America’s first (modern) election with Approval Voting

On June 9, Fargo (ND) held its first election under Approval Voting. It was the first such exercise for a U.S. public election, unless we count a variant used in the early republic. Fargo’s precinct-level data are available here. What follows is an attempt to make sense of those data.

The election was nonpartisan, for two seats on the City Commission. There were seven declared candidates. Two (Strand and Grindberg) were incumbents. A third (Preston) had served in the 1990s. The winners were Strand and Preston. More information here.

According to this article, voters were asked to “Vote for ALL of the names you approve of.” This appears to conflict with what is said on the state website: “Vote For 2.” If I recall correctly from a Twitter conversation, the article has it right (not what’s implied on the state website).

One issue in approval voting is the extent to which voters “bullet vote” — or “truncate their approvals,” per the literature. I do not know this literature as well as I should. I do know, however, that this gets into larger issues about whether approval removes the need to vote strategically. We cannot tell, from the official data, how many voters “approved” of just one or two candidates. That is because the data do not include the total number of ballots cast, valid or otherwise.

A related issue is the extent to which approval voting avoids “center squeeze.” What does this mean? We start with a uni-dimensional model of politics. We then add in multi-candidate competition. (It may be that multi-candidate competition implies we need more than one dimension, but that is a separate issue.) As long as support for the centrist(s) is less than that for extremists, voters can be expected to desert centrists for extremists. This is said to hold for plurality, runoff, and instant runoff. With approval voting, however, there is no need to desert. Examples of this logic are here, here, and here.

Did the Fargo election reflect center squeeze? Part of the answer involves saying how much is too much. Approval advocates (see links above) tend offer the following standard: one of the extremists beats the centrist(s), even though most voters might have preferred the centrist(s). We do not have access to voters’ sincere preferences. But we can project the entire election onto a line — or more than one line, if that’s what comes from the data. I tried to do so using principal-components analysis. Observations are precincts, variables are candidates, and cell entries represent the percentage of votes (or “approvals”) for each candidate in that precinct. We are working with a 20×8 matrix (the last column of which is write-in).

Caveat: better ways to do this involve ballot-level data and formal models of voter decision. Nevertheless, the PCA with precincts may be instructive.

My first graph suggests a two-dimensional space (not one dimension, as in center-squeeze theory). Bars reflect the shares of overall variance in the data explained by each dimension.

My second graph helps think about what defines the space. The length of each arrow along each dimension suggests how much each candidate (named at the end of each arrow) is related to that dimension. The first dimension clearly captures competition between incumbents (Strand and Grindberg). It also captures Preston, the former commissioner, who appears very close to Strand. The second dimension looks like a sort of anti-establishment one, picking up votes for candidates without (detectable) history on the Commission. But the first dimension also picks up division among these other candidates.

My last graph arrays candidates from left to right, along the main dimension (using their factor loadings). This is not a statement about how substantively liberal or conservative anyone is. It is simply the first dimension that emerges from the data. Note that the two winners, Strand and Preston, anchor the “right” of this space. Based on this graph and the preceding one, it really looks like they campaigned as a team. I’d be interested to know if they did, and if so, what that looked like.

So, did the center get squeezed? By the winner metric, yes, at least given these data. By a voter-desertion metric, it is impossible to say. We don’t have access to preference orderings, nor to the data on “bullet voting.” And I am reluctant to talk about a “center” at all. What I see in these data are two opposing coalitions — one defined by Grindberg, then a second by Strand/Preston.

Reform measures in November 2018

Just a short note about Election Day referenda on alternative voting systems. I have been too busy to follow developments closely. The British Columbia vote on proportional representation is interesting to watch, however. All the old arguments are coming back out, which is what you could expect here, should we ever see another PR vote in a city or state with party competition. Anyway…

MEMPHIS (TN): Population 652,236. Voters are asked to repeal a never-implemented system of instant runoff (single-winner ranked-choice) voting. Actress Jennifer Lawrence has urged a “no” vote, working with Represent.US. (She and Represent.US also campaigned for RCV’s retention in Maine.) If implemented, RCV would replace a delayed-runoff system with majority threshold. Voters adopted RCV in 2008 (71 percent in favor). The local reform group, Save IRV Memphis, notes a large drop-off in some wards between the October first round and November runoff. The group says this drop-off is correlated with poverty.

FARGO (ND): Population 122,359. Voters will decide whether to switch to approval voting. Under this rule, voters check off any candidates of which they “approve,” and winners are those with the most votes. Elections to Fargo’s city commission are at large, by plurality, in a four-seat district two districts of two seats each. Backing the measure is the Center for Election Science, recently funded by the Open Philanthropy Project. A CES poll has support at 43 percent (with 36 percent saying “don’t know”). Prof. Mark Johnson of Minnesota State Community and Technical College weighs in. If passed, this would be the first adoption of approval voting for public elections in the US.

LANE COUNTY (OR): Population 369,519. Voters will decide whether to switch to STAR (“Score Then Automatic Runoff”) voting. With STAR, voters rate candidates on a 0-5 scale. Two candidates proceed to a runoff — those with the two highest sums of scores. In the runoff, each ballot counts toward the highest-scored candidate on it. (Ballots without most-preferred candidates do not continue to the runoff — they “exhaust.”) Lane County’s five-member Board of Commissioners is elected in a non-partisan, top-two system to five numbered posts. Backing the measure are STAR Voting for Lane County and the Equal Vote Coalition. STAR was invented in 2014. Organizers secured 16,000 signatures. Alan Zundel (formerly of UNLV) weighs in.

Sorry if I missed any. Let me know by the usual channels.

The ten-way race in MA-03

Strategic voting never goes away.

On Tuesday night and into Wednesday, a crowded Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ Third Congressional District blew up my Twitter feed. There were ten declared candidates, and 52 votes now separate the top two, each of which has 21.6 percent support. Because this is Massachusetts, the winner of the primary will win the general election (unless the party splits). That person will claim a congressional district with barely more than 18,000 votes.

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