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Should We Care if Condorcet Winners Lose Presidential Elections?

In my last post, I explained why Condorcet winners often lose presidential elections by getting eliminated in the primaries. In this post, I want to consider the more difficult question of whether we should care.

One possible reason to care is that the electoral defeat of a Condorcet winner violates what many consider to be the core democratic principle of majority rule. If Candidate A wins the election despite the fact that B is the Condorcet winner, that necessarily indicates that A has won even though the majority of the people actually prefer B. In discussing this issue with students and other nonexperts, I have observed two common reactions: some people find this result deeply disturbing while others couldn't care less. Very few seem to fall in the middle. The difference between the two groups seems to be based more on intuition than logic. Since I myself am one of the few people with an equivocal reaction, I'm going to move on to more pragmatic concerns.

Setting aside considerations of democratic theory, there might well be pragmatic consequentialist reasons for deploring an electoral system that often leads to the defeat of the Condorcet winner. Relative to actual electoral winners, Condorcet winners are likely to be more ideologically moderate and more personally charismatic. The reason for the greater moderation is obvious: as discussed in my last post, primary electorates are more ideologically extreme than general election voters, and will sometimes reject the Condorcet winner in favor of a candidate who they believe matches their ideological preferences better.

The charisma point stems from the fact that ideologically extreme voters (who are disproportionately represented in primaries) are more knowledgeable than centrist voters, a result documented by numerous studies of political information. The less you know about issues, the more likely you are to be influenced by personality and charisma. Thus, on average, the Condorcet winner is likely to be more charismatic than the electoral winner in cases where two differ.

Personally, I'm not particularly enamored of the idea that moderate presidents are better than ideologically more extreme ones. I have even less sympathy for claims that we are necessarily better off with more charismatic presidents. Thus, at least from a purely consequentialist point of view, the electoral misfortunes of Condorcet winners don't bother me too much. However, those who value moderation and charisma more than I do have good reason to decry our current presidential primary system. Likewise for those strongly committed to the idea that democratic principles require adherence to majority rule.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Should We Care if Condorcet Winners Lose Presidential Elections?
  2. Why the Next President Might not be a Condorcet Winner:
Curt Fischer:

One possible reason to care is that the electoral defeat of a Condorcet winner violates what many consider to be the core democratic principle of majority rule. [...] some people find this result deeply disturbing [...].


The Condorcet criterion is but one core principle of democratic rule. I'd add the following list:

* If a candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters, that candidate should win the election (Majority criterion). Our electoral system does not meet this requirement.

* If a candidate X (in a preference schedule-based election) is the winner of the election, and in a re-election, all voters change their ballots in a way favorable to X, then X should still be the winner of the re-election (Monotonicity criterion).

* If a candidate (in a preference schedule-based election) is the winner of the election, and afterwards for kicks, someone removes losing candidates from all the ballots, and re-tallies the results as if the losers had never been there, the original winner should still win (Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives criterion).

I got these criteria from this book.

The problem with these four criteria is that no voting system can be designed to meet them all. It's impossible!

This theorem might explain why some people care about violations of the Condorcet criterion, and others don't. Once you know about Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, you've got to pick and choose which core principles of democracy that you like. Can't have 'em all.

(Our present system is really bad in that it i) doesn't meet with the majority criterion, or ii) the Condorcet criterion, and iii) gives undue power to large-state voters.
12.19.2007 12:31am
gattsuru (mail) (www):
However, those who value moderation and charisma more than I do have good reason to decry our current presidential primary system. Likewise for those strongly committed to the idea that democracy principles require adherence to majority rule.


If any of the founding fathers had been particularly enamored with direct democracy, or for that matter had been particularly charismatic or moderate, I'd be much more persuaded by these arguments.

As things are, this sort of systems does wonders to reduce the odds of compromise candidate after compromise candidate produce only slightly irritating results one time after the next. I'm not too worried about Hillary Clinton or Obama's gun control agenda, since it's well enough known and politically absolute enough that everyone on the pro-gun side can stand up and oppose it. A more moderate example, like Giulianni, could chat about driver's licenses and actually have a chance of producing results. Moderates make it easy to slowly increase the temperature of the pot; absolutists make it far more difficult. We've got enough of that problem even with less moderate Presidents.
12.19.2007 12:35am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Forget the primaries. What about in the election itself?

Perot won the first election for Clinton. Wallace may have taken the 68 election away from Humphrey and given it to Nixon. Going further back, its possible that either Taft or Roosevelt could have beaten Wilson head to head, but with both in he race, Wilson came out the winner.

Now looking forward. Suppose Rudy gets the nomination, and Huckabee can't stomach the idea and runs a third party race. That would virtually guarantee any Democrat a win. Conversely, if Hillary and Obama both ran, the republican will win.

At this level, should it matter what the head to head results should have been? And if not, why not?

My answer to this is basically that the country goes on fairly well no matter who is president. It just doesn't matter all that much, as long as the constitutional machinery works. Things are pretty much OK, so long as we bemoan poor voter turnout, and get worked up over steroids in baseball and whether NFL games are on basic cable.
12.19.2007 12:35am
Elliot Reed (mail):
What's the motivation for this set of posts? I'm glad to see this kind of voting theory make it into a more public forum, but it still seems strange for it to just pop up sua sponte, and even stranger for the issue to be posed as though support for Condorcet voting procedures were some kind of mainstream position. Is there a powerful Condorcet Lobby nobody told me about?

It seems especially odd for this issue to be raised without mentioning the most popular reform proposed by people who want to change the voting system in the name of democracy: Instant Runoff Voting. And the democracy-related concern expressed by those people has little to do with the arguments for Condorcet voting and everything to do with ensuring that the winner is supported (in some sense) by a majority rather than a plurality.

As for me, the various voting theorems have thoroughly convinced me that there's just no way to generate a voting system that doesn't fail one or another reasonable standard for what counts as "democratic".
12.19.2007 1:28am
George Weiss (mail):
elliot-

i would think the most popular election reform proposed would be some way (by constitutional amendment or by state co-operation) of doing away with the electoral college...possibly the most directly anti democratic thing in our election system...given that besides the obvious problem that the popular vote of the general election may not turn out the winner of the general election....an even worse problem is that electors are under no technical obligation to vote for the candidate their state won...though im aware the second hasn't happened in recent history...the world political scene has seen some weird sh*it recently
12.19.2007 1:40am
nordsieck (mail):
I am quite skeptical of claims that the benefit of democracy can be found in the leaders who are elected instead of the institutional framework, which limits the ability of who ever is currently in office from getting much of anything done.
12.19.2007 1:40am
George Weiss (mail):
i dont really understand these people who are saying the president doens matter much or that that even if hee does..the country is fine because SOME peopple are only worried about steriods in baseball.

presidents nominate supreme court justices
presidents have tremedus power over the tax code and apporpiration (and thus a huge control over social policy) becuase for the most part...their veto power makes congress only pass things that have a shot at thim signing
presidents-and presidents only-control the ability to iinvade countrys..to bomb them..to use nuclear weapons.
presidetns control the CIA and DOJ's controvesal tehcnikes more than any other goverment offical.
presidents


how can people honestly dismiss the importance of the president?
12.19.2007 1:46am
Ilya Somin:
What's the motivation for this set of posts? I'm glad to see this kind of voting theory make it into a more public forum, but it still seems strange for it to just pop up sua sponte, and even stranger for the issue to be posed as though support for Condorcet voting procedures were some kind of mainstream position. Is there a powerful Condorcet Lobby nobody told me about?

1. The motivation is quite simply that I've long been interested in Condorcet issues, and a presidential election is a good excuse to talk about them.

2. I never said that support for Condorcet winners was a "mainstream" position among the general public. It is, however, very much mainstream among economists and political theorists (the only people I mentioned as being concerned about it in my original post). It also maps on to powerful intuitions held by many nonexperts.
12.19.2007 1:57am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Setting aside considerations of democratic theory, there might well be pragmatic consequentialist reasons for deploring an electoral system that often leads to the defeat of the Condorcet winner. Relative to actual electoral winners, Condorcet winners are likely to be more ideologically moderate and more personally charismatic.


While they might be amiable enough, I don't think that either George H W Bush or Joseph Lieberman could be characterized as being "personally charismatic." Particularly not compared to the like of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton who actually did win both their respective bids for election and reelection.
12.19.2007 2:08am
Elliot Reed (mail):
George—You're not quite right about every elector having voted for the candidate they were elected to vote for in recent memory—one of D.C.'s electors refused to vote for Gore in 2000 to protest D.C. having no representation in Congress.

You're right about the issues with the unaccountability of the electors though. Even if we want to keep the bizarre and hard-to-justify Electoral College voting system, we should get rid of institution of having electors who are actual people; they're just a Constitutional disaster waiting to happen. An election-deciding turncoat elector (probably involving bribery) would not be pretty. Especially since the election would ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, who will do the legal realists one better and decide their votes based on the candidate they like best.
12.19.2007 2:13am
Elliot Reed (mail):
Ilya--I think you're taking my response a little too seriously, but thanks anyway. I am surprised to learn that there's much support for a procedure as hopelessly complex as Condorcet among economists and political theorists, though.
12.19.2007 2:20am
George Weiss (mail):
elliot...thats even further disturbing.

your right perhaps we should worry about the possibility of the turncoat elector first if we cant get the country to move on an issue as fundamentally important as the system of election of the president of the US
12.19.2007 2:49am
David M. Nieporent (www):
George—You're not quite right about every elector having voted for the candidate they were elected to vote for in recent memory—one of D.C.'s electors refused to vote for Gore in 2000 to protest D.C. having no representation in Congress.
You don't have to go all the way back in history to 2000; in 2004, one elector in Minnesota cast a presidential vote for Edwards.

It also happened in 1988, when a WV elector voted for Bentsen-Dukakis instead of Dukakis-Bentsen.

And the first woman to receive an electoral vote was not Geraldine Ferraro; in 1972, a Nixon elector cast his votes for the libertarian slate of John Hospers and Tony Nathan.
12.19.2007 3:56am
George Weiss (mail):
sheesh what a sham
12.19.2007 4:05am
Falafalafocus (mail):
Although not quite a pure Condorcet problem, I thought this phrasing was odd:


In discussing this issue with students and other nonexperts, I have observed two common reactions: some people find this result deeply disturbing while others couldn't care less. Very few seem to fall in the middle.


So you notice that people either 1) care or 2) don't care? And you can find no one in the middle ground between caring and not caring? What would such a middle ground position be?
12.19.2007 8:19am
marghlar:
It seems like one justification for wanting more moderate winners would be that it would tend to make executive policy more stable -- less regulatory flip-flop and resulting compliance costs. The flip side would be that a preference for moderate winners would reduce the amount of federal policy experimentation that takes place, making the federal government less creative.

In other words, maybe moderates are more likely to be restrained when they decide which policies of the prior administration to reverse. That could be a good thing, depending on our general satisfaction levels with the status quo.
12.19.2007 8:25am
Temp Guest (mail):
The best argument for the current US system is that it works so well compared with any other. Our political system has been rattling on for over two hundred years with relatively few changes and has managed to convert a powerless (The US lost every war it fought up until the Mexican War and the odds makers were betting we'd lose that one.) and economically backward (Check out current estimates of 18th &19th century per capita GDPs in Europe and the Americas if you don't believe me.) country into the world's most powerful nation with an unrivalled economy that generates about one-quarter of the world's wealth.

The USA has achieved this while still safeguarding and often expanding the civil rights and liberties of its citizens in ways that are the envy of ordinary people all over the world. (I'm leaving out the elites for all the obvious reasons, e.g., they create pseudo rights that expand elite power at the expense of ordinary peoples' rights and liberties and then chide the USA for not doing the same.)

We have left in the dust countries with other political systems even when, as in the case of the French, they've experimented with a congeries of "improved" governmental and electoral systems. Judged by performance other types of governmental and electoral systems suck.

Closer to home, the Peoples' Republic of Cambridge Massachusetts uses Mills's proportional voting system to resolve the Condorcet issue. The result has been the constant election of morons who would have destroyed the city by now if it weren't that it Cambridge is run on a day-to-day basis by a city manager and is subject to oversight by the Commonwealth.
12.19.2007 8:30am
Eyal:
Why would the condorcet winner be the appropriate winner? Consider a situation where four people are running. A, B, and C are the first choice of 40%, 36%, and 34% of the population respectively. D is the second choice of 100% of the population, but the first choice of no-one. D is the condorcet winner, I'm not sure this, in any way, makes him/her the person who _should_ win by the democratic criterion. Imagine, for example, that that "second choice" is by a wide margin, and that by a very narrow margin, A is the third choice of another 55% of the population. From a purely utility analysis, I would argue that the electorate's utility could very well me maximized by electing A, not D.

I haven't spent much time thinking about it, so could be convinced otherwise, but it seems to me that from the point of view of "appropriate" electoral result, the condorcet winner concept is far from a slam-dunk.
12.19.2007 8:33am
pedro (mail):
Eyal: you are indeed right that the case for Condorcet is no slam dunk. In fact, there is at least one very serious mathematician who makes a rather convincing case that Borda count is better electoral system. But there is one thing that is absolutely clear: plurality voting sucks!
12.19.2007 8:44am
Bretzky (mail):
I've always been sceptical of Condorcet voting because of the opportunity it provides for people to really mess things up. If you are a partisan of Candidate A and you think Candidates B and C are his/her most formidable opponents, why not place B and C very low on your preference scale and Candidates D and E right after your preferred candidate. Suppose the partisans of Candidate B and C do the same. What you are left with is the possibility of Candidate D or E as your president, when they were really the fourth and fifth preferred candidates. How the Condorcet system works in practice may be demonstrably different from how it works in theory.
12.19.2007 9:05am
DSM:
Falafalafocus, if you read "care" and "don't care" in a strict logical sense -- far from necessary even in your rephrasing, IMHO -- then yes, they're mutually exclusive.

But wait! What did Somin actually say (which you quote)?


[..] some people find this result deeply disturbing while others couldn't care less. Very few seem to fall in the middle.


There may be no "middle ground position" between care/don't care, but there are obviously middle ground positions between "deeply disturbing" and "couldn't care less". I suggest "find mildly troubling" as an answer to your question, or if you prefer numbers on a scale of ten, then 4, 5, or 6..
12.19.2007 9:08am
mbsch13:
Elliot: While the problem of the unfaithful elector is a serious one, the EC as a whole is far from "hard to justify," even if you don't by the arguments yourself.

See, e.g., Bulwark Against Fraud and Math Against Tyranny
12.19.2007 9:17am
DanG:
Shouldn't rational primary voters elect the person from their party that is most likely to win in the general election? If so, wouldn't that mean that the electoral winner will be the Condorcet winner?

Of course, primary voters may not know who from their party is most likely to win in a general election at the time of the primaries.

Also, it may be possible that primary voters would prefer to have their party's candidate be a faithful and forceful promoter of the partymembers' views even if the candidate might ultimately loose the election. Remember, these are repeat players. A losing candidate in one election might help lay the political groundwork for a future candidate to win. And if any of this is true, then it might be a valid reason to not care if the Condorcet winner wins.
12.19.2007 9:31am
PerthWA68 (mail):

I am surprised to learn that there's much support for a procedure as hopelessly complex as Condorcet among economists and political theorists, though.


No, no, NO. It is NOT complicated in practice. In any election instead of voting for one candidate you vote for as many as you like -- for anyone you'd be satisfied with as president / senator/ dog catcher/ whatever. A simple change with great consequences, the first one being it better reflects voter intentions.

Perot would not have kept Bush I from winning.
Nader's 2% would not have kept Gore from winning Florida. [shudddder]

Third party ideas are not automatically excluded, since you can vote for Ron Paul, who you sort of like but isn't going to win, AND for Romney, who you like less but who has a chance.
12.19.2007 9:43am
ChrisIowa (mail):
Note that in all the cases of unfaithful electors cited above, the elector knew in advance what the general result of the election was going to be and that changing his particular vote would have no effect on what the results of the election would be. If the election was close enough to be decided by one vote, they would have much less incentive to make such a symbolic protest or greater pressure to not do it.
12.19.2007 9:49am
Ralph Phelan (mail):
If you think of democracy as an end in itself you'll worry about things like this. If you're an optimistic perfectionist who thinks its both possible and important to get the optimal fit between election result and "will of the people" you'll worry a lot about things like this.

If you think of democracy as a means to the ends stability, rule of law and personal liberty you'll worry much less. If you're a cynical pessimist whose primary concern is avoiding electing a figure so devisive he triggers a civil war (only happened once in 200 years) or electing a tyrant (hasn't happened at all yet, though not for lack of trying on FDR's part) you'll think the current system is doing pretty well, and want to leave it alone.

I'm far less interested in how our system compares to some mathematical ideal based on extreme oversimplifications of human behavior than in how it compares to other systems that have actually been field-tested. I'm far less concerned with reaching perfection, which is unknown in human history, than with avoiding disaster, which is all too common.
12.19.2007 10:02am
Wayne Jarvis:
One of the problems here is that nonpartisans are shut-out of many primaries. Its not just that people who vote in primaries are "more likely to be partisan" its that only partisans or people willing to register themselves as partisans are even permitted to vote in many states. By the time non-partisans voters get to vote, the choices are Kang and Kodos.

Before we pat ideologues on the back for choosing issues over charisma, keep in mind that there is a real possibility that the primary system will serve up Huckabee v. Obama.
12.19.2007 10:06am
Don Miller (mail) (www):
Put me in the camp of people who realize that the American System of selecting a President is not a democratic process and isn't supposed to be democratic.

It is based on the principle of the US being a Republic. We elect members of the Electoral College. They select the President.

As long as Electoral members continue to vote they way they promised to when they were selected, I don't see a need to change the system.

The Electoral College is the only method that gives small population States any meaningful input into the election of the President. John Kerry proved that it is possible to win the popular vote by winning the Urban areas alone.

Being from a rural State, I do not want a President who only is interested in Urban issues. No thank you.
12.19.2007 10:13am
bittern (mail):
Eyal,
First Choice among the named or screened candidates is a somewhat arbitrary distinction in my opinion, as someone's First Choice depends on the identified field. The so-called First Choice candidate may be nobody's real first choice.

Bretzky,
Why would a voter list their real preferences out of order? All the voter is showing is their head-to-head preferences.

Don Miller,
If the smallish number of rural voters should get to exclusively pick the president, then why not just totally disenfranchise urban voters? And if you don't care for democracy, why insist that your electors stick to what they promised? Third, how many people think "states" are supposed to pick presidents and not people?
12.19.2007 10:34am
Aultimer:
I agree that there's a democratic theory problem, but I think it's more limited than IS suggests. If primary voters were by system requirement different from general election voters, it would be a big democratic theory problem. However, but MOST of the reason the groups are different is entirely the choice of the "disenfranchised" themselves.

The difference may appear to be system-imposed in states where Indy's can't vote in any primaries, but I think they still have the option to switch registration to vote for the primary candidate of their choice (which raises the cost, but is still entirely permitted in the system).
In that situation, the non-primary-voting general voters have expressed that they don't STRONGLY ENOUGH prefer the putative Condorcet winner (either to vote at all, or to register non-Indy).

The real (and much narrower) problem is where a closed-primary voter would prefer primary candidates in different parties in the same election (an R senator and a D president, for example).
12.19.2007 10:38am
Dave N (mail):
If the smallish number of rural voters should get to exclusively pick the president, then why not just totally disenfranchise urban voters? And if you don't care for democracy, why insist that your electors stick to what they promised? Third, how many people think "states" are supposed to pick presidents and not people?
Quite the strawman to suggest that urban voters are "disenfranchised" because the rural votes get to "exclusively" pick the President. In reality, the disproportionate power of smaller states (yes, I too have seen studies on how much more a Wyoming resident's vote is worth "more" than a California voter's) is a mark of federalism--something I do care about--though elitists often think it is a quaint historical relic deserving of no respect whatsoever.
12.19.2007 10:54am
Wayne Jarvis:
Aultimer: that is a fair point. However, how different are the (1) costs associated with switching parties in every primary and (2) simply charging people 5 bucks to vote in the primaries? In both cases can't you reach the same conclusion that the nonvoters just didn't care strongly enough to vote?
12.19.2007 10:56am
SeaDrive:
Count me with the folks who think that worrying about Condorcet is silly given winner-take-all rules in the Electoral College.

As a resident of Connecticut, I am little bothered by ads during a presidential campaign. Given the high liklihood of my state's electoral votes going to the Democrat, no one competes for my vote. The opinions of my neighbors and myself are ignored since there is no marginal return on the investment. We are not disenfranchised, but we are disempowered.

It's also idiotic to have primaries 10 months before the general election. Once upon a time, it was necessary to elect delegates early enough for them to ride mules to the convention. And the conventions chose the candidates. With the current rules, the candidate is going to be chosen by the primaries, so they should be much later. I would say during the summer, but due to the tyranny of the school year, I don't suppose we could have a meaningful vote in the summer, so I would set the primaries in May and June.
12.19.2007 11:00am
bittern (mail):
Pot calls the kettle a strawman:

Quite the strawman to suggest that urban voters are "disenfranchised" because the rural votes get to "exclusively" pick the President. In reality, the disproportionate power of smaller states (yes, I too have seen studies on how much more a Wyoming resident's vote is worth "more" than a California voter's) is a mark of federalism--something I do care about--though elitists often think it is a quaint historical relic deserving of no respect whatsoever.


It's not a mark of federalism, it's a residue of federalism. Since it's now clearly a national government (see, e.g., the interstate commerce clause interpretation), then a citizen who lives in California ought by fairness to have as much input as a citizen of Wyoming. Of course he doesn't, on account of the original agreement to get the small states to join, back when it really WAS federal.

Don Miller complained that the urban vote can beat the rural vote (even in the current system). I just asking him if he wants to fix that by changing the rules. Dave N, you got to look up the subjunctive. Don't skip the short words like "if", "should", and "why not".

And "elitist", my gracious. Way to firebomb me. Most people in this country talk as if the people pick the president. Flame away.
12.19.2007 11:19am
Rob Perelli-Minetti (mail):
I'm with Miller - the US is a republic with representative government, not a pure "democracy" and I'm not sure we have gained very much (if anything) over the past hundred years or so by talking about 'democratic' government as opposed to 'representative' government.

I'm not the least troubled by Condorcet winners not ending up as electoral winners.
12.19.2007 11:20am
AndyM (mail):

Shouldn't rational primary voters elect the person from their party that is most likely to win in the general election? If so, wouldn't that mean that the electoral winner will be the Condorcet winner?


There are all sorts of reasons not to. For example, a religious republican may well believe both that Guiliani is most likely to win in the general election, and that he would be preferable to any of the democratic field, but still vote against him, on the grounds that this demonstration of strength will pull the Republican party towards the "religious conservative" end, rather than the "pro-business" end of their electorate, which could have a serious impact on what congressional republicans do in the next term.

Alternately, it is possible that, living in Massachusetts, someone has decided that even though they'd prefer a
Republican as president, they want to have input into who is in the MA congressional delegations, and thus needs to register democrat (the democrat will always win in the general election, so the actual action is in the primaries for most MA positions). As a result, their rational preferance for "who gets the democratic nomination for president" may well be "whoever is _least_ likely to win in the general election".

Further, for a rational voter, "most electable" needs to be weighed against how much you prefer them. A Republican who things Huckabee is far better than Romney but thinks Romney has a 75% chance of winning the general election and Huckabee has a 5% chance needs to weigh "5% chance Huckabee/95% chance Democrat" versus "75% chance Romney/25% chance Democrat". If the value to this voter of Huckabee is enough larger than the value of Romney, that may overcome the 5% chance...

And another thing might be the "statement" value of a vote -- the primary is not simply a tool for picking a winner, it is also a way of communicating to the world... If I have only a mild preference between the Republican front-runners (and/or think their electability is roughly the same), perhaps the rational thing to do is to vote for Ron Paul; the value of the statement to the world that some Republicans are anti-war could be larger to me than the value of my vote's impact on which of the front-runners wins.
12.19.2007 11:20am
Gramarye:
Today was the first time I ever read the word Condorcet, but from what I gather, you'd actually have to do away with not just the electoral college, but with party primaries entirely, to establish a Condorcet-compliant system here. Neither the Condorcet winner of the GOP primary nor his counterpart in the Dem primary would necessarily be the Condorcet preference of the entire electorate. I don't particularly think that would be a bad thing, but you'd face extraordinary institutional pressure on both sides from factions who know that a Condorcet-compliant system would freeze them out on the fringes of the electorate rather than letting them be major power brokers. I would completely support either an approval-vote system or an instant-runoff system--in fact, I seem to remember helping to institute an instant-runoff system for Student Bar Association elections in my law school--but law school student government elections don't have the same kind of structure that national elections do. Most significantly, there are no political parties. (There's more just a diffuse cultural awareness of which candidates showed up to more parties in February, after first-semester grades have been posted.)

On a completely separate note, I would challenge the notion that more extreme candidates are less charismatic than centrist candidates. I won't claim any academic experience with this, so maybe this is just me succumbing to the same kind of accessibility bias that makes people believe air travel more dangerous than road travel, but it seems to me that charismatic leaders are both more prevalent and more valuable on the ideological fringes. Who are the centrist players in the Senate, for example? George Voinovich, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman--is anyone going to seriously call any of them overly charismatic? Hillary Clinton is probably the most centrist Democrat in the race, and charisma is emphatically not her strong suit. Of other centrists that considered running, I wouldn't consider Evan Bayh's strong suit to be personal charisma, either, though I'll concede the title to Mark Warner. On the Republican side, the most centrist candidate until his rather contemporary conversion to supply-side tax policy and his moves to mend fences with the religious right was John McCain. I'd vote for him in a heartbeat, but hardly because of his ability to channel Dale Carnegie. Meanwhile, the one clearly winning the charisma wars in the GOP field is Mike Huckabee. And, of course, historically, some of our more extreme presidents have also been highly charismatic--Ronald Reagan on the right and FDR on the left, to name the most salient examples.

Some people stigmatize the center as the place of the muddle-witted, indecisive, gullible "sheeple." (I generally think that's a somewhat bitter and patronizing view held by fringe ideologues on both sides of the aisle who equate "clarity" with "agreeing with me and all my crazy ideas.") However, even if there is a grain of truth to that with respect to the general electorate (and even on that, I'm somewhat skeptical), when it comes to the more active political players, the center is the demesne of technocrats and pragmatists, not simpletons. There isn't as much room there for charismatic torch-bearers. Thus I'm wondering whence comes this notion that you should look to the center for charisma and to the wings for people with more grasp of facts and issues. In my experience, it's precisely the opposite.
12.19.2007 11:22am
bittern (mail):

Count me with the folks who think that worrying about Condorcet is silly given winner-take-all rules in the Electoral College.


Sea Drive, that's a very key point. Just thinking aloud, though . . . If the Electoral College was real electors picked by the voters in each state, and then THEY each got to vote Condorcet in the Electoral College, wouldn't that (a) make folks' head spin, (b) match up with the founders non-direct-democracy vision, and (c) drive towards a consensus type candidate?
12.19.2007 11:24am
Mr. Liberal:

Personally, I'm not particularly enamored of the idea that moderate presidents are better than ideologically more extreme ones.


Why is this not surprising. =)
12.19.2007 11:34am
bittern (mail):
Gramarye, you make a big stack of excellent points. One thing I think you should check out is the tendency of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to give quirky results. Check out the Wikipedia entry that shows how in a hypothetical vote to select a state capital for Tennessee, IRV would yield far-out Knoxville as the capital, while plurality gives Memphis, and Condorcet gives centrist Nashville.
12.19.2007 11:35am
Bretzky (mail):
bittern:


Why would a voter list their real preferences out of order? All the voter is showing is their head-to-head preferences.

So their favored candidate wins.

I'll go back to the five-candidate example in my previous post. Voter John Doe prefers the candidates in the following order 1) Alvin Alpha, 2) Betty Beta, 3) Chester Charlie, 4) Delano Delta, and 5) Eleanor Echo. Jane Doe prefers the candidates in the following order 1) Beta, 2) Alpha, 3) Charlie, 4) Delta, and 5) Echo. Xavier Doe has the following order 1) Charlie, 2) Alpha, 3) Beta, 4) Delta, 5) Echo. The average preference for the candidates is 1) Alpha, 2) Beta, 3) Charlie, 4) Delta, and 5) Echo. In this scenario Alpha should win the elction as he has the highest average preference across the electorate.

However, let's suppose the voters do not cast their votes in such a way as to show their real preferences because they all think that the other candidates are not really any good and only their preferred candidate is the capable one. Let's also assume that they have a good idea, because of pre-election polling, how the average preference for the candidates really stands. In order to try to ensure that their candidate gets elected, each voter intentionally places candidates lower on their preference above all of the higher ranked ones except for their own favorite.

In such a situation you come out with the following totals: 5th) Alvin Alpha with 4 votes, 4th) Betty Beta with 5 votes, T-3rd) Chester Charlie and Delano Delta with 6 votes, and (your winner) 1st) Eleanor Echo with 9 votes, who was in fifth place in each voter's list.

I grant you that the preceding situation is unlikely to occur, but, given the highly partisan nature of American elections, not impossible. How many Bush voters in 2000 really saw much of a difference between Gore and Nader and how many Gore voters saw much of a difference between Bush and Buchanan? I'm willing to bet that it was enough to have made a Condercet voting system of those four candidates very interesting.

Another thing to consider is that our current electoral system tends to keep the crazies at home. The reason that the far-right and far-left are vibrant parts of the French electorate isn't because they have more people on the extremes than we do, it's because they have a voting system that makes it possible for an extreme candidate to win.

The American electoral system rewards highly partisan campaigners but it punishes highly extreme ones (and I mean extreme here in a non-pejorative sense, I'm merely talking about candidates who are out of the mainstream of contemporary American politics). And anyone who actually thinks that Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards is in the extreme wings of American politics needs to have their head examined.
12.19.2007 11:36am
Bretzky (mail):
I would also like to add that I wouldn't have a serious problem with a Condorcet voting system if it had an opt-out clause in it. In other words, in any given presidential election there might be 15 to 20 candidates on my ballot. If I had the option not to cast a preference in certain matchups, but to still cast a preference for a candidate against both of those candidates whose matchup I opted out of voting in, then it would have a much more real world resemblence to the way people actually rank their preferences.

For instance, in the 2000 election, I really would not have had a preference between John Hagelin and Pat Buchanan believing them to be equally bad and not wanting to cast a vote for either one. But I would have had a preference between both of those candidates and George Bush and Al Gore.

My preference vote totals for the seven candidates who appeared on the Virginia ballot would have been: Harry Browne 7, George Bush 6, Al Gore 5, with no votes for Ralph Nader, Buchanan, Hagelin, or Howard Phillips. Had I been forced to cast preference votes for possible match-ups though, it would drastically change my vote totals and make me cast votes for candidates who I think have no business being president of the United States (or of a cheese factory for that matter).
12.19.2007 11:55am
Rob Perelli-Minetti (mail):

The reason that the far-right and far-left are vibrant parts of the French electorate isn't because they have more people on the extremes than we do, it's because they have a voting system that makes it possible for an extreme candidate to win.


And this is a virtue? During the time we've been a republic, the French have had a regicide, three or four revolutions depending how you count, two "empires", a restored Bourbon monarchy and five republics -- and it's French politicians who have a place in the proverbial "hell": where the politicians are French, the police are German and the cooks are English.

With the exception of Great Britain, none of the ostensibly more 'democratic' parliamentary systems lend themselves to stability even remotely comparable to our system devised by the essentially Whig Founders.
12.19.2007 12:01pm
bittern (mail):
Bretzky, thanks for the reply; not an easy job to type all that up. But. I'm quite sure that you're not running a Condorcet election in your example. "Average preference" is a parameter of some other type of voting scheme, not Condorcet. Working with your

John: 1) Alpha, 2) Beta, 3) Charlie, 4) Delta, and 5) Echo; Jane: 1) Beta, 2) Alpha, 3) Charlie, 4) Delta, and 5) Echo; and Xavier: 1) Charlie, 2) Alpha, 3) Beta, 4) Delta, 5) Echo,

Alpha beats Beta 2:1
Alpha beats Charlie 2:1
Alpha beats Delta 3:0
Alpha beats Echo 3:0

There's no cycle and Alpha wins. Given full knowledge of John and Jane's votes, Xavier can do nothing to promote Charlie over Alpha. Or he could try to conspire with Jane, but still all he could do is promote Beta over Alpha, and that would cheat himself of his own second preference. Once you get into cycles and knowledge of other votes, I'm sure you can pull some strategic voting, but without a cycle you can't and not in your example, for example. Condorcet always crowns the pairwise winner (if there is one).
12.19.2007 12:02pm
Gramarye:
bittern: That Tennessee example is interesting, though is also, I think a deliberate selection because of how atypical the results are (different results for Condorcet, instant-runoff, and FPP). The disparity flows from what I'm guessing is a somewhat rare event: the first choice of the plurality (Memphis) is the absolute last choice of everyone else. If, geographically, Memphis and Chattanooga switched places, Memphis would win under Condorcet, instant-runoff, or FPP systems.

I think in most political races, it would be rare that one person who commanded a plurality--i.e., a winning total--in an FPP system would be essentially anathema to the rest of the electorate, so oddball results like this would be relatively rare.
12.19.2007 12:03pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Delano Delta gets no respect.
12.19.2007 12:07pm
bittern (mail):

Harry Browne 7, George Bush 6, Al Gore 5, with no votes for Ralph Nader, Buchanan, Hagelin, or Howard Phillips. Had I been forced to cast preference votes for possible match-ups though, it would drastically change my vote totals

Bretzky, I know that we crossed in the mail there, but again, that's not Condorcet. The Condorcet information is that you:

1. Prefer Browne to Bush
2. Prefer Browne to Gore
3. Prefer Bush to Gore

Those preferences are maintained whether or not you provide additional information. The stated information is not affected by whether you find Nader even worse than Buchanan or vice versa. *(though if a cycle occurs it is slightly possible to work at cross purposes to your intent)

In any event, it is typical in Condorcet voting to NOT require the voter to keep ranking all the way down among lesser candidates. I don't think the "opt out" does you any good as for picking a winner, but maybe your signal does through to the candidate.
12.19.2007 12:14pm
Paul Allen:

One possible reason to care is that the electoral defeat of a Condorcet winner violates what many consider to be the core democratic principle of majority rule. If Candidate A wins the election despite the fact that B is the Condorcet winner, that necessarily indicates that A has won even though the majority of the people actually prefer B.


Foul. I call a false assertion here. The reason not to care whether the Condorcet winner wins is that supporters claim that the Condorcet process is more majoritarian but this claim is false.

The notion of an aggregate preference is flawed intrinsically--carrying many of the same problems that arise in discussing aggregate utility.

Indeed, this is one of the advantages of a libertarian position: the idea of minimizing the sphere of influence of the false notion of aggregate preference.
12.19.2007 12:15pm
bittern (mail):
Gramarye, sometimes the plurality, IRV, Condorcet, etc winners are all one person, let's call him George Washington. Other times they're not. I agree that the Tennessee example was selected to show a point, but I don't think the example is so extreme. Try a variety of examples, to see how each system works.

Anyway, I like your examples challenging the Ilya's idea that moderates grab more than a fair share of charisma, and your defense of the intelligence of and maybe knowledge base of the moderates. Well stated.
12.19.2007 12:27pm
eeyn524:
These Condorcet discussions usually seem to assume N = 3 to 10 candidates, neglecting the issue of how we came up with the short list in the first place. (In practice it's basically how many journalists or party officials decide to take a candidate seriously - not really very optimum by any criteria.)

If the short list is N<=2 the Condorcet problem (to the extent that one even thinks it's a problem) doesn't arise. If one's tossing the whole system here's some options:

N=2. Pick two candidates by lot from a list of all eligible citizens, and have a vote.

N=1. Pick one candidate by lot, and have a yes/no vote. Repeat if necessary.

N=0 (pick one winner by lot) might be taking it too far.
12.19.2007 12:28pm
...:
I'm just curious...why when discussing the Condorcet issue does Ms. Somin bring up democratic theory??? The US is not a democracy and never has been. We are a Republic and it has served us well. As a Republic, there is no Condorcet problem.
12.19.2007 12:28pm
bittern (mail):
Paul Allen,
Strikes me that looking for a pairwise winner is MORE a method of separating out individual preferences, and LESS a method of calculating an aggregate preference, than other methods. Not that I thought about it that way before. Please explain your assertion.
12.19.2007 12:33pm
bbb (mail):
George Voinovich, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman--is anyone going to seriously call any of them overly charismatic?

For Senator Snowe I might go so far as to say MILF.
12.19.2007 12:37pm
Gramarye:
To all who have made the argument "we're not a democracy, we're a republic"--how exactly does this make any substantive case against an approval vote, instant runoff, or Condorcet system? Is anyone really arguing that republican government, in the small-r, Guaranty Clause sense, actually mandates first-past-the-post voting and no other system? That would be news to me. U.S. Const. Art. I ss. 2-4 are essentially open as to "Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives," and the electoral college is a specific technical artifact of Art. II s. 1, not republican government (either as an abstract concept or as Guaranty Clause jurisprudence).
12.19.2007 12:44pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
the non-primary-voting general voters have expressed that they don't STRONGLY ENOUGH prefer the putative Condorcet winner

For instance, in the 2000 election, I really would not have had a preference between John Hagelin and Pat Buchanan believing them to be equally bad and not wanting to cast a vote for either one. But I would have had a preference between both of those candidates and George Bush and Al Gore.

These Condorcet discussions usually seem to assume N = 3 to 10 candidates, neglecting the issue of how we came up with the short list in the first place.

The notion of an aggregate preference is flawed intrinsically
[As is shown by "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem" referenced in the first comment.]

This why I don't get to bent out of shape about things like Condorcet compliance - it assumes things like
(1) All voters care equally about the result - but they don't.
(2) All pairwise preferences are equally strong - but they're not.
(3) All voters are well-informed, rational, and understand the system - but in 2000 the voters of Palm Beach couldn't even handle a simple "winner takes all" system.
(4) that the "right" list of options is being presented - but South Park's "Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich" critique is not vitiated by Condorcet compliance.
(5) That the perfect, ideal result being sought exists - but that has been mathematically proven not to be true.

All in all, this kind of thing is fun in a pure math puzzle sort of way, but of trivial importance in real-world politics. Except of course when a sore loser wants a pretext to yell "Unfair! Unfair!"
12.19.2007 1:03pm
c.gray (mail):

One of the problems here is that nonpartisans are shut-out of many primaries.


Why is shutting out candidates who refuse to stake out coherent positions on the most controversial political issues a _bad_ thing?

That appears to be the main feature of "nonpartisan" candidates to me, anyway.
12.19.2007 1:05pm
Kevin. (www):
If ideologically extreme voters tend to be more knowledgeable than centrist voters, what does that say about the value of that knowledge, given that it leads to extremely divergent views? Shouldn't knowledge of common facts tend towards convergence rather than divergence of opinion?

Or are the facts that the extreme voters "know" deep and patchy and often non-intersecting with the other extreme? If so, wouldn't that suggest that they form their overall ideology based upon a highly limited range of facts?
12.19.2007 1:05pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
Is anyone really arguing that republican government, in the small-r, Guaranty Clause sense, actually mandates first-past-the-post voting and no other system?

No, just that

(1) It's been mathematically proven that any voting system will sometimes deviate from what someone intuitively believes is "right" - Condorcet compliant systems will find some other way to be nonideal.
(2) In general there's no mandate at all about what type of system to use (See Cambridge, MA). If you want to persuade your town or state to switch to a Condorcet compliant system on policy grounds, go ahead. If you try to claim the whole country should so switch on moral grounds, I call BS.
(3) As a matter of personal preference I am loathe to mess with something thats currently working reasonably adequately.
12.19.2007 1:14pm
CWuestefeld (mail) (www):
Let me cast my opinion behind Miller and RPM. Why the fascination with democracy? The USA was not intended to be a democracy; consider Ron Paul's essay (HERE; gotta get a plug in).

More objectively:

The US federal government consists of 3 equal branches. Of these:
- The judiciary is doesn't even give an appearance of democracy.
- The legislature is composed of two halves:
- - The Senate (the upper house) was non-democratically elected until the 17th amendment (which is the worst still-standing amendment, I would argue)
- - The House of Representatives (the lower house) was and IS democratic
- The executive isn't democratically elected (viz the electoral college)

So only 1/2 of 1/3 -- one sixth of our federal government was intended to be democratically decided -- marginally less, if you consider that the Representatives belong to the *lower* house.

Where does this democracy fetish come from?
12.19.2007 1:21pm
Paul Allen:
bittern writes:

Strikes me that looking for a pairwise winner is MORE a method of separating out individual preferences, and LESS a method of calculating an aggregate preference, than other methods. Not that I thought about it that way before. Please explain your assertion.


I'm not sure I see your point. The pairwise winner in a Condorcet election is an aggregate preference. So the Condorcet winner is a definition for aggregating aggregate preferences.
12.19.2007 1:50pm
bittern (mail):

Condorcet compliance assumes things like
(1) All voters care equally about the result - but they don't.
(2) All pairwise preferences are equally strong - but they're not.
(3) All voters are well-informed, rational, and understand the system - but in 2000 the voters of Palm Beach couldn't even handle a simple "winner takes all" system.
(4) that the "right" list of options is being presented - but South Park's "Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich" critique is not vitiated by Condorcet compliance.
(5) That the perfect, ideal result being sought exists - but that has been mathematically proven not to be true.

Ralph, glad your current system doesn't have any of those problems. Hah. Actually, the system of campaign finance does take care of all of those. You can funnel your money in through Turd Blossom; you can fund any fringe candidate you want; you can keep your money if you don't care enough, and incompetent people in Palm Beach have plenty of pull.
12.19.2007 2:01pm
bittern (mail):
Paul Allen, they ALL use aggregate preferences. Even in Bush v Gore or whatever it was, that was the aggregate preference of nine people. How is it that Condorcet has more of this property you don't like than plurality or whatever we have now?
12.19.2007 2:03pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
So only 1/2 of 1/3 -- one sixth of our federal government was intended to be democratically decided -- marginally less, if you consider that the Representatives belong to the *lower* house.
I keep seeing arguments like this on this board, and my response is: so what? It's not as though the Constitution was divinely inspired, or even the product of exceptional wisdom. It's the product of 18th-century state-by-state consensus politics. The people writing it had no understanding of modern economics or political science, and were trying republican government for the first time since Ancient Rome.

What they produced was excellent for the time, but it had a lot of flaws, the most notable of which being things like a bill of rights that did nothing to protect the rights of black people and a hopelessly flawed system for electing the President and Vice President. The election system was fixed fairly quickly, and the thing about black people was eventually fixed, but not in a way the kept the fix from being ignored [1] for a hundred years.

Any particular aspect of their system should stand or fall based on its own merits, not on deference to the Framers' purported wisdom. The fact that democracy wasn't of much concern to a group of 18th-century rich white men (many of them slaveholders) is no reason not to make the system more democratic. Article V is part of the Constitution too.

Condorcet is still crazy though.

[1] This is hyperbole. Deal.
12.19.2007 2:10pm
JBL:

For me, the problem with the whole question is that its impact depends on the extent to which expressed voter preferences, however determined, are in fact a good way to determine policy or elect candidates.

As long as a majority of voters are ignorant, irrational, or otherwise inclined to support positions that have real-world effects contrary to their stated goals, the difference between the various electoral systems is pretty much irrelevant.
12.19.2007 2:20pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
Ralph, glad your current system doesn't have any of those problems.

Sigh.

All systems have problems, including huge practical ones regarding nominations, registering voters, identifying voters, lines at polling stations, equipment breakdowns, biased media, special interest groups, politicans lying about what they're really going to do, etc. Therefore a minor mathematical curiosity like this Condorcet issue is supremely unimportant.
12.19.2007 2:42pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
It's not as though the Constitution was divinely inspired, or even the product of exceptional wisdom.


It is, however, thoroughly tested. It may be a godawful kluge with multiple layers of patches and fixes and tweaks, but after 200 years most of the likely failure modes have been experienced and corrective actions have been taken (e.g. eliminating slavery leaves no other issues contentious enough to start a civil war, the 2 term limit for presidents prevents another president-for-life like FDR, defined procedures for replacing a VP so we don't have to "wing it" again like we did with Ford.)

Any new system will have unexpected flaws, making for "interesting times" as they are discoverd by trial and error.
12.19.2007 2:49pm
Paul Allen:

Paul Allen, they ALL use aggregate preferences. Even in Bush v Gore or whatever it was, that was the aggregate preference of nine people. How is it that Condorcet has more of this property you don't like than plurality or whatever we have now?

No, I was explaining why I shrugged at the notion that Condorcet was better. Its better wrt an arbitrarily conceived metric which is itself.

My second point was that the 'market' system minimizes the need for preference aggregations. Thus the libertarian opposition to majoritarianism can be justified as a preference against 'aggregate preference' fallacies.

Third, the common law approach (as opposed to the parliamentarian approach) dovetails nicely with this concept: the law isn't the majorities opinion but the consensus one. (And also, all disagreements with the law can be dealt with monetarily).
12.19.2007 3:00pm
CWuestefeld (mail) (www):
It's not as though the Constitution was divinely inspired, or even the product of exceptional wisdom... Any particular aspect of their system should stand or fall based on its own merits


I would say that it was exceptionally wise, but that's neither here nor there. You're certainly right that it must stand on its own merits. And as Ralph Phelan just noted, it really does have a good track record.

But the blade cuts both ways. Democracy isn't an end in its own right, and it too must stand on its own merits. There are plenty of concerns about this, too: corruption; voter apathy, ignorance, and misinformation; failures of voting methods (as noted in the OP); and numerous other issues.

You've not made a substantive case against the non-democratic elements in the Constitution, nor for any more democratic process that might replace them. As far as I can see, you (and most of popular opinion) treat democracy as a divine end in itself, rather than demonstrating that it is good, or at least better than what was there originally.
12.19.2007 3:03pm
SeaDrive:
I can just imagine our local registrar of voters trying to explain to the general public that the winner of the election will be determined via a Condorcet calculation.

This being an academic blog (more or less), it's an extraneous point.

The RoV might have a better chance with Approval Voting.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Approval_voting

"Tell us which candidates would be OK with you. The person who is OK for the most people wins."
12.19.2007 3:08pm
roystgnr:
There's an old story about how a minority of justices could take over the Supreme Court: first, a cabal of five justices agrees that they will secretly vote amongst themselves and then vote the result as a block among all nine. Second, a subcabal of three justices agrees that they will secretly vote amongst themselves and then vote the result among all five. The three justice subcabal isn't stable (since the other two in the cabal have no incentive not to defect once they discover it), but the five justice cabal can be stable depending on the justices' leanings - on average, each justice in the cabal gets his way more of the time than if the cabal disbanded.

This is of course just hypothetical because, as everyone thinks when they first hear about it, "They could never be that corrupt!" But replace "cabal" with "political party" and you've got a tolerable description of how American politics works: thanks to plurality voting, no decision affecting the whole country can be put to a general vote without first being approved by one or the other subgroup of voters.

I was a big fan of Condorcet after first learning about different voting schemes. Who couldn't be? There's a guy out there who would beat the plurality election winner in a one on one race and for some reason you don't want to give him the chance? I'm less sanguine after learning of the "DH3" scenario, though. Condorcet may be less immune to "strategic voting" than Plurality or Instant Runoff, but it's not immune and the results may be less stable. A system that produces an optimal set of election winners based on honest votes still isn't a good idea if the system often provides incentives for dishonest votes to be cast.
12.19.2007 3:14pm
Gramarye:
CWuestefeld wrote:
So only 1/2 of 1/3 -- one sixth of our federal government was intended to be democratically decided -- marginally less, if you consider that the Representatives belong to the *lower* house.

Where does this democracy fetish come from?
My first guess would be that it proceeds from the same democratic impulses that brought you the Seventeenth Amendment in the first place. Well, OK, that wasn't the first place, that was more the middlegame. However, it also proceeds from the notion that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, and that less-democratic forms of government dilute the expression of that consent.

However, we definitely come from two different schools of thought regarding the value of democratic legitimacy and the importance of a dilatory institution like the Senate. My only problem with the Seventeenth Amendment was that it didn't abolish the Senate entirely. Granted, that would arguably have been an unconstitutional constitutional amendment--the only possible example (see Art V. Equal Suffrage Clause)--but I personally sympathize with Rahm Emanuel. "I have come to the conclusion that the Senate was a historic mistake."

Ralph Phelan wrote:
Any new system will have unexpected flaws, making for "interesting times" as they are discoverd by trial and error.
Certainly. But the same applies to the "new system" as of 1791, too, as well as the "new system" instituted whenever later constitutional amendments were passed. You can always make the argument that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but that begs the question. It just might be broke.
12.19.2007 3:25pm
CJColucci:
Where does this democracy fetish come from?

My guess is it comes from a lot of people wanting democracy. When enough people want something badly enough and long enough to want to change things, it is no real answer to point out that that would involve -- shudder! -- changing things. Maybe there are good reasons not to change things, even if lots of people very much want to, but pointing out that what people want is not what we now have and leaving it at that is not giving a reason.
12.19.2007 3:26pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
CWuestefeld—I'm not really interested in having an argument about the merits of democracy, or the right conception of "democracy", or other such things. My point is more limited: that "the Framers didn't think so" is a bad argument against changing the system. The Constitution was a very good document for the time, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of our greater knowledge and experience to improve it.

And I would point to that same experience has having revealed flaws in the Constitution: a too-powerful executive who can't be removed, no matter how serious his incompetence or abuses of power, unless there is incontrovertible evidence of unquestionably criminal activity on his part; an overly-restrictive amendment process, so that significant Constitutional change comes from a small group of unelected judges; and a tricameral system that makes legislation too hard to pass, increasing the number of legislators and interest groups who must be bought off in order to get anything done.
12.19.2007 3:36pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
You can always make the argument that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but that begs the question. It just might be broke.

If you want to tell me what we have now is "broke," show me another system that has been in operation for at least 100 years that you think is better. Falling short of some mathematical ideal that has never been observed in the wild does not qualify in my mind as "broke".
12.19.2007 3:40pm
bittern (mail):
Paul Allen, are you saying you don't care how the government is elected because you don't like it? I must be very smart to figure that out.
12.19.2007 3:41pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
SeaDrive: agreed about approval voting. Also, one of the things I like about approval is that it's never in a your interest to falsify your preferences. There's still strategy in the sense that you have to decide how far down in your ranking of candidates to go, but it's never advantageous to vote for Bush but not Buchanan if you prefer Buchanan to Bush, or Gore but not Nader if you prefer Nader to Gore.
12.19.2007 3:43pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
"The Constitution was a very good document for the time, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of our The Constitution was a very good document for the time, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of our greater knowledge and experience to improve it."

Your "greater knowledge and experience" looks more to me like ideological assumptions that are less than universal:
(1) That the activist Supreme Court is a result of a too restrictive amendment process that would have otherwise thwarted the will of the people, rather than the result of a bunch of ideologues on the court thwarting the will of the people.
(2) That making it easier for government to "get things done" would be a good thing.
(3) That more democracy is always a good thing.

I consider none of the above self-evident.
12.19.2007 3:48pm
bittern (mail):
Elliot, I'm sensitive. I'd have an upset stomach all day wondering whether I'd picked the right level for my cutoff. I'd be out asking everybody I could find who the likely two front-runners would be, so I could calibrate my cutoff to make sure my vote counted. Then to think that I had to describe one as "approved" and not the other, when that's not a fair characterization of my judgements. And I don't even get to register whether my disgust with Bush or Nader is bigger. Lots of reasons to dislike approval. Mostly, I don't know if my vote is going to count in the final head-to-head. Say you like Obama, Edwards, Clinton in Iowa, in that order. Will your vote weigh in selecting the winner? It's all just a guess.
12.19.2007 3:51pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
Paul Allen, are you saying you don't care how the government is elected because you don't like it?
No, he's saying that since all voting systems have flaws trying to come up with a "better" voting system is pretty much impossible, so you should concentrate instead on putting as few things as possible to a vote.
12.19.2007 3:56pm
CWuestefeld (mail) (www):
Let me try this another way. The mission of America (via GWB) is to promote democracy throughout the world. Why is it that we seek to promote democracy?

Is being democratic, in and of itself superior to any of its rival systems? Because I think that having puppies is just swell, and we should make a priority of spreading puppies around the world.

Or is it because democracy delivers some desirable end benefit? If so, can that benefit be achieved through any other means?

I'm not necessarily attacking democracy, I'm just trying to figure out what the real goal is. Certainly this goal should inform what voting method is employed.
12.19.2007 4:07pm
Wayne Jarvis:
C.Gray: Sorry, I wasn't clear...nonpartisan *voters* cannot cast votes in many state primaries.
12.19.2007 4:13pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
Ralph—Political philosophy informs what people think constitutes a good system of government. This is not really news.

But you seem to have completely missed the point of my argument about legislation being hard to pass: my argument was that the tricameral system is bad because it requires buying off more legislators in order to pass legislation. This makes the legislation that does pass substantively worse by the standards of pretty much everyone, by weighing it down with more special-interest favors, loopholes, and pork-barrel provisions than would otherwise be necessary.

As for the Supreme Court, I guess I need to explain my thinking on this one in more detail. The result of making the Constitution very hard to amend is that when people want to change the Constitution, they fight to put judges on the Supreme Court who they think will "reinterpret" it to make changes they want. Result: de facto amendment by reinterpretation. You can complain that the Constitution would be fine if the judges would just follow it (according to your preferred theory of interpretation) but the fact that we have judges are so willing to make more radical changes is itself the result of the structure of the Constitution. If a constitution's structure results in people refusing to follow it, that's a flaw in the constitution, not a flaw in the people.
12.19.2007 4:19pm
Gramarye:
Ralph Phelan wrote:
If you want to tell me what we have now is "broke," show me another system that has been in operation for at least 100 years that you think is better. Falling short of some mathematical ideal that has never been observed in the wild does not qualify in my mind as "broke".
Our own system has not been in operation for 100 years, it has changed several times in that span via amendment, including some fairly major ones (Seventeenth and Nineteenth come immediately to mind). Nor is a better-functioning democracy a "mathematical ideal," any more than the Seventeenth Amendment itself was justified by some kind of mathematical model. That's just how wonks and academics talk, so you find people talking like that on a blog like this. I can guarantee you that a campaign to institute instant runoff elections or approval voting in the U.S. would not be justified with a bunch of game-theoretical models. My intuition is that they make lousy YouTube spots.

As to being broke: the argument that it's "broke" is that it can produce results to which the majority of the population is hostile, which debases the concept that our government draws its power from the consent of the governed.
12.19.2007 4:26pm
SeaDrive:
The USA is a republic? Who the hell knows what a republic is?

We don't hear any talk about spreading republican government to the 3rd world.
12.19.2007 4:30pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
the fact that we have judges are so willing to make more radical changes is itself the result of the structure of the Constitution.
I disagree with that claim.
If it's true, why did it only happen starting with the Warren court?
I believe the reason we have judges willing to make radical changes is due to social changes occuring at that time, including questioning of authority and tradition and general impatience.
12.19.2007 4:32pm
Paul Allen:

Paul Allen, are you saying you don't care how the government is elected because you don't like it?
No, he's saying that since all voting systems have flaws trying to come up with a "better" voting system is pretty much impossible, so you should concentrate instead on putting as few things as possible to a vote.


That's the sense of it.
12.19.2007 4:50pm
Gramarye:
Ralph Phelan wrote:
If it's true, why did it only happen starting with the Warren court?
Is that really what you think? Given the somewhat substantial disparities between Lochner and Nebbia/West Coast Hotel, if you buy into the notion that judges "amend" the constitution by proxy, you'd pretty much have to say one or the other of those was an "activist" decision. Depending on your own personal views on the constitution, you could argue that Marbury v. Madison was the most activist decision of all time.
12.19.2007 4:53pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
the argument that it's "broke" is that it can produce results to which the majority of the population is hostile

But "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem" tells us that *any* voting system will produce such counterintuitive results. They'll be *different* failures of democracy, but they'll still be there.

The "aggregate preference" of the population is imposible to even define in a coherent and consistent manner, let alone measure accurately once you've picked a definition.

For reasons both practical and mathematical, any attempt to implement "democracy" will always be an ugly approximation. Rather than trying to refine relatively minor details of the approximation to democracy, I'd rather worry about setting the boundaries of what should and should not be subject to it.
12.19.2007 4:56pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
As to whether the "de facto amendments" the courts make are helping to implement the "will of the people" despite obstructive legistlative/amendment procedures - the recent spate of successful state "definition of marriage" amendments would seem to indicate the contrary.
12.19.2007 5:01pm
KeithK (mail):

My point is more limited: that "the Framers didn't think so" is a bad argument against changing the system. The Constitution was a very good document for the time, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of our greater knowledge and experience to improve it.


An analogous argument can be made to any discussion of Supreme Court precedent. The fact that a previous SCOTUS decided that the law and/or Constitution says one thing doesn't mean that the current justices shouldn't use their greater knowledge and experience to change/improve the ruling. Precedent is only good if it's right.

There's an easy response though, for both the Framers and SCOTUS questions. Yes, the fact that it's been one way for a long time doesn't make it right or optimal. But if something has worked well for a long time you should probably give it a lot of deference and be cautious before making changes.
12.19.2007 6:47pm
KeithK (mail):

defined procedures for replacing a VP so we don't have to "wing it" again like we did with Ford.


Did we really wing it with Ford? I kind of thought so too but then I checked and noted that the 25th amendment was ratified in '67. (My excuse: I was only two when Ford became VP.)
12.19.2007 6:49pm
Nate F (www):
I've always been a big fan of the Copeland Rule.
12.19.2007 8:15pm
Yankee_Mark:
I think party affiliations are not controlled for in these Condorset discussions. Perhaps they would evaporate under this methodology but perhaps not. Hypothetically, How many Republicans who prefer McCain over Bush would vote McCain on the ballot below:

Bush(R)
McCain(I)
Kerry(D)

Even if you insisted on head to head and could determine that both Republicans were more popular than Kerry ... how many of the aforementioned Republicans would vote McCain(I) over Bush(R)? Would Condorcet necessitate the end of the 2 party system?
12.19.2007 11:54pm
ohwilleke:
One of the edges that highly partisan candidates have over generally popular moderate candidates, is that partisan candidates generally have risen to prominence based upon the well informed opinions of their political activist peers. Partisan candidates are more like their prime minister peers in parliamentary systems.

This means that partisan candidates are more likely to be known quantities, intellectually capable, and capable of functioning in a legislative/hierarchical/political environment better. A Concordat winner is more likely to be not what voters expected, stupid, or ineffective.
12.20.2007 7:43pm