Radio interview about

Ending The
Hidden Unfairness
In U.S. Elections

In this overview which is presented as an interview you can quickly learn the highlights of what this book recommends for improving the fairness of elections.  (Or you might want to read the press release about the book or the press release about VoteFair ranking.)

The Hidden Unfairness

Question: What is the biggest unfairness in U.S. elections?

Fobes: The biggest unfairness occurs when we, as voters, are not allowed to mark our ballots with a second choice, third choice, and so on. Instead we're only allowed to make one mark in each race. This isn't a big deal in general elections because there are just two main choices, namely one Republican and one Democrat. But in primary elections there are often three or four main candidates. When there are more than two choices, each voter marking just one choice doesn't provide enough information to always get fair results. Notice that this unfairness is hidden in primary elections. It's easy to overlook because the winner of a Republican primary is always a Republican, and the winner of a Democratic primary is always a Democrat. Most voters do realize that candidates with more money tend to win, but most voters and the media get distracted by vote-counting errors. In Presidential elections the distraction is the issue of electoral votes. Those issues do involve some unfairness, but not nearly as much unfairness as using single-mark ballots, especially in primary elections.

Question: The idea of marking second and third choices is a part of something called instant runoff voting. Is that the method you recommend?

Fobes: The first part of instant runoff voting, where voters get to indicate their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on, obviously makes lots of sense. However, instant runoff voting uses these preferences in a way that often fails to correctly identify the most popular candidate. This unfairness, and some others, have kept instant runoff voting from becoming popular. The method I recommend is called VoteFair ranking and it always correctly identifies the most popular candidate. It does this by taking into account all the preferences of all the voters, which the instant runoff method doesn't do. The order-of-preference ballots that are used with VoteFair ranking are similar to the preference ballots that are used with instant runoff voting, but that's where the similarity ends.

Solutions, Creative!
Creative Problem Solver's Toolbox
Ending The Hidden Unfairness In U.S. Elections
Press release
Radio interview
No time
Front cover
Back cover
23 Creative Problem Solving Tips
Hope for the Future
Author and inventor

2000 Presidential Election

Question: In the 2000 Presidential election, Ralph Nader was accused of taking votes away from Al Gore, and some people claim that George W. Bush won because of Ralph Nader. If the voters had been allowed to indicate a second choice and VoteFair ranking had been used, who would have won? Bush or Gore?

Fobes: I did some calculations that handle the electoral votes in a proportional way and I found that Al Gore would have won the election, but not by much. In fact, if the people who voted for Nader were evenly split in their preference for Bush or Gore, Gore would have won by just a fraction of an electoral vote. That shows how close the election was. But there's a more important point. If order-of-preference ballots and VoteFair ranking had been used throughout that Presidential election, Al Gore probably would not have won the Democratic primary, and George Bush probably would not have won the Republican primary. We need to use order-of-preference ballots to get enough information to know who really is the most popular candidate in a primary election that involves more than two candidates.

Question: Would you explain what a voter would see and do if they got an order-of-preference ballot?

Fobes: Sure. Let's say that a voter gets a paper ballot that has a three-way race between Bush, Gore, and Nader. To the right of each candidate's name would be three ovals, and they would be lined up in columns labeled First choice , Second choice , and Third choice . If a voter prefers Nader as their first choice, they would mark the oval to the right of his name in the column labeled First choice . If the voter prefers Gore as their second choice, they would mark the oval to the right of Gore's name that's in the middle Second choice column. If they want, they can also mark the Third choice oval to the right of Bush's name, but they don't need to because it's obvious that he's the voter's last choice.

Question: What happens if a voter wants to indicate that either Gore or Nader is equally acceptable?

Fobes: No problem. The voter simply marks the ovals for both candidates at the same preference level. This assumes that VoteFair ranking is used to calculate the results. If instead, instant runoff voting were used, the ballot would be tossed out when the tie is reached, and that's another disadvantage of instant runoff voting. Of course voters should be allowed to express whatever their preferences actually are, and VoteFair ranking allows this.

Special Counting

Question: After all those ballots have been marked, what does VoteFair ranking do to calculate a winner?

Fobes: The first thing that happens is to count the ballots in a special way. The counting keeps track of how many voters prefer one particular candidate over another particular candidate, and it does that for all the possible pairs of candidates. For instance, in the Bush, Gore, and Nader race, there would be a count for how many voters prefer Bush over Gore, another count for how many voters prefer Gore over Bush, another two counts for the preferences between Nader and Bush, and finally two counts for the preferences between Nader and Gore. Of course counting voter preferences this way is not as easy as the traditional method, but computers can easily handle this kind of counting. What's important is that these numbers clearly indicate the preferences of the voters. It's also important that a frustrated voter can look at these counts to verify that the winner really is preferred over all the other candidates.

Question: This way of counting voter preferences makes sense, especially in terms of preserving the intent of the voters. What does VoteFair ranking do with these counts to identify the winner?

Fobes: The counts are arranged in what's called a tally table, and VoteFair ranking uses the counts to calculate a score for each sequence that might be a possible outcome. For example, one possible sequence is for Bush to be first, as the most popular, Gore second, and Nader third. The other important sequence is Gore first, Bush second, and Nader third. There are other sequences that involve Nader in first or second place, but obviously none of those sequences could be the winning sequence. For each of these sequences VoteFair ranking adds some numbers in the tally table to get a score. The sequence with the highest score is the one that reveals the true sequence in terms of popularity. In this example the sequence with the highest score is Gore first, Bush second, and Nader third, which means that Gore was most popular, Bush was second-most popular, and Nader was least-popular. Voters don't need to make sense of the calculation details because they're done using a computer, but after the calculations are done, voters can look at the counts in the tally table and verify that the result is fair.

Question: In the 2000 Presidential election Ralph Nader obviously got the fewest votes, so why shouldn't the people who voted for Nader just get their second choice counted? That approach would be much simpler, and it seems like it would give a fair result.

Fobes: What you're describing is the instant-runoff approach, and in this case where Nader got relatively few votes, instant runoff voting does produce a fair result. However, when the popularity of three candidates is more balanced, then instant runoff voting can easily produce an unfair result. In other words, instant runoff voting sometimes does produce fair results, but not always.

Question: Most European countries use a voting method called proportional representation, and that method leads to having more than two main political parties. Does your recommended approach accommodate more than just two parties? Or would it preserve our two-party system?

Fobes: Having just two main political parties works fine as long as they really represent what most voters want. The reason third-party candidates are now so popular is that many voters don't feel well-represented by either the Republican or Democratic parties. Fortunately there is a way to favor two main parties and also motivate them to better represent the voters. It involves letting voters also indicate on their ballot their order of preference for political parties. This goes beyond what European voters do, which is to indicate just their favorite party. Remember that it's in the primary elections where the biggest unfairnesses occur. The unfairness occurs when there are more than two choices and the votes get split. For instance the 2004 Democratic Presidential primary that John Kerry won involved about five Presidential candidates. If order-of-preference ballots had been used, the unfairness of votes getting split would not have occurred.

Splitting Votes

Question: Would you clarify what you mean by votes getting split? And would you explain why that causes unfairness?

Fobes: A good example of this issue occurred in the special election in California that Arnold Schwarzenegger won to became governor. That election basically combined a primary election and a general election into a single election, and that made it easy to see what is normally hidden. In that election there were 135 candidates listed on the ballot. As election day approached, major Democratic and Republican candidates withdrew from the race until there was just Schwarzenegger, one other Republican candidate, and one Democratic candidate. Those other candidates withdrew because the Republican and Democratic parties knew that whichever party had fewer candidates on the ballot was likely to win. That's because voters from a party tend to split their votes among the candidates from that party and then the other party can win just by having one candidate. In fact this is the purpose of primary elections, namely to make sure each party has only one candidate in the general election. The splitting of votes in a primary election is where the unfairness happens. Political-party leaders know this, so behind the scenes they talk the biggest campaign contributors into focusing money on just one candidate in each primary, and this strategy defeats the candidates the voters would prefer. If the race is between just one money-backed candidate and one voter-backed candidate, it's usually easy for behind-the-scene leaders to get another popular politician to join the race. The big contributors provide enough financial support to split the vote, but not enough money for the added candidate to win. The result is that the main money-backed candidate wins. Other examples of vote splitting have occurred on the American Idol TV show where the popularity of the contestants is easier to judge. Of course voting on reality TV introduces other complications such as failing to detect false votes and phone-system failures, but there have been some obvious cases of vote-splitting. The big advantage of VoteFair ranking is that vote splitting can't happen.

The Big Picture

Question: If VoteFair ranking is so good, why hasn't it already become popular?

Fobes: Until computers became widely available in the 1980s it wasn't practical to do the thousands of calculations it takes. Then around 1990 while I was writing my first book called The Creative Problem Solver's Toolbox I created VoteFair ranking to prove to myself that the thinking skills I explained in that book were powerful enough to solve even the most challenging real-life problems. Over the next few years I wrote software that implements VoteFair ranking and tested it out. It took a few more years to make the method available for free at my website, and I spent about five years writing this book. So this fairer ranking method wasn't available until recently.

Question: What would happen if order-of-preference ballots and VoteFair ranking were used for U.S. elections? Does your method favor a more liberal or more conservative kind of politics? And what are the biggest changes that will happen?

Fobes: The biggest change will be that the candidates listed on ballots will increasingly become the kind of wise problem-solving leaders that a majority of voters prefer. As for the liberal versus conservative bias, that won't change much. To better understand why, imagine that the Republican party is located at the right end of a pencil, and the Democratic party is located at the left end of the pencil. Where along the pencil are most of the voters? Most voters are actually about a foot above the pencil. The reason neither political party moves closer to the voters to get more votes is that the biggest campaign contributors are located about a foot below the pencil. With this perspective it's clear that the gap between the main political parties is small compared to the gap between most of the voters and either political party. Also it clarifies that the biggest campaign contributors have been using their campaign contributions to pull politicians away from what most voters want. Ironically one of the most surprising results is that the biggest contributors will benefit financially when politicians are finally allowed to solve lots of the problems that have remained unsolved. That's because those solutions will lead us to a much more prosperous economy.

Taking Action

Question: Here's a final question. What would you say to someone who likes your ideas and wants order-of-preference ballots and VoteFair ranking to be used in elections?

Fobes: When you're in a small or medium-sized group of people and you're asked to vote for more than two choices, ask that the voters be allowed to indicate not just a first choice, but also a second choice, a third choice, and so on. After collecting the preferences, someone can use the free service at the website to correctly identify the most popular choice. If any other method is used to identify a winner, ask for the tally numbers so you can verify that the winner is really more popular than your favorite choice. Of course many people will be initially reluctant to use VoteFair ranking in government elections, so keep in mind it also can be used in surveys. In a survey question, instead of candidate names, the choices can be budget categories, logo designs, music preferences, food preferences, and anything else you and your friends or coworkers want to rank. In these cases you can take advantage of the fact that VoteFair ranking also identifies the second-most popular choice, the third-most popular choice, and so on. It will be through using order-of-preference ballots and VoteFair ranking in surveys and small elections that the improved fairness will become increasingly clear. Someday, although probably not in my lifetime, fairness will make its way into city elections, state elections, and even Congressional and Presidential elections. That's going to take a long time. The starting point is to recognize that current voting methods are primitive. Now that computers are available to calculate fair results, we're ready to move beyond the primitive voting methods we now use in U.S. elections.

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