Preference Voting — Darling Of The LP, But Does It Work?

Anyone who’s read my work here over the years will have realized that I’m not very interested in political horse races. It’s not to say that I don’t think there is some importance to them (as several contributors here do pay close attention), but that others can cover that stuff far better than I can, and at the end of the day it interests me not at all.

What does interest me is structures and incentives. I don’t think we’ll be able to make a meaningful change in the direction of this country unless we find a way to get the Republican/Democrat “Beast with Two Asses” to relinquish control and have actual diversity in Congress.

The structure of our government is such that it naturally trends towards a two-party system. The centrism of the American populace aligns those two parties into a nominal one-party system, standing a few steps for and a few steps aft of the mast of the Big Government yacht, but all riding in the exact same direction. Anyone who would dare rock the boat is purged.

So how do we fix this? Well, one option is replacing “first past the post” voting with ranked balloting. The sad truth of standard plurality elections in a dominant two-party system is that voting for a third party is a vote against your preferred of the two candidates. If you want the LP to win but could live with the Republican, voting Libertarian makes it more, not less, likely a Democrat will be elected instead. In ranked voting, you rank your acceptable candidates by preference, so ranking your LP candidate first and the Republican candidate second allows your second vote to stand should the Libertarian lose.

The question is — would it make a difference? The answer, unfortunately, is likely no:

But instead, the version being offered in Britain will allow voters to write in a first preference, and leave all others blank: the professor calls this practice “plumping.”

This is very significant, Mr Bogdanor argues, and he has the data to back this up. He notes that the stated purpose of AV is to avoid the anomaly by which a candidate can win a constituency on a minority of the vote.

However, he explains, it is not correct to say that AV ensures every MP is elected by a majority. In the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales, “plumping” is allowed in elections to state legislatures. And where it is allowed, it is very common. He records:

The greater the degree of plumping, the more an alternative vote election turns into a first past the post election…In Queensland, in 2009, where the Labor Party advised its supporters to “Just Vote 1”, to give Labor their first preference and not to give a preference to any other candidate, around 63% of voters plumped. Even where a party does offer advice, that advice may be ignored. In Queensland, the Greens advised that second preferences be given to Labor, but 46% of Green voters decided to plump

There are many arguments for and against AV. Many will be rehearsed here over the next few weeks (you lucky people). But for now, consider this possibility: by avoiding a dreadful form of AV (one which would make the use of all preferences obligatory), British backers of AV may have chosen a system that amounts to a gussied-up form of FPTP with added complexity and aggravation.

In a system built to be dominated by two parties at the Congressional level (not at the district level), we don’t have a system requiring multiple minority parties to work together to “create a government”. That’s more of a parliamentary system with proportional representation. Nor do we, as Americans enamored with representative democracy, seem to want that — we want to elect AN individual to represent OUR OWN interests in Washington [not that this actually happens, of course].

So it’s quite likely that Republicans and Democrats will each put their own party and zero other candidates on a ranked ballot. Those of us outside the two main parties will put our third-party preference and our second choice on a ranked ballot. And at the end of the day, you’ll end up with a Congress filled with the same Republicans and Democrats we started with. In the few cases where a minority party candidate is elected (say, for example, where a popular main-party candidate is skewered in the primary and goes third-party), it may make it easier to end up in office, but still isn’t a major change to the system.

I’m a fan of changing structure, and I see the allure of preference voting. In fact, I think preference voting is a worthy change. But I think that preference voting, in and of itself, would have effectively zero impact on the American political landscape. For it to be important, it would have to be paired with other structural changes that would improve the likelihood that minority parties would end up with a seat at the table. Like most things with the $3.5T Leviathan, it’ll take more than preference voting to make a real difference.

  • Dale Sheldon-Hess

    Just because preference voting is useless, doesn’t mean all voting reforms necessarily are.

    There is some reason to believe that approval voting, for instance (or even better, range voting (AKA score voting)) could actually do some good, and there are (were?) some libertarians in Colorado who were making some efforts in that direction.

  • Dr. T

    The voting system doesn’t matter. The two-party preference of our system doesn’t matter. Any way you slice it, representative democracy fails for large populations.

    The problem is that the average person wants government to do more than it should. Joe and Jane Average want too many safety nets, too many benefits and entitlements, and too many laws. And, they want others to pay all the taxes. Politicians are skilled at getting the Averages to vote them into office, and we get continual expansions of: government power, entitlements and benefits, prison populations, tax rates on the rich, and government debts.

    Since we cannot change the opinions and behaviors of the tens of millions of Joe and Jane Averages, we are fated to become a much larger version of modern Greece.

  • Brad Warbiany


    Again, I think there may be some marginal improvement in toying with the voting system. However, a lot of Libertarians seem to believe that we’re more popular than we really are, and that implementing an alternate voting system will finally be the change that gets the party into power.

    My point is that even if it passes, it’s still of marginal benefit. Our system will still be biased towards two parties, and that a LOT of change is necessary to affect that on more than a trivial level.

    Voting system reform is a laudable goal, but it’s only one tiny bit of the puzzle, not the whole thing.

  • Brad Warbiany

    Dr. T,

    Wow… You’re sounding even more cynical than me!

    I would say that Americans are more culturally libertarian than Europeans. In many European nations, the parliamentary systems are arranged such that there may never be a majority party, and you often have to form “coalition governments” to get anything done.

    In America, there may be enough Libertarians to make a Libertarian minority party a viable force in such a coalition government.

    However, that doesn’t work in “representative” democracy, because those Libertarians won’t be elected. In, say, a proportional representation parliamentary system, they might make it into office.

    Granted, to your point, parliamentary systems haven’t exactly shown an inability to grow government, so the question of whether or not some of America’s natural libertarianism would be enough to overcome that is highly theoretical, and I can’t empirically substantiate that the effect would be as large as I would hope.

  • Jeff Molby

    we want to elect AN individual to represent OUR OWN interests in Washington

    My dream world answer: