After reading my most recent article, How Our Voting Method Brings Out Our Worst, my son, Ian said, “Dad, they’re never going to change the voting method.”

He may be right, but if there was ever “a right time to do it” that time is now.  If there was ever a time when the public is ready for change that time is now.  In fact with the support of national organizations like FairVote, local governments across the country are trying out different voting methods in hopes of getting fairer elections. But local governments generally do not face the extreme polarization we see in national elections. National elections are what we need to fix and it’s already happening.

A Congressional House race in Maine was just resolved using a form of ranked choice voting called the “instant run-off” and the plurality winner didn’t win…

With ranked choice voting when your first pick is eliminated your vote switches to your second and so on.  Say you have a race with two liberal candidates and one conservative; the liberal voters will likely split their vote making the conservative the plurality winner.  The instant run-off eliminates the lowest ranking liberal first and those voters’ votes get reassigned to their second choices.  If enough of these go to the other liberal he may overtake the conservative as happened in the Maine vote.  Ranked choice voting also lets you vote for an underdog without fearing your vote will be wasted when he’s eliminated.

My only objection to the instant run-off algorithm is, like the plurality method, still a very exclusive (winner take all) voting method.

A few months back I collaborated with Professor Brian Zurowski of Davidson College on a study of properties of various voting methods.  We found that “fairness” (basically a level playing field), while useful when thinking about the voting process was not a very good standard to evaluate voting methods.  Yet virtually all the documentation on voting theory focuses on “fairness.”

We found the most useful property to consider was inclusivity (a measure of how well the voting method weighs the wishes of all factions (including such as racial, ethnic and religious groups) in proportion to their numbers to find the right balance).  What makes inclusive voting so important is how its sorting algorithm eliminates fringe or extremist candidates before sorting through the moderates to find the right balance.  This means successful candidates will be those who reach out to all sides, avoid divisive language and promise flexibility in working with others.  This isn’t just speculation on our part; it’s a proven mathematical certainty.  As explained in my last post, How Our Voting Method Brings Out Our Worst, divisive candidates will be the first out.

The good news is “polarization isn’t entirely our fault” it’s not so much a flaw of human nature as it is a flaw of our voting method that puts us at each other’s throats when it comes to politics.

We looked for a strong inclusive voting method.  The “bad apple sort” developed by an American, Clyde Coombs fits the bill.  It’s like throwing out the worst apple in a basket one at a time until only the prize apple remains.  The algorithm “successively eliminates the candidate with the most last place votes” compared with the instant run-off which “successively eliminates the candidate with the fewest first place votes.”

These may sound similar until you see how the bad apple sort changes campaign strategies.  The campaign’s goal is now to portray your candidate as “the least hated candidate” rather than “the most liked candidate.”

This process of eliminating the most divisive (most hated) candidates will also leave fewer voters out in the cold to become organized dissidents or hate groups.

There will be those who will object to any change in the voting method, but it’s harder to object to having a choice of voting methods.  To this end I will introduce two new concepts, the universal ballot and “pods.”

The universal ballot is identical to any standard plurality ballot where you put an “X” in the block by the candidate of your choice or the ranked choice ballot where you rank your choices by putting numbers in a block next to each name.  On the universal ballot you can use any number (1 to 99); the algorithm will recognize the highest number as your last place vote in each round.  It will also recognize either an “X” or a “1” to mean the number one.

How it works

Blocks left blank on the ballot including any write-in candidates will be assigned a ranking score of 100.  So if you write a number or an “X” on the ballot next to your favorite leaving all other choices blank, then all other candidates are ranked “dead last” all with a score of 100.  This group of candidates (those omitted from your ballot) comprises the “residual pod.”  Your ballot registers a last place vote for each of these candidates in every round until they are eliminated. This is both the mathematical equivalent and the ballot equivalent to a plurality vote.

POD: from the expression, “Like peas in a pod” meaning similar.

Imagine that without your ballot there would a tie for last place in the election.  Adding your ballot would then save your candidate to survive the round if he was involved in the tie.  If not your ballot has no effect simply adding one last place vote to all other candidates.  Thus a voter can cast a plurality vote if he chooses, but of course he has no second choice in case his favorite is eliminated. Chances are a discerning voter would at least pick a second choice.

A voter may decide to rank his top three candidates and leave the rest in the residual pod, but he might also consider combining his top three into an “approval pod.”  This is the equivalent of another popular voting method called approval voting.  You can do this by ranking them all with a “1” (or all with the lowest number).  In the extreme this would have allowed the “Never Trumpers” to put everyone else into an approval pod, effectively saying, “anyone but Trump.” Placing candidates in a pod means “giving up your ability to influence or pick between candidates in the pod” effectively passing that decision to hopefully more informed voters.  It is more likely you would use pods with lower ranked candidates where you don’t know the difference or where it makes little difference.

In summary

The universal ballot offers voters a choice of three of the most popular voting methods and more, all tallied the same way.  The instructions for completing the ballot are somewhat more complex, but the process of ranking and/or equating choices seems fairly instinctive.  In fact the array of choices makes it difficult to complete a ballot improperly.  More choices also means voters can express more precisely what they want (with seven candidates on a plurality ballot the voter has seven choices compared with the over 800,000 ways to complete a universal ballot for the same election).  More choices also means “more candidates in the general election though not necessarily more political parties.  Primaries become rather pointless, because political parties would be wise to send all their viable candidates to the general election in case their top choice is unelectable in the general.

The universal ballot finds the compromise candidate, not a compromise between two parties but a compromise between millions of voters.  It would likely mark the beginning of the end for our divisive two-party system paving the way for a new era of civility in politics.