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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 6/13/18

A First Experience with Ranked Voting

By       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   10 comments, 2 series
Follow Me on Twitter     Message Paul Cohen

The state of Maine had its first election using ranked voting yesterday, June 12 and I thought there might be some interest in a report of my first-hand experience with voting this way.

I did prepare for the primary by going on-line to find out who all the candidates would be and to try to learn what I could about each of them. It turned out that the only contested races I would be voting on were for the Governor and for a Congressional Representative. Over several days I tried to uncover as much information as I could about the three candidates to be my district's Democratic nominee and the seven candidate to be the Democratic nominee for Governor. Gradually I built up a pecking order for each race and I wrote my rankings on a slip of paper to take to the polls with me because I was quite certain I could not recall the order from memory.

I should report that it takes considerably more time and effort to build up that ranking than to simply choose one favorite, but the time seems well spent even though the ranking seemed, in many instances, pretty arbitrary. The experience illustrated to me how little information was readily available to help with the preparation, and I have little doubt that the rankings I came up with would be different if I had some good way to learn more about the candidates.

On election day, I showed up at the polls and found the parking lot nearly filled. Inside, there was a line of six or seven people waiting for their ballots; this was the first time I'd seen that long a line since moving to Maine more than a dozen years ago. Once I received my ballot there was another first for me and that was that all of the voting booths were occupied and people in them were staying there for quite a while, no doubt trying to understand the ballot and figure out how to rank the candidates. But I can't really complain; I was in the booth filling out my form within fifteen minutes -- longer than I'd ever experienced before in Maine but certainly not a serious wait. But the congestion had clearly increased compared to past elections and in fact I had to stand around for another 20 minutes or so while my wife finished voting. Probably the experience would be more painful if I did not vote in a small rural town.

I started filling out my ballot and had completed the front side before I encountered the ranked-voting races but then I spoiled my ballot. That was the first time that had happened to me in more than fifty years of voting. The ranked-voting part of the ballot was a matrix where you were to fill in just one bubble in each column and I mistakenly searched to the wrong column in one instance and accidentally filled in a second bubble in that column. I suspect that if I had instead skipped over the intended column I would simply have adjusted my rankings to accommodate the mistake, but with two bubbles filled in the same column that was not an option.

I took the spoiled ballot to an election official and explained the problem to him. A short time later a woman showed up at my booth and took the spoiled ballot from me - so much for the privacy of my vote. After perhaps five minutes she returned with a blank ballot which she handed to me with the warning that if I spoiled that second ballot I would not be allowed to have another. Fortunately I was able to avoid that second mistake so in the end I did succeed in voting. On leaving, I mentioned to an election worker that I had spoiled my ballot and she told me that was actually pretty common this year. Apparently there were many voters who had experienced such problems. Later, I came to wonder how many people had not been allowed to vote as a consequence of making two mistakes and not just one.

Later that evening I looked on-line at the NYT election results which were starting to come in and with only a couple counties reporting partial results, NYT was showing those results, but with no explanation of what the numbers meant. The numbers seemed to be telling me something but I had to wonder how those partial results were tabulated and what they might actually mean. This was an IRV election after all and the counting cannot proceed far until after all the votes are collected. The NYT results probably ignore all but the first-choice indications on ballots. As for what that indicates, surely it is not an indication of who is winning. At best, it is a hint at who the first-chosen looser will be.

This morning, I took a look at the NYT results once more and with 71% of the vote tallied the rankings are as illustrated.

Preliminary Results of MaineDemocratic Primary 2018
Preliminary Results of MaineDemocratic Primary 2018
(Image by Paul Cohen)
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I added the last column of numbers to show the cumulative sum of the votes starting at the bottom.

Again I can only assume these numbers ignore all but the first-choice rankings. So what does this tell us about the ultimate outcome of the election? It surely is a good indication that Donna Dion will lose in the first round of counting. And even if a all of her votes go then to Dianne Russell, Dianne Russell now has only 3930 votes against Mark Dion's 4470 votes so she will very likely be eliminated in the second round of counting. But even with the improbable assumption that all of Dianne Russell's and Donna Dion's votes then go to Mark Dion, Mark Dion will have only 6843 votes against the 14299 votes for Mark Eves. So we can reasonably judge that Mark Dion will lose in the third round of counting.

But the use of IRV does stand a chance of affecting the fourth and later stages of counting. Again, this illustrates that these preliminary results do not really identify a probable winner, only the first few probable losers. It is quite possible that the final winner in this election will be someone different than would have been the case with plurality voting, but it will be one of the candidates that is now in the first few positions.

What if a simpler balanced voting system such as BAV had been used instead. An unprepared voter would still take more time than in the past, but with only two columns (as opposed to seven) the chance of error would be considerably reduced. I do suspect voting (and preparation for voting) would have taken less time, however. I cannot speak for others but in this particular election I probably would not have voted against any of the candidates, but I probably would not have voted in favor of several of them due to my lack of information. Finally, the preliminary results would be much more indicative of who would win; there would be only one round of counting and that could be done in the traditional way at each polling station with results passed upward for a county and then a statewide tally.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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