March 12th, 2009

Voting Paradoxes and Perverse Outcomes: Political Scientist Tony Gierzynski Lays Out A Case Against Instant Runoff Voting

by Philip Baruth

With the Burlington run-off now concluded, and with a high accuracy rate now established in the counting, questions linger about IRV itself. No one in the state has put together a more compelling data set than Political Scientist Tony Gierzynski. Tony’s was the only group to conduct exit polling in 2006; this time out, he’s brought forward far less reassuring data, and it seemed best to let him present it himself. As regular readers know, I support IRV. But Tony’s arguments give me real pause. — PB

Gunning for IRV
by Anthony Gierzynski

Let’s get right into it: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is not good. It is not good because it suffers from three fundamental problems: it discriminates against classes of voters by adding complexity the ballot; it has a very real potential to produce perverse outcomes or voting paradoxes that are not majoritarian; and it fails to address the real problem that arises when multiple parties compete in a two-party system.

The Problems with Adding Complexity to the Ballot

One of the ways that the US elections are unique when compared to other democratic systems is the length and complexity of our ballots. Unlike most other democracies, we ask voters to cast votes on a multitude of offices from Presidency down to Justice of the Peace and to decide a multitude of ballot questions.

Another way US elections are unique is in our pathetically low level of voter turnout. The two are related.

The complexity of US elections increases the costs of participating (having to gather more information to make more decisions) while making it more difficult for voters to discern the connection between any one vote they cast and what government does, which ultimately results in fewer people voting (particularly those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale).

If anyone has any doubt that the complexity of an election ballot can disenfranchise voters, particularly more vulnerable classes of voters, one need only to remember Florida 2000.

Complex ballot designs—including butterfly ballots and ballots that listed candidates on more than one page—confused tens of thousands of voters, who spoiled their ballots by voting for more than one candidate. Spoiled ballots included a disproportionate number on which Al Gore was selected, costing him the election.

Spoiled ballots were more likely to occur on the more complex ballots. And, those disenfranchised by these complex ballots tended to poorer, less educated, minority, and elderly voters.

As I said above, the fact is the US has the longest and most complex ballots in the democratic world. If states in the US were to adopt IRV for all (or even some) of their elections, the situation would be made worse.

Instead of simply choosing the preferred candidate for president, senator, representative, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, etc., they would be asked to rank each candidate which results in a doubling, tripling or even quadrupling of the nature of the task and the cognitive costs of voting.

The effect of adding such complexity to the ballot is not neutral or random; it is more likely to confuse those same groups of disadvantaged voters confused by the Florida ballots. This fact was demonstrated by exit polls of both Burlington voters and San Francisco voters who have also used IRV.

Even when used in a single contest, IRV caused greater confusion among those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. In other words, IRV discriminates.

Proponents of IRV like to frame this argument by countering that what critics of IRV are saying is that voters are stupid. We are saying no such thing.

These analyses are not impugning the intelligence of the American voter, just recognizing the limits to what a political system can ask of its citizens and recognizing that adding complexity to the ballot will disproportionately harm some groups of people more than others.

In a democracy that values political participation and political equality such side-effects should not be dismissed lightly. Most people, unlike political activists, don’t have a lot of time to devote to politics, and for a democracy to work, they shouldn’t have to.

They should be able to focus on careers, raising children, involvement in their community, etc, and still be able to participate meaningfully in the electoral process. IRV makes this even more difficult than it already is by making the task more complex.

Voting Paradoxes or Perverse Outcomes

There exists a number of voting paradoxes or perverse outcomes that can occur with IRV, which are not associated with the typical single vote system. Such outcomes contradict the claim of IRV proponents that IRV creates majority winners.

Perverse outcomes include the possibility that one candidate could increases their vote only to lose the election. Another possibility is one in which every candidate can beat another candidate in a head-to-head matchup (such as candidate A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A…a paper-scissors-rock scenario) so that the election results fail to produce a true majority preference for any candidate.

Yet another is one in which a candidate can beat any other candidate by a majority in a head-to-head matchup and yet lose the election.

The probability of these perverse outcomes happening is not small (see Anthony Quas, “Anomalous Outcomes in Preferential Voting,” Stochastics and Dynamics Vol. 4, No. 1 (2004),pp. 95-105; William H. Riker and Peter C. Ordeshook, An Introduction to Positive Political Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973); and Peter Fishburn and Steven Brams, “Paradoxes of Preferential Voting: What Can Go Wrong with Sophisticated Voting Systems Designed to Remedy Problems of Simpler Systems,” Mathematics Magazine vol. 56, no. 4, September 1983: pp. 207-214).

Indeed, the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington witnessed one of these perverse outcomes, the “Thwarted Majorities Paradox.” A candidate who lost the election, Andy Montroll, was preferred over all other candidates in a head-to-head matchup.

That is, a majority of voters ranked Montroll (the Democratic Party candidate) ahead of the winner Bob Kiss (Progressive Party candidate) and ahead of the second place finisher, Kurt Wright (the Republican Party candidate), yet Montroll lost the election.

This is a concrete instance where proponents’ claim that IRV results in majority rule is clearly NOT the case. (Click here for numbers and calculations laid out in table form.)

Failing to Address the Real Problem

In essence what IRV is, is an attempt to use a technological fix to solve a political problem. Single seat contests (such as mayor, or US Senator, or governor, or president) create an incentive for those of similar political mind (that is ideology) to coalesce behind a single candidate in order to win a majority of votes and capture the seat—those that work together to build a majority before elections win, those that don’t lose.

This structural incentive is the main reason the US has a two party system. Forcing people of like mind to work together to win elections then creates the governing majorities that have been approved by the people and that can then go about the work of implementing the will of the people.

When a group with a (mostly) shared ideology—such as the case of the Progressive Party and the Democratic Party in Vermont—becomes fragmented in this type of system, with each putting forward their own candidates, the problem that arises is a political problem (politics defined here simply as the means by which conflicts are resolved in order to determine who controls the government).

In such cases what IRV does is it allows the factions to ignore the political problem by using a technological fix as opposed to resolving their differences through the necessary negotiations that characterize politics.

In other words, IRV allows such factions to avoid working together (as they should because they want mostly the same thing). When such factions fail to work together, they ultimately fail to accomplish the reason such organizations exist, which is not just to continue existing: it is to win control of government in order to make people’s lives better in a manner consistent with their political values.

UVM Professor Anthony Gierzynski, PhD, conducted an exit poll study of IRV in the 2006 Burlington Mayoral race with his students, is author of two books, a series of articles and book chapters on elections, and is currently completing work on a book on electoral reform with the working title, Prescriptions for a Healthier Democracy: Our Dying Elections and what We Can Do to Save Them.