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Alaska election results show why Condorcet is obsolete
Condorcet advocates use the wrong standard for evaluating Ranked Choice Voting elections
Post-election commentary and kibbitzing over the Alaska election in which Democrat Mary Peltola beat Sarah Palin continues unabated. But increasingly it has run off the rails over attempts to discredit the election method used, Ranked Choice Voting.
The first wave of criticism came from some apoplectic MAGA Republicans, furious that their Mama Bear Palin had lost. Right-wing GOP Senator Tom Cotton tweeted "Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” and one unhinged pundit said ranked choice voting “has the rank odor of Third World authoritarianism.” Palin herself called it a “new crazy, convoluted, confusing” system, while that expert judge of electoral fairness, Donald Trump, called it “ranked choice crap voting…a total rigged deal” (and Trump should know).
Now some advocates for different electoral systems, such as approval voting, range voting, STAR voting and more, are taking dim views of how ranked choice voting performed in Alaska. Some elections commentators measure the worth of all electoral systems by whether or not that system elects what is called “the Condorcet winner.”
Okay, let me warn readers right now: this is going to get a little wonky. At the end of this discussion, no doubt some of you are going to say, “I can’t believe so many people spend so much time thinking about these things.” I will try to boil it down to the basics.
No, Condorcet is not the name of a new French cologne or champion wine from the Challenge International du Vin. Condorcet was a French mathematician in the 18th century who, among other brilliances, had a very long name: Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, a.k.a. the Marquis de Condorcet.
He designed his own voting method that posits that the only true winner in an election is the one candidate who defeats every other candidate in simultaneous head-to-head contests. But such an election is completely impractical to organize in the real world. You would have to stage multiple separate elections, each candidate running in a series of “top two”-style runoffs against all the others. The one candidate who beats all others would finally be crowned the blessed winner.
Since this is so unworkable logistically, instead the Condorcet advocates simulate an election in which the same ballots are counted multiple times, and in such a way that the election process pairs each candidate in a one-on-one contest with all the other candidates. The single candidate that defeats all others in this simulated election eventually is declared the winner (called a “pair-wise election”). Its advocates have promoted the “Condorcet winner” standard as a measuring stick to evaluate all other electoral methods, whether it makes sense to do that or not.
Are you still with me? From here, it only gets better.
The real winner in Alaska is…the loser!
According to the rules of this Condorcet simulation, the true winner of the congressional election in Alaska was not Democrat Mary Peltola, who had a nine point lead in first rankings over the nearest candidate and defeated leading Republican Sarah Palin in the final instant runoff. No, they claim it was the third place finisher, Nick Begich, Palin’s fellow Republican. That’s because when you use the ranked ballots to count them in this pair-wise fashion, lo and behold Begich beats Peltola 52.5%-47.5% in head-to-head contests, and Begich beats Palin 61%-39%.
For advocates of the “Condorcet winner” standard, and those who exaggerate the importance of this standard, such as the advocates of approval voting, range voting and STAR voting, this is their “Eureka!” moment. If the ballots had been counted with their preferred method, the ballot rankings show that Begich in fact would have been the simulated winner. And since ranked choice voting did not come up with that result, they of course castigate it as a pile of Sasquatch squat that should never ever be used again in a public election.
It never occurs to these advocates that, given the fact that Begich is the “Condorcet winner” in the Alaskan election, this is clear and compelling proof that the Condorcet winner standard is as obsolete as its 18th century origins.
Think about it: a candidate who finished in third place, who was nearly 12 points and 22,000 votes behind the eventual winner, and 2.7% and 5000 votes behind the second-place finisher, and who would not have won this election in Alaska’s old closed primary system either, because he would have lost to Sarah Palin in the Republican primary; and who has lost to Palin three times now, including in 2 primary elections and 1 general election…yes, THAT candidate…under Condorcet rules…is the “real winner.”
In fact, using Condorcet rules Begich would have stomped Palin by a landslide of 22 points and Peltola by six points. So according to the Condorcet standard, a candidate who finished in a distant third place, who was in fact dead last, is actually the legitimate winner by a wide margin.
No wonder the Condorcet voting method is not used for any public elections anywhere in the world. In fact, I don’t know of any country or sub-country that uses an election method in which a candidate can win after finishing dead last. The idea that Begich is the Condorcet winner is kind of an "alternative universe" argument to make. As we saw in that Alaska election, the Condorcet winner criteria is saying that a more popular candidate (either Peltola or Palin) spoiled an election for a less popular candidate (Begich). Even Donald Trump apparently does not agree with this methodology, as he complained about RCV saying, “You could be in third place and they announce that you won the election.”
And yet that’s exactly what the champions of the Condorcet standard are promoting. What’s wrong with this picture?
The values in your voting system
Here's what’s wrong: it really comes down to what values and principles are embedded into an electoral system. The voting method used is fundamental to any political system because when you select a particular method for your elections you are selecting a set of values and philosophy of government, as well as a range of accompanying effects and consequences.
For the purposes of this discussion, it's really not a matter of which system is better, either ranked choice voting or Condorcet or approval voting or range voting -- it's a matter of what are the incentives for winning? What kinds of candidates do you want to reward with an electoral victory?
Here’s what I mean. With RCV, winning candidates in a single-winner contest (like a governor, mayor or a representative of a legislative district) must have BOTH a broad base of support AND a strong core of support. RCV rewards both deep support as evidenced by a high number of first rankings, and broad support, as evidenced by many backup rankings. But with Condorcet and these other methods, winners only need to have a broad base of support, and do not need much core support.
Let's say in an RCV election there is a candidate who is ranked second on every single ballot in the election. That would be a clear indicator of broad support. But let's say that same candidate is ranked first on only a single ballot. That candidate will be the first one eliminated from the race, because that candidate did not have strong enough core support — enough first rankings — to prevent being rejected early in the round by round vote tally.
RCV rewards candidates who show real leadership and can attract a nucleus of voters who strongly believe in that candidate. But not exclusively, because the truly defective plurality voting method also rewards candidates with a strong core of support. So RCV also rewards candidates that have a broad base of support. The values and principles of RCV are boldly declaring: "A candidate who has virtually no core support, even though the candidate did have broad support, that candidate should not win. You need BOTH core and broad support to win an election under RCV."
But with Condorcet voting, that same candidate who is ranked second on every ballot and first on hardly anyone’s ballot will be the winner. Being no one's first choice but everyone's second choice is not a losing strategy in Condorcet voting, quite the contrary. It encourages candidates to be bland and take few strong stands on anything. They are incentivized to water down their true beliefs and hide them from voters so as to not offend or be opposed by anyone.
That is also a feature of approval voting, because it doesn't allow a voter to distinguish between her first, second or third choices. It’s also a component of range and STAR voting, which also allows a candidate to win who does not have the highest score from many voters but instead is supported broadly.
In what alternative universe does that make sense? You can't have it both ways. When you are selecting an electoral system, you have to choose which values and principles you want to prioritize. Once you have done that, it makes no sense to evaluate a system like RCV -- which awards "winners with a broad base AND core support" -- by a method like Condorcet that, by definition, prioritizes "winners with just a broad base and little core support."
What is the better “good democracy” standard?
From a “good democracy” standpoint, a candidate in a single-seat election should not be able to win just by being many voters’ second choice. The higher democracy standard is that winners should have BOTH a broad base AND core support. With that as the values-based foundation for an electoral system, then it no longer makes sense to evaluate RCV with a Condorcet standard.
So rather than measuring RCV by some Condorcet benchmark, the reality is that the Alaska election has substantially discredited and delegitimized Condorcet, either as an actual electoral system that can be used in public elections, or even as a measurement or standard by which to evaluate other electoral systems such as ranked choice voting.
Certainly it's fair game to use a range of criteria to compare different electoral systems, and the Condorcet standard could be in the mix with other criteria. But using Condorcet in such a rigid and compulsive way, as some are doing, where it becomes the only criteria or even the primary criteria for evaluating all electoral systems, is severely flawed, methodologically.
Also, it is fair to point out that candidates will shift their campaign tactics depending on the rules. If Begich was actually running in a top two election, head-to-head against either Palin or Peltola, the candidates would all adopt a different strategy than they used with RCV. Indeed, if they had used the old closed primary system, which would have been a head-to-head contest between Begich and Palin, does anyone doubt that Palin would have beaten him? With the Trump endorsement, she would have been able to rally the Republican diehards around her in that head-to-head contest.
Also, as an aside beyond these theoretical arguments, RCV in single-winner races nearly always elects the Condorcet winner. Of the 375 single-winner RCV elections in the US between 2004 and June 2021 (in which researchers had sufficient ballot data for an assessment), 374 RCV elections were won by the Condorcet winner. That’s 0.27% of races in 17 years where the so-called “Condorcet winner” lost.
One race? In 17 years? OK readers, if you have made it this far, now you can express your exasperation: “Why are so many people obsessing over the results of one race out of hundreds???”
All of these factors are warning signs against applying the values and standards of the Condorcet system to ranked choice voting. It makes a lot of assumptions that simply don't play out in the real world, and makes little sense.
So the next time you are at a dinner party with your politico acquaintances and wonky confrères, and you hear someone suddenly hiss with conviction, “But Begich was the Condorcet winner!”, just smile and nod and then make a dash for the rest room. Because this is an argument that you cannot win, since the different electoral systems are by definition trying to elect different kinds of candidates. Instead, you have to first decide what values and goals you are trying to fulfill, and then design your electoral system to fit that mission.
Considering all the evidence, it’s clear to me that the most democratic values and standard for assessing single-winner races should be that winners must earn both a broad base and a strong core of support. Elected representatives should be able to demonstrate both leadership potential and extensive acceptance by voters.
But Condorcet produces winners who have only a broad base and not a strong core of support. RCV advocates believe that is the wrong value and standard to prioritize in single-winner elections. Consequently, the Condorcet criteria is not really useful for evaluating RCV.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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