Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Voting Systems at MSNBC

This is such a fun little exercise, and a neat way to look at some of the alternative voting systems being tossed around these days... it's called Mockracy and it's on MSNBC.

Essentially, they're looking at cumulative voting, proportional voting and party-line voting systems and giving people a chance to try them out. It starts with the user creating an avatar: you pick a race (blue, purple, yellow, green or orange; also a gender, male/female, and a place to live. Finally, the user picks a political party from a list of twelve, ranging from "lower taxes" to "lower gas prices." Then, the avatar goes into three practice voting booths to try three different ways of voting.

Two political scientists, Rob Richie and Mark Rush, explain the pros-and cons of each system, but it's the actual voting that shows the consequences of the changes. With cumulative voting, voters cast 5 votes, each counting the same. I cast three votes for the low-gas-prices candidate, and one each for "gay rights," "good schools" and "foreign aid for poor countries." The brilliance of the demonstrator is that it displays actual voting results. I didn't look at racial issues, but was surprised to find that no blue people (like me) were elected! How did that happen? We make up 30% of the voting public, but we're not on the council? Still, this was the system I liked the best.

The second plan was proportional voting, also known as "instant run-off." Voters rank their choices, first through fifth. If their first choice isn't elected, their votes go on to the second choice. Candidates who don't have a clear majority at first can run for the second-place votes, and could even get elected.

The third demonstration is for a party-line system. I cast my one vote for a slate of five candidates from the "bring down gas prices" and found that I had been completely shut out of the process. "Defend America" and "Good schools" dominated the council under this election. Urban dwellers were marginalized while the suburban candidates took over the council. One council member was blue, but as the experts pointed out, this was the choice of the party, not me. The party system set the slate. This is a popular system around the world, where party issues are more important than individuals.

Anchorage, Alaska, rejected a switch to an instant run-off system a few years ago. So-called "third parties" brought the proposal, backed by the majority Republican party. It would have had the effect of drawing power away from the second party (the Democrats) and handing it to the two parties on the farther right and left, Alaskan Independence and Green. So, Democrats would be marginalized, Republicans would get support from the AIP, and the far-left Greens would be dismissed as representing too little of the public. Anchorage voters decided they liked a direct election better.

Of these three options, I like the cumulative voting best. It let me give some power to the outside issues that I cared about, but also let me weight my vote for the candidate I liked best. Still, all three of these eliminate geographical districts, so I don't have an individual representative and they also allow for candidates who don't have the support of the majority to gain significant power. I also worry that these three systems would encourage fragmentation of candidates along ideological lines. For example, while I support lower gas prices, I would have preferred to find a candidate who was, say, 70% with me on gas prices and at least 50% with me on schools, foreign aid and minority rights. Our current system forces every candidate to address every issue and take a stand on each one. I can weight which is more important: pro-choice, but anti-tax? Anti-gay but pro-development? It's up to me to decide which of these are the most important, and up to the candidates to live up to their promises.


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