Open Letter to League of Women Voters of Arizona

Dear League of Women Voters of Arizona. [ph. 480.966.9031; address 4423 N. 24th St, Suite 500 Phoenix, AZ 85016]

From Warren D. Smith (former president, Center for Election Science, and PhD in applied math, and voting methods researcher – but I speak for myself not the CES). 20 March 2013.

I would like you to support, not oppose, Arizona bill HB2518, which allows (but does not force) Arizona cities and towns, if they so choose, to switch to using approval voting in their open primaries, followed by a later general election contested by the top 2 finishers in the primary.

Approval voting has long been championed by political scientists and voting reformers. It is: each voter votes for any and all the candidates she approves. She is not restricted to "name one candidate then shut up" voting, also called the plurality system. The latter system, which the USA is unfortunately afflicted with, is well known by voting methods researchers to be one of the worst available voting systems. HB2518 is a groundbreaking opportunity for improvement and it is a tremendous mistake for the LWV to stand in the way of, rather than advocating, such an improvement. This is your chance. NYU politics professor S.J.Brams has spent his entire life trying to get statehouses to pass approval voting bills, with only partial successes so far where one statehouse but not the other passed it. Do not dismiss this opportunity lightly.

To learn more about approval voting and why it is used by a ton of professional organizations such as American Mathematical Society, the Public Choice Society, Institute of Management Science and Operations Research, Mathematical Association of America, American Statistical Association, Social Choice and Welfare Society, Econometric Society, etc, see and read book Approval Voting by S.Brams & P.Fishburn (Birkhauser, Boston 1983).

Those organizations are not doing this because they are idiots. They include, in fact, the top organizations in the area of voting methods research & publication and they've used these methods in many cases over 25 years in their own elections.

Even better might be score voting, which the current HB2518 unfortunately does not enact. You could play a beneficial role by urging that HB2518 also include score voting. See which is a website containing over 1000 subpages about voting methods. Score voting has been used for over 1000 years in some of the longest lasting governments in world history and for millions of years by honeybees (the world's first and foremost democrats). It has been endorsed by over 100 people including several US presidential candidates.

Computer simulations by me discussed on this website indicate that if the world switched from plurality to score voting, the gain would be comparable to the gain got by adopting democracy in the first place (from, e.g, Monarchy). That is a very big win for humanity. For a very small change. It could literally save the world.

If I am wrong (and I'm not), a few towns in Arizona may suffer, but they could always change their voting systems back if so. If I am right, it could start a movement that could literally save the world. I suggest therefore that you take this seriously. I've been spending over a decade of my life trying to make this sort of voting reform happen and began an international organization to do it.

Instant runoff voting is unfortunately a rather poor method and has led to a lot of problems. It is more complex than approval and score. It cannot be counted in precincts. It cannot be counted with most voting machines. It has often led to cost increases. The ballots cannot be published without violating voter privacy. It often leads to large increases in voter error rates (whereas approval and score decrease voter error rates). It has a lot of embarrassing pathologies such as non-monotonicity where increasing your vote for X causes X to lose, while giving X a worse vote causes X to win(!); and reversal failure where if the voters reverse all their votes trying to chooose the worst rather than best candidate the same "winner" results! Such pathologies occurred in Burlington's 2009 instant runoff election whereupon Burlington repealed it. They occurred in Aspen, then Aspen repealed it. A giant list of such pathologies and their frequencies of occurrence are given here:

Another important reason instant runoff would be a bad idea for Arizona is it is unconstitutional. If it were put in the law it would be overthrown by court challenge. That is, Arizona's constitution (VII.10 & 17) demands separate primaries and general election. The whole point of "instant" runoff is to combine these into one. In fact there are reasons to believe this combining would be a bad idea even in places it is constitutional.

In view of this I recommend approval and score voting, but not instant runoff, for Arizona.

The current version of HB2518 does not enact instant runoff, but there has been a threat to amend it to implement it.

There is a popular science book Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone (2008) which discusses a lot of voting methods science. I'm one of those he interviewed for that book.

Important points:

  1. HB2518 does not force anyplace in Arizona to change systems. It merely allows them to change to approval, if they want.
  2. HB2518 only applies to Arizona's "open primaries" which (as far as I can tell) every town+city in Arizona except Tucson currently uses. Their systems would be unchanged except for replacing plurality with approval voting in round 1. Tucson would also be free to change to this system, but only if it adopted open primaries instead of their present system of many, not one, closed-party primaries. That is something Tucson may or may not want to do, but they are merely offered the option by HB2518, not forced.

If you wish to discuss this, please phone or email me. This is an exciting reform opportunity.

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