Warning! Voting reform trainwreck approaching –
need to act now to avoid the problem
The people behind the National Popular Vote
(NPV) are well-intentioned voting reformers.
And so are the voting reformers advocating better voting methods
(e.g. range voting) to replace
our present very-flawed "plurality" voting system.
Indeed, these two kinds of people often are the same people.
For example, Rob Richie,
a prime mover behind the
"Instant Runoff Voting" advocacy group
fairvote.org, is listed as a co-author of the
national popular vote
However, despite their good intentions, these reformers are about to deal
themselves a devastating self-inflicted blow because these two reforms, unless careful attention
is paid to the matter (which it apparently hasn't) will conflict and may
permanently destroy each other.
Review: The Goal of NPV
The NPV goal is to get a large number of US states, via an "interstate compact,"
to agree to award all their electoral votes to the nationwide popular vote winner.
The compact only activates once the number of participating states is large enough to
constitute a majority of electoral votes.
The archaic "electoral college" system is then bypassed and the only thing
that matters becomes the nation's voters as a whole.
"Swing states" become an unmourned thing of the past.
This causes these main benefits:
Presidential candidates no longer are motivated to focus nearly 100% of
their attention to (and unconscionably divert the Nation's resources toward) a
few "swing states"; instead they are motivated to cater to the entire country.
All voters nationwide become equally worthy, as opposed to the present situation where
voters in non-swing states are viewed as worthless "sure things"
and only voters in the few swing states are catered to, rather like medieval satraps.
Pure popular vote should select superior winners on average to the electoral
college "chunking" system, which basically just throws "noise" into the
Devastating near-tie crises (such as in Florida 2000) become much less likely (we crudely
estimate 10-30 times less likely) because
only a countrywide near-tie causes an election-swinging
crisis, as opposed to one in any of a large number
But what is the "national popular vote winner"? The proposed NPV-compact
legislation we've seen nowhere
defines the term!
Now you might say "it doesn't need to be defined because its meaning
is obvious." Wrong.
The entire compact becomes undefined and any state has an immediate excuse to drop out,
dissolve the compact, or act
in a different manner from the other states in the compact (or argue others should too).
Of course, states with motivation to do that will essentially-always exist.
The problem is if, due to
foolish design of the NPV plan, they also will always be fully within
their rights to do so at any time. And note that it is not ok
to leave the other-voting-systems issue "for later" figuring that
can just be negotiated after the compact has got going rather than before. Wrong:
this omission will devastate the compact, effectively preventing it from being a compact,
unless settled beforehand.
And note, a compact agreed on by, say, 30 states is virtually impossible to change
because you'd need to get all participating states, unanimously, to ratify the changes.
It'd be writ in stone.
Because a compact is not useful if any state has a motive and
opportunity at any time to drop out instantly.
Hello supreme court litigation!
A rogue state (whether a member of the compact or not)
could adopt a new voting system intentionally exactly to try to cause
that pathology and to throw a presidential election.
A state could adopt a new improved voting system entirely innocently to improve the world,
and then be accused of having done so with evil ulterior motives.
Improved voting systems (at least for presidential voting)
could therefore be discouraged, destroying voting reform in the USA.
(And objectively, improved voting systems matter much more
in terms of their democracy-improving
effect, than NPV matters.)
On the other hand, the whole NPV compact could be effectively prevented, destroyed, or undercut, by
the "opposed" goal of voting system reform.
Our point is, any way you look at it, voting system reform is converted into a
house divided against itself, unable to stand, and wildly shooting itself in the foot;
and also into a political football.
What is the solution?
It sounds like the solution is
simply to insert into the NPV compact, now, language indicating exactly how to
deal with other voting systems.
That way all signatory states know exactly
what they are getting into
ahead of time, supreme court litigation is unnecessary, and "voting reform" is no longer
an "evil plot" but rather "a known, good, predictable, and predicted, development."
But writing that language is not trivial.
Different kinds of voting systems in different states
simply were not designed to be agglomerated to
yield one overall "popular vote winner." The electoral college itself
can be regarded as a way to do
such combining in a sensible manner – but that is precisely what the NPV compact is
trying to get rid of!
A number of principles need to be adopted in the writing of such language:
Better voting systems
have to be encouraged, or at least not discouraged, by this language, to prevent voting reform
from shooting itself in the foot.
We have to avoid big "discontinuities" in the method of computing popular vote count.
That is, somebody's single vote should not be able to alter the "popular vote totals" by more than
a small amount. (If a single vote could alter the popular vote by a million, then we'd re-create
exactly the sort of "swing state" phenomenon that was the goal of the NPV compact to abolish.)
Responsiveness: Each vote should have a nonzero effect on the "popular vote totals."
We have to assure that the winner in a state, always gets the most popular votes and
can get (at most) the number of voters in that state worth of popular votes,
We have to assure each candidate in a state gets (at least) zero.
Here is a set of counting rules which obey these principles.
(Actually there is a way that the proposed rules for IRV and Condorcet could disobey
the discontinuity or responsiveness principles,
but those exceptions are unlikely to arise and even if they do are
likely to be small in their effect and only likely to affect non-winner candidates.)
We recommend these be inserted into
the NPV compact's language immediately:
Each plurality vote counts 1 point toward the named-candidate's popular vote.
Each approval counts 1 point toward the approved-candidate's popular vote.
If a candidate's average range score is S (in an 0-to-R range) and there are V voters,
then the candidate gets V·S/R points.
IRV (Instant Runoff) voting (and other runoffs):
Count only the votes in the final, 2-candidate-only, IRV round (after all "transfers"). That is,
say the final round is "Winn" versus "Secd."
Give Winn one point for each final-round ballot for Winn,
and Secd one point for each final-round ballot for Secd.
Now, for each candidate "Latr" other than Secd and Winn, award Latr
1 point for every ballot
on which he is that voter's topmost-choice,
but with the exception that no Latr-candidate is allowed
to get more points than Secd gets (and Latr also is not allowed to get more than Winn gets).
Condorcet voting systems:
Define the "second place finisher" as follows.
If the "Smith Set" (minimal nonempty set of candidates, each of whom pairwise defeats
every nonmember) consists of a single candidate "Winn," he (of course)
wins and the second place finisher
is whoever would have won if Winn had been deleted from all ballots.
If it consists of more than one candidate, then the second place finisher is whichever member of
the Smith set is pairwise-defeated by the winner Winn, but by the smallest margin.
Now proceed similarly to IRV above. That is, call the first and second
placers "Winn" and "Secd."
Award Winn 1 point for every ballot ranking Winn ahead of Secd;
award Secd 1 point for every ballot ranking Secd ahead of Winn;
and for every candidate "Latr" other than Secd and Winn, award Latr 1 point
for every ballot ranking Latr topmost,
but with the exception that no Latr-candidate is allowed
to get more points than Secd gets
(and Latr also is not allowed to get more than Winn gets).
Other voting systems:
Signatories agree not to adopt voting systems outside of the above classes until and unless the
compact itself is redone to allow them (and re-ratified).
The compact-states agree to create a single binding committee that will decide how to
handle any additional voting methods or unexpected developments if they ever arise;
and advance warning to the committee of any change should be made at
least 1 year before use.
Note: with IRV and Condorcet, it is best if (whenever more than one
compact-state uses the same voting system)
all the votes in all those states be agglomerated into one mass then counted
to determine the IRV or Condorcet winner of the resulting super-state.
One reason for that is that IRV is a non-additive
voting system in which X can win in both state #1 and state #2, but
if we combine the votes from both states then Y wins.
With additive systems like
range, approval, and plurality, this issue is irrelevant because the same results always
happen whether you agglomerate or not.
Another (also very important) set of problems and their solution
Suppose the countrywide popular vote is for A, but nearly all (or anyhow some)
of the states in the Compact
prefer B. In that case those Compact-states
would, by obeying their own rules to make A win, be
acting against their own interests!
The compact will have no effect until and unless enough states join it to get a
Why should a state S join such a Compact?
If it joins, it may be forced to act against its own interests!
But if it does not join, its popular vote will still be taken into account by the Compact
and will still act to swing the Compact's bloc-vote.
So there is no motivation for any state to join this compact – joining can hurt it but
can never help it, whereas
by not joining it still gets to "free ride" and gain all the advantages
it could have gained by joining!
We suggest to the reader, that if states have no motivation to join, then they won't join!
And then (by problem 2) the Compact will never have any effect!
Result: NPV's whole proposal is a dead dog.
Don't believe this?
OK, here's why CA governor Schwarzennegger said he vetoed CA's inclusion in
"I appreciate the intent of this measure to make California more
relevant in the presidential campaign, but I cannot support doing
it by giving all our electoral votes to the candidate that a
majority of Californians did not support." (You'd think after the biggest state in the USA
dodged the compact for precisely the reason we said, the NPVers might listen to us and
adopt the simple fix we propose. Just in the interests of their own survival. You'd think.)
If a state outside the compact adopts a new and weird voting system (not in the list above),
it can still unilaterally destroy the compact!
Simple Solution to all 4 problems:
Make the compact cast a bloc vote for the popular vote winner among the compact's member-states'
combined population only, and make it do so no matter how many (or few) states have
joined the compact. This way, nonmembers cannot free-ride.
Hence states are motivated to join the compact.
Further, the compact, even
well before it has a clinching majority will often
be able to throw the presidential election due to the power of its solid bloc vote.
Even with only a few states joining the Initial Compact, it will be an 800-pound gorilla
that presidential candidates will pay immense attention to.
Nonmember "shirker states" who fail to
unite with that gorilla, will do so at their peril;
presidents are not likely to pay
much attention to the shirkers.
Hence the motivation to join, will be major.
What will happen to the NPV compact?
If our suggestions are adopted, the NPV compact will be like the "Borg."
It will, once it gets rolling, be very hard to stop, since
all will be motivated to join it. Indeed, to make a historical analogy:
the initial adoption by the states of
"winner take all" electoral voting (which is just like the NPV compact idea, only writ smaller)
grew in a similar fashion – nobody could afford not to
do it that way and hence become irrelevant.
But there is one way it could quite plausibly be stopped. The
"No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, [stuff about war omitted], enter
into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign
Power ... "
They explicitly mention "another State" and "foreign Power," so
clearly the first is meant to mean a State in the US and not as a
generic foreign power/nation/state.
I.e, states are allowed to have compacts, but only with the"'Consent of
Congress." There was a ruling that for minor agreements between
States, Congress' consent can be assumed if Congress doesn't take
explicit action against it. But this seems to imply that Congress has veto power
over compacts – and quite possibly they would be moved to exercise it in the case of NPV!
That would get us into a delicate "state's rights" issue. Although the above quote seems
to indicate clear veto power, it also is quite arguable that congress cannot veto
this because congress does not have the power to tell states how to assign their
We do not know what would happen to that constitutional battle if fought.
But let us say this. Even if such a "veto" does occur and it
is sustained – shooting down NPV – then NPV could
still have played the useful role of bringing voting-methods issues to public attention.
That possibility makes it doubly important to implement our recommendations!