[EM] Why I think IRV isn't a serious alternative 2

James Gilmour jgilmour at globalnet.co.uk
Sun Dec 28 16:51:02 PST 2008

James Gilmour had written:
> > This not about MY view.  The background to this recent discussion was 
> > about the "political" acceptability of a weak Condorcet winner
> > to ordinary electors.  I said I thought a strong
> > third-place Condorcet winner would be
> > "politically" acceptable.  But I had, and
> > still have, real doubts about the "political"
> > acceptability to ordinary electors (at least in the UK) of a
> > weak Condorcet winner.  I
> > am also concerned about the political consequences of a
> > weak Condorcet winner being elected to a powerful public
> > office.  My fear is
> > that the weak winner will be made into a weak and
> > ineffectual office-holder by the forces ranged against him
> > or her from all sides,
> > and because the office-holder was a weak winner, he or she
> > will not have real support from the electors, despite being
> > a true Condorcet winner.

Aaron Armitage > Sent: Saturday, December 27, 2008 6:56 PM 
> I don't think this is a deliberate evasion, but it seems you're avoiding
> the burden of justifying your argument by citing the very people you've
> persuaded. Actually, I see IRV promoters in general do this: they'll use
> the "weak Condorcet winner" as their primary objection to Condorcet, and
> when pressed for justification, will fall back on whatever amount of time
> they've spent talking to people, all of whom apparently make the same
> objection to Condorcet. But these are people whose only exposure to voting
> theory is what you're telling them. The fact that you consider it a
> serious problem and the fact that you consider the LNHs important can't
> help but color your presentation, whether you're trying to be 
> biased or not.

Aaron, you do me a disservice, but I don't think that was intentional  -  I have perhaps not explained the whole context.  I have
never persuaded (or tried to persuade) anyone in the UK about the use of IRV or any other single-winner voting system, because in
Scotland we don't have any single-office public elections (thank goodness).  All my campaigning has been to get STV-PR used instead
of (mainly) FPTP/SMD and more recently instead of MMP.  My interpretation (and it is my interpretation) of UK electors' likely
reaction to different voting systems is based on a mixture of comments made in face-to-face meetings with ordinary electors, party
activists and elected politicians; daily reading of the political press and readers' letters and blogs; comments made by political
parties (which have obvious vested interested, both pro- and anti-reform); comments made by other political pressure groups, from
trade unions, commerce, media moguls and "big money", all of whom have vested interests which they try to make less obvious, mostly
anti-reform.  And from time to time there have been public opinion polls in which relevant questions have been asked, usually
without a great deal of context and without any discussion.

You can of course dismiss my interpretation of that accumulated evidence, especially as that evidence is of the "grey" or "soft"
variety and cannot be subject to the normal rigorous scrutiny which one would apply to "hard" evidence.  You can also dismiss the
evidence as being obtained from a community that for many decades has been exposed to nothing but (bad) plurality voting systems and
has accepted the political outcomes without any serious protest.  (All the recent reforms of voting systems in the UK, except for a
few mayoral elections in England, have been to introduce PR - in three varieties! - but that has happened only in the last decade.)

So that "plurality mindset" (for the sake of having a shorthand term) is the reality we have to confront when we campaign for
practical voting reform.  I don't need any persuading about the potential merit of a Condorcet winner over an IRV winner when they
are not the same (though there are some unresolved technical issues about breaking Condorcet cycles).  I have said I think I could
sell Condorcet to our "plurality minded" electors when the likely outcome would be a strong third-placed Condorcet winner, and see
off the vested interests that opposed reform.  But if the likely outcome was a weak Condorcet winner, I am quite convinced that the
forces of reaction would have no problem in winning the public and political debate, and the reform would never happen  - or if it
had happened, it would be reversed.

We do not have in the UK a really powerful, high profile political office to which the incumbent is directly elected.  But just
suppose for a moment that we had direct elections for the Prime Minister, but within our parliamentary system.  The public opinion
polls show support for the three main parties has fluctuated quite a bit during the past year, but one recent set of figures was
Conservatives 47%, Labour 41%, Liberal Democrats 12% (after removing the "Don't knows").  Now suppose these were the voting figures
in a direct election for Prime Minister.  The Liberal Democrat would be the second choice of most Conservatives and most Labour
voters; the Liberal Democrats' second choice would mainly be Labour with some Conservative.

The Liberal Democrat would be the Condorcet winner, but the political consequences, both in Parliament and in the country would be
horrific  -  given the reality of our politics.  You can blame that on the "plurality mindset" of our electors and of all the other
political stakeholders if you like, but that is not going to change the political reality.  Now that is the reason why I see
problems with a weak Condorcet winner.  And because such an outcome is a likely outcome, that is why I see problems with
recommending Condorcet voting for such single-office elections.

It must be for others to judge the extent to which any of this is interpretation is relevant to their own countries, but from what I
read about politics in countries that were cursed with the British legacy of FPTP/SMD voting systems, I fear they too would likely
face similar problems with a weak Condorcet winner.


> IRV is equally vulnerable. Fear of change and a misunderstanding of
> one-person-one-vote work against us both (although I don't know if
> one-person-one-vote is treated as a quasi-Constitutional 
> principle in the UK).

I think there are three issues here.  First, any reform that breaks or reduces the power of the current vested interests will be
opposed, but that opposition can be overcome.  Second, one-person-one-vote is not written into our constitution (we don't have
one!), but it is the assumed basis for all our many voting systems, even for the pernicious multi-winner FPTP "block vote".  Third,
IRV has a "political" weakness that is the obverse of the weak Condorcet winner  -  IRV fails to recognise and elect the strong
third-placed Condorcet winner.  This defect in IRV is recognised in the UK  -  the elimination of the candidate "who is everyone's
second choice".  But that failure of IRV is accepted political by our electors and our political community, I suspect because it
fits with the "plurality mindset" and it protects them from the weak Condorcet winner.  I have not heard it expressed in these terms
in the UK, but that should be no surprise as Condorcet voting does not feature at all in any public debate about voting reform in
the UK.


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