CONSENSUS VOTING

A Typical Ranked Choice Ballot

Its forthright simplicity, directness and familiarity make it much more likely to gain voter acceptance by voters than other more complex forms of ranked choice voting.  You can think of it as plurality voting on steroids.  The ballot is no different than the one we are all used to and if you choose you can simply put an “X” or the numeral “1” in the box next to your top pick.  But you may also rank your second and consecutive choices on the ballot, as few or as many as you like.  This is a “ranked choice ballot.”  Either way, if your top pick gets a majority of first place votes he or she is the winner. 

But a simple plurality doesn’t cut it. 

What’s wrong with selecting a plurality winner?  Well I’m virtually in the process of writing a book on this topic called “Finding Our True Political Center”, but I will give you one example here.  We’ve all seen polling on head-to-head matchups.  If I were to win head-to-head matchups against every one of my opponents, it makes sense that I should win the plurality vote as well.  So it may surprise you to learn that in a polarized race there is a good chance that I will lose to a polarizing opponent.  But wait for it; that same polarizing opponent may actually be the plurality winner even if he loses head-to-head matchups against every one of his opponents.   In voting theory this is known as a Condorcet loser. 

When no one gets a majority of first place votes with consensus voting we add the second place votes to the total to see if some majority of voters rank any candidates in either first or second place.  If so the candidate with the most votes wins (note as many as three candidates can meet this requirement).  If none do, we simply add additional tiers until a winner is named.               

As a moderate you have liked both Klobuchar and Buttigieg for the 2020 Democratic nominee. Splitting the moderate vote you hoped one would drop out soon so the other can pick up their supporters and gain more delegates in March.  This conundrum called the “spoiler effect” is a common problem with plurality voting.  Let’s see how consensus voting eliminates this spoiler effect.

For simplicity let’s make our hypothetical election a nation-wide consensus election for the Democratic nominee. Since we expect no single candidate to have a majority of first place votes we know a consensus winner cannot be named before the second place votes get added.  By ranking one of our favorites first and the other second you effectively cast a full vote for each.  The theory is you give them each the number of votes they would have received from you had the other not been in the race.  This argument actually bears out pretty well in a diverse field of voters but I will leave the proof to the mathematicians.

The term “ranked choice voting” refers to any of the many forms of voting that allow ranking of choices on a ranked choice ballot.  The most popular of these, “Instant run-off voting” is often mistakenly called ranked choice voting, seemingly to the exclusion of a host of other prime candidates.  I submit it is the most popular because it’s the first, not because it’s the best. 

Many ranked choice forms reduce the field one candidate at a time then repeat the algorithm on the remaining field in “elimination rounds.”  The “instant run-off” eliminates the candidate with the fewest first place votes.  The “Coombs method” or the “bad apple sort” eliminates the candidate with the most last place votes.  No matter how good these more complicated algorithms are, the fact that voters are confused by and skeptical of elimination rounds is problematic.  Consensus voting takes a straight-forward approach to selecting one winner rather than eliminating a series of losers.

My personal mission has been to find a more inclusive algorithm that doesn’t scare voters away.

Inclusivity is a measure of how well the voting method weighs the wishes of all factions (including such as racial, ethnic and religious groups in addition to party affiliation) in proportion to their numbers to find the right balance. 

The instant run-off is neither inclusive nor user friendly. The Coombs method is quite inclusive but perhaps even more difficult for voters to follow.  Consensus voting is inclusive, intuitive and familiar.  This leaves us a couple of questions, why do we want an inclusive method and how does consensus voting accomplish this? 

The “Why” takes us back to polarized elections and divisive campaigns. 

A polarizing candidate is one who attracts a lot of first place votes and a lot of last place vote with few in the middle.

Of course this is by design because the objective in a plurality race is to “be the first choice of a lot of voters” so it really doesn’t matter what the rest of the voters think.  His Amazon rating might be 3-stars, because that’s what he gets with a lot of ones and a lot of fives.  In other words we elect a lot of average candidates who are also divisive politicians.  Getting all 4-star ratings gets you squat in a plurality race.  A lone polarizing candidate is possible but more often they come in (polar opposite) pairs. So we need an algorithm that gives weight to those second and third choices.

The best way to understand the “How” is to see it in action especially in a polarized race.  Consider a three-way race between a liberal, a conservative and a moderate.  Both of the extremists have lots of firsts and lots of lasts and certainly one of these will win a plurality race.  The moderate dominates the center but will have the fewest first place votes making him the first-man-out in an instant run-off race.  One of the two more divisive candidates will win promising four more years of divisive and obstructionist government.

If no candidate receives a majority in a consensus race we add in the second place votes making the moderate a certain winner with nearly 100% of the (first or second place) votes.  This introduces a new problem.  What if the guy in middle is a doofus?  He wouldn’t be the first doofus we’ve elected.  But would we really elect a doofus in this situation?  The answer is yes. In a polarized race defeating the opponent is as important, sometimes even more important than electing the preferred candidate so yes, we will always place him last even if it means electing a doofus.

But this is a problem that really isn’t a problem.  Don’t get me wrong; because of this apparent problem it took me a while to find this very simple algorithm and no doubt this is the reason no one has endorsed or promoted it before.  What we need to understand is plurality voting and the instant run-off open the outer lanes for divisive candidates while consensus voting closes these lanes an opens the center lanes for moderate candidates.  With the center lanes wide open many qualified moderates would compete for these lanes and there are lots of qualified moderates.

We are not trying the change the behavior of voters because we can’t.  But we can change the behavior and the incentives for qualified candidates to become unifiers rather than dividers.