Fast, cheap, or good elections, pick any two

Some thoughts on the Iowa caucuses vs. the Irish general election

There’s a saying in the world of information technology: fast, cheap, or good, pick any two. It captures the inherent trade-off between the desire for a solution that provides high performance and/or rapid response times, that’s doesn’t cost a lot of money, and that actually does what it’s supposed to do without errors or failures.

This saying applies in other areas as well, including elections. We saw this most recently in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, which devolved into a spectacular mess of non-working apps, jammed phone lines, voter confusion, and misinformation (and sometimes disinformation) propagated by media pundits, politicians, and activists all vying to declare definitive results as soon as possible.

The Iowa caucuses involved a mere 176,000 people, comparable to the number of people who turn out in a local Howard County election. Across the Atlantic ocean this weekend there’s an election involving an order of magnitude more voters. If past experience is any indication, while the election results may be surprising (see my next post) the actual process of getting to those results will be reassuringly boring.

I’m referring to the general election in Ireland—or the Republic of Ireland, to distinguish it from Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. The election is to select representatives to the Dáil (pronounced “doyle”), the lower house of the Irish parliament (comparable to the House of Commons in the UK).

To take the “good” aspect first: the Irish voting system does a good job of producing results that reflect what voters actually want, and is pretty simple for voters to use: voters fill out a single ballot sheet listing all the candidates for the (multiple) Dáil seats in their particular constituency. They then put numbers beside the names of each of their favored candidates, ranking them in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, and so on. Then they turn in their ballot. That’s it.

(Incidentally, the Iowa caucus rules are also designed to also reflect voter preferences among multiple candidates, but they don’t do as good a job, and are much more complicated for voters to understand and follow.)

As implied above, Irish elections do not use any sort of electronic voting equipment. This reduces capital expenses for elections and removes the possibility of voting machines or other computer-based systems being hacked. This checks both the “cheap” and “good” boxes.

So, what about the “fast” box? Recall the catch: “pick any two”. Voting in the 2020 Irish general election was yesterday, Saturday, February 8. However, the final results of that election are not likely to be known until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest.

Why so long? Because by making the voting system more likely to reflect voters’ preferences, simple for voters to use, not needing electronic equipment, and not vulnerable to hacking, the vote count itself becomes a very people- and time-intensive process. Greatly simplified, it goes something like this (see this “dummy’s guide to election count” for a more detailed explanation):

After collecting paper ballots and storing them securely overnight, the next morning election workers open the ballot boxes in the presence of political party representatives (as shown above). The vote counters sort the ballot papers by voters’ first preferences: one pile for ballots noting candidate A as “number 1”, a second pile for ballots noting candidate B as “number 1”, and so on. They then count the number of first preference votes for each candidate and the total number of votes.

Based on the number of seats, the total number of votes, and the vote shares for each candidate, it’s possible that one or more candidates receive more than enough first-preference votes to be elected without further ado (i.e., “they exceed the quota on the first count”). If so, their excess votes (more than were needed to elect them) are distributed to other candidates who were indicated as the second preferences of voters voting for the just-elected candidate(s). A second count then occurs in which one of the remaining candidates now has enough votes or (failing that) the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated.

This process of electing or eliminating candidates, followed by transferring votes to the remaining candidates based on voter preferences, continues until candidates are elected to fill all open seats. This typically requires several counts, each of which (again) requires manually inspecting the ballot papers. If the counting isn’t finished by the end of the day then everyone goes home and resumes the process the next day.

Americans, or at least American media, are notoriously impatient and desirous of instant gratification. Americans are also addicted to technology almost for technology’s sake, so that each new shiny thing that comes along (touch screens! the Internet! blockchain!) is hailed as the solution for voting that will truly and finally deliver on “fast”, “cheap”, and “good” all at once.

There are also many people with a vested interest in the current winner-take-all U.S. electoral system, starting with the politicians and activists of the two major political parties. Thus it’s difficult to see the U.S. ever adopting the Irish voting system or anything similar to it, at least at the national level. And indeed if this ever does happen I suspect it will not be until a generation or two has passed, and resistance to the idea is overwhelmed by ongoing political conflicts that motivate peoples’ desire for fundamental changes to the American political and electoral system.

But whether it comes soon or not for a generation or two, I think the US would be well served to look to change its way of electing candidates to better match the way it’s done in Ireland. It’s possible that with appropriate electronic assistance it can be done in a way that’s quicker than typical Irish experience (though of course not without bringing some risk into the system).

Some US cities and states are now experimenting with a form of the Irish system, under the names “ranked-choice voting” or (when a single position is being filled) “instant-runoff voting”. For some thoughts on why this nascent movement is on net a good thing for the US, see my next post.

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