reason, deter ‘excess’ candidate entry). Another factor in at least two cites was that large numbers of independents (and the very rare third party) often (but not always) ran hopeless campaigns, and their voters do not seem to have sent votes back to the “majors” (at least in large number). In Worcester’s first election, for example, there were 152 candidates to the nine-seat council (and 126 counting rounds, due to batch elimination). In Cincinnati, by contrast, the party organizations were both strong and adept at electioneering. Also, Cincinnati was a ‘movement model’ for STV adoptions elsewhere, so people took great pains to ‘get it right.’

I say more about all this in a very big project wrapping up. If ballot exhaustion matters, there are ways to deal with it. Here’s one. Here’s another — although it is not the main reason for that proposal.

Why Democrats cannot change the rules even though it would be good for them: Presidential edition

The impetus for this post is a recent, casual discussion with a Green Party voter. I suggested that their cause might be well-served by withdrawing Howie Hawkins and instead endorsing Biden. The alternative is to run a spoiler campaign (in appearance or reality).

The result would be, in essence, a fusion candidacy. This would signal willingness to govern — and contest office, which would need to happen in our presidential system — in coalition with Democrats. In turn, the Greens might secure support for the sorts of reforms they are likely to want, e.g., a larger US House, instant runoff voting, you name it. And even if those reforms were not forthcoming, Greens at least would have signaled that they are open to coalition — a fancy way of saying “playing nice.”

The response was as you might expect. The only way that Democrats will come to back reform is by facing threats from spoilers.

The rest of this post focuses on my interlocutor’s theory of reform. As far as Democrats go, some are indeed open to the idea of coalition.

Below is a list of the top ten closet states in the 2016 presidential election, via US News, verbatim. I have added asterisks to those states with divided government, i.e., where Republicans control enough of government to block instant runoff voting. The data on party control are from Ballotpedia.

My post assumes that Republicans are unanimous in their opposition to IRV, based on expectations about the 2020 election. Maybe true; maybe not.

Further, I am not saying that IRV even would matter here. All chatter I’ve seen so far suggests less third-party voting this year than we saw in 2016.

A fuller analysis might cover all 50 states, but this is a good start. The smallest margin in this list is 0.3 percentage points (Michigan). The largest margin is 3.9 points (Arizona). Just for argument, let’s say my friend’s theory of reform does not operate at larger victory margins.

Republicans control enough government to block reform in 8 of these 10 states. There are just two Democratic trifectas. One is in Maine, which will use instant runoff this November. The other is in Nevada. I don’t know what is happening in state government there, but Nevadans for Election Reform did try for a ballot measure.

The list

1. Michigan 0.3 percent*

Trump 47.6 percent, Clinton 47.3 percent

Difference: 13,080 votes

2. New Hampshire 0.4 percent*

Clinton 47.6 percent, Trump 47.2 percent

Difference: 2,701 votes

3. Wisconsin 1 percent*

Trump 47.9 percent, Clinton 46.9 percent

Difference: 27,257 votes

4. Pennsylvania 1.2 percent*

Trump 48.8 percent, Clinton 47.6 percent

Difference: 68,236 votes (99 percent reporting)

5. Florida 1.2 percent (R trifecta)

Trump 49 percent, Clinton 47.8 percent

Difference: 114,455 votes

6. Minnesota 1.5 percent*

Clinton 46.4 percent, Trump 44.9 percent

Difference: 44,470 votes

7. Nevada 2.4 percent (D trifecta)

Clinton 47.9 percent, Trump 45.5 percent

Difference: 26,434 votes

8. Maine 2.7 percent (D trifecta)

Clinton 47.9 percent, Trump 45.2 percent

Difference: 19,995 votes

9. North Carolina 3.8 percent*

Trump 49.9 percent, Clinton 46.1 percent

Difference: 177,009 votes

10. Arizona 3.9 percent (R trifecta)

Trump 49.3 percent, Clinton 45.4 percent

Difference: 91,682 votes

Thoughts on Massachusetts Question 2

This fall, Massachusetts voters will decide on preferential (aka ranked choice) voting. Political science is polarizing on the larger issue, although there is an impressive and diverse list of scholarly endorsers, at least in this case. Here are some observations on the Massachusetts measure.

First, let’s be precise about what’s on the ballot. RCV will apply to “all state and federal elections in Massachusetts, both primary and general elections,” but not presidential elections (per the Yes on 2 website).

The measure would not affect the composition of primary electorates. In other words, it would not let Republicans influence Democratic nominations, nor vice-versa, any more than the current rules. Under those rules, according to the group Open Primaries, unaffiliated voters already may vote in the primary of either party. Registered Republicans and Democrats, however, must vote in their respective parties’ primaries (or not at all). RCV in Massachusetts would not change this rules constellation.

Other recent RCV proposals would change primary electorates. These proposals incorporate California-style “top two,” better understood as a nonpartisan two-round system. Such systems do not let a party advance a single candidate (or slate) to the decisive election. My understanding of “top two” is that it has been hard on Democratic Party establishments, and organized labor in particular. One can imagine those fortunes changing, but, for now, this seems to be the big effect.

Also, it is crucial to understand the reform coalition itself. In Massachusetts, as far as we can tell, it is Libertarians, “libertarians,” and a good chunk of the Democratic Party establishment. The measure therefore reflects a broader, ongoing realignment in American politics. I suspect these groups would coordinate anyway, in the absence of a ranked ballot, given the current state of the Republican Party brand.

One common argument in reform circles is that RCV stimulates candidate entry, and victory, by women and people of color. The fact that it worked out this way in the California Bay Area may have more to do with the reform coalition than the reform itself. One of my current research projects is to see whether the reform itself plausibly has this effect. My priors really are not sharp. On the one hand, the Alternative Vote is a very modest reform. Far more important are district magnitude and the size of an assembly. On the other hand, at least recently, women have tended to do well in both single-seat RCV and runoff systems. The runoff evidence is from Cynthia McClintock and Joseph Cerrone, who presented yesterday in my APSA panel. Their evidence comes from Latin America and shows that, in recent years, women have done better under runoffs than in single-round systems. The RCV evidence is from Represent Women (and does not cover non-RCV cases). Finally, some have argued that MA needs RCV because its primaries already are crowded. Maybe that says something about the effect of reform itself.

It also is worth noting that, historically, in foreign countries, single-seat RCV has been used to stop the economic left from winning. British Columbia in the 1950s and Australia in the 1910s are glaringly obvious cases of this. Again, however, this may have more to do with reform coalitions than the substance of reform itself. A similar reform (runoffs) once was used to insulate a liberal-labor coalition. Many left-labor-type groups formally support the MA measure: an SEIU local, Our Revolution, etc.

Overall, the Massachusetts package feels pretty “safe.” If anything, it seems like it will let people do what they plan to do anyway.