The hegemony of an empty phrase

I was somewhat surprised to see The Harvard Crimson describe the Cambridge (MA) electoral system as follows:

Cambridge residents will head to the polls Nov. 2 to elect nine city councilors through a ranked choice voting system. Nineteen candidates, including eight incumbents and 11 challengers, are vying for one of the nine at-large seats.

Contrast that with longstanding use of “proportional representation,” such as in this piece from 1993.

Even the City of Cambridge describes the system as “proportional representation.” Consider:

Plan E is a City Manager form of government with nine Councillors and six School Committee members elected at large by Proportional Representation (PR) for a two year term. After members of the Council take the oath of office in January, they elect one of the nine to serve as Mayor.

This confirms my suspicion that reformers have developed a peculiar belief: that they cannot ‘win’ without sowing confusion about the meaning of ‘ranked choice voting.’ And that is why I wrote this article.

Interesting words from Hermens

What follows is from a conference paper given in 1985, at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (New Orleans). Hermens was wrong about a lot. An example is his insistence on the phrase “majority voting,” which he used to describe anything other than “PR” (which also does not convey much information). On other things, he seems to have been right.

The paper was written in a period of re-polarization. The advice to embrace “majority voting” should be viewed with that development in mind.


Dr. Hallett, who has carried the American banner for P.R. for so many years, recently published an essay entitled “Proportional Representation with the Single Transferable Vote: A Basic Requirement for Legislative Elections.” He considers P.R. a logical implication of the “one-man one-vote” rule and has expressed hope that the Supreme Court will declare it a requirement of the Constitution. This point will apparently be argued before the Court in the case of Davis vs. Bandemer, which centers on gerrymandering, but has caused proponents of P.R. to state that no redistricting under majority voting will do; it has to be P.R. all the way, and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) at that.

In an examination of the issues involved it might be useful to recall what Walter Lippmann wrote two generations ago: “For the most part, we do not first see and then define; we define first and then see.” This statement is more relevant now than it was when originally made, and nowhere more so than in a discussion of electoral systems. In the case of P.R. all essential problems arise from the fact that its proponents first use a concept of representation which takes much for granted of which they ought to prove, and then sees everything in light of that concept. They are thereby depriving themselves of a chance to observe any of the drawbacks which result from the application of P.R. while ignoring the positive aspects of what majority voting contributes to the democratic process.

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.