[EM] IRV, the turkey problem, and everything

Alex Small asmall at physics.ucsb.edu
Sun Jul 6 11:53:05 PDT 2003

It seems to me that much of the discussion over "which method elects the
best/worst/most mediocre candidate?" misses a larger problem:

In a system founded on the premise that the citizens control the
government, the goal should be to present the voters with a broad range of
choices in each election.  OK, not so many that you get a 4-page ballot
like San Francisco had last year (they voted on what type of coffee to
allow, if I'm not mistaken), but enough so that it isn't just "same old
vs. same old, with those other kooks that have no chance (aka Third

We know that plurality nurtures a two-party system.  Although there are
variations within the parties (the Dems are home to Joe Lieberman and
Dennis Kucinich, while the GOP is home to John Ashcroft and Lincoln
Chaffee), and although some argue that the two parties are
indistinguishable on issues that matter (a subject to debate elsewhere)
one thing is clear:

In any given plurality election, it is almost certain that there are only
two viable candidates, and while the viable candidates may differ from
place to place, they are almost always from the same two parties, and each
party strives to put aside differences and form a united front in the
various legislative bodies (national, state, and local).

Now, whether you worry about turkeys, Hitler-Stalin-Washington polarized
scenarios, lukewarm Al Gore bland inoffensive candidates, or whatever, I
hope we all agree that it would be better to have more options competing
in the marketplace of ideas.  How to take steps toward this?

We know that proportional representation fosters multi-party systems. 
However, it is likely that single-winner election reform will precede the
implementation of proportional representation.  Supporters of each method
say "Ours is the best for increasing competition in the marketplace of
ideas."  Let's evaluate them:

IRV-  IRV has failed to achieve significant multi-party competition in
Australia.  There's been some progress, but PR has done a much better job.
 I think it is reasonable to ask whether other methods can do better,
because IRV has proven to be a modest improvement but nothing to crow

Approval-  Approval is largely untested in the real world.  At best, it
will lead us to a Utopia of multi-party competition.  More likely, it will
lead to a moderate level of competition, hopefully a little better than
what IRV has given Australia.  At worst, we'll still have a duopoly, sans
spoilers (in the sense of people with 2% support tipping elections one way
or the other).  Moreover, Approval is cheaper than IRV in terms of voting
equipment.  Approval is therefore worth trying in public elections,
preferably partisan elections and primaries rather than non-partisan local

Condorcet-  Condorcet is largely untested in the real world.  The
prospects are probably the same as Approval, but Condorcet is more
expensive and complicated.  Condorcet should therefore not be seriously
considered for public elections right now.

Borda-  Don't even go there ;)

So, if your goal is competition rather than "filtering out the
turkeys/polarizers/etc." then the basic question is "Can we do better than
IRV?"  Approval is an excellent method for examining that question, and
the question is worth asking in light of IRV's under-performance in
regards to competition.  It could be that PR is the only way to really get
multi-party competition going, but that's another topic.

Anyway, just my $0.02 worth.


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