An alternative to recounts in close elections

Like most post-election seasons, we have our share of recounts going on. I'm going to expand on one of my first blog posts about the electoral tie problem. My suggestion will seem extremely radical to many, and thus will never happen, but it's worth talking about.

Scientists know that when you are measuring two values, and you get results that are within the margin of error, the results are considered equal. A tie. There is a psychological tendency to treat the one that was ever-so-slightly higher as the greater one, but in logic, it's a tie. If you had a better way of measuring, you would use it, but if you don't, it's a tie.

People are unwilling to admit that our vote counting systems have a margin of error. This margin of error is not simply a measure of the error in correctly registering ballots -- is that chad punched all the way through? -- it's also a definitional margin of error. Because the stakes are so high, both sides will spend fortunes in a very close competition to get the rules defined in a way to make them the winner. This makes the winner be the one who manipulated the rules best, not the one with the most votes.

Aside from the fact that there can't be two winners in most political elections, people have an amazing aversion to the concept of the tie. They somehow think that 123,456 for A and 123,220 for B means that A clearly should lead the people, while 123,278 for A and 123 and 123,398 for B means that B should lead, and that this is a fundamental principle of democracy.

Hogwash. In close cases such as these, nobody is the clear leader. Either choice matches the will of the people equally well -- which is to say, not very much. People get very emotional over the 2000 Florida election, angry at manipulation and being robbed but the truth is the people of Florida (not counting the Nader question) voted equally for the two candidates and neither was the clear preference (or clear non-preference.) Democracy was served, as well as it can be served by the existing system, by either candidate winning.

So what alternatives can deal with the question of a tie? Well, as I proposed before, in the case of electoral college votes, avoiding the chaotic flip, on a single ballot, of all the college votes would have solved that problem. However, that answer does not apply to the general problem.

It seems that in the event of a tie there should be some sort of compromise, not a "winner-takes-all and represents only half the people." If there is any way for two people to share the job, that should be done. For example, the two could get together to appoint a 3rd person to get the job, one who is agreeable to both of them.

Of course, to some degree this pushes off the question as we now will end up defining a margin between full victory and compromise victory and if the total falls very close to that, the demand for recounts will just take place there. That's why the ideal answer is something that is proportional in what it hands out in the zone around 50%. For example, one could get the compromise choice who promises to listen to one side X% of the time and the other side 100-X% of the time, with X set by how close to 50% the votes were.

Of course, this seems rather complex and hard to implement. So here's something different, which is simple but radical.

In the event of a close race, instead of an expensive recount, there should be a simple tiebreaker, such as a game of chance. Again, both sides have the support of half the people, they are both as deserving of victory, so while your mind is screaming that this is somehow insane because "every vote must be counted" the reality is different.

This tiebreaker, however, can't simply be "throw dice if the total is within 1%" because we have just moved the margin where people will fight. It must be proportional, something like the following, based on "MARGIN" being the reasonable margin of error for the system.

  • If A wins 50% + MARGIN/2 or more, A simply wins. Likewise for B.
  • For results within the margin, define an odds function, so that the closer A and B were to each other, the closer the odds are to 50-50, while if they were far apart the odds get better for the higher number. Thus if A beat B by MARGIN-epsilon, Bs odds are very poor.
  • Play a game of chance with those odds. The winner of the game wins the election.

A simple example would be a linear relationship. Take a bucket and throw in one token for A for every vote A got over 50%-MARGIN/2, and one token for B for every vote they got over that threshold. Draw a token at random -- this is the winner.

However, it may make more sense to have a non-linear game which is even more biased as you move away from 50-50, to get something closer to the current system.

This game would deliver a result which was just as valid as the result delivered by recounts and complex legal wrangling, but at a tiny fraction of the cost. The "only" problem would be getting people to understand (agree to) the "just as valid" assertion.

And the game would be pretty exciting.


I really like your 2004 idea specific to allocating electoral votes.

This post seems too complex. There are already rules triggering recounts. I'd suggest that if a vote is close enough for a recount, just flip a coin.

But it generates the same problem. If you have a "cliff" threshold, then there will be massive fighting around the cliff-point. Today (in a 2-candidate race) that's the 50% line. But if you say "flip a coin when the margin is less than 1,000 votes" or similar you just will get a battle over whether it's less or more than 1,000 votes, same as you do over whether it's positive or negative. Well, half as much a battle perhaps, as the candidate is battling between the certain result (loss or victory) and the 50-50 chance.

My goal is to make the battle not very productive. Sure, you could push for recounts or legal challenges and gain a small number of votes for yourself. But if all that did was slightly increase your odds in the game of chance, it's just not worth doing, at least if there is serious cost (like having to pay for recounts that don't change things much.)

Now on the other hand, I do think there should be recounts, done somewhat randomly, to audit our voting systems. So we want them sometimes, but also sometimes when the margin is several percent to spot test attacks and major frauds.

This isn't so much for a tie-breaker, but it is another idea that will probably never come to fruition.

Each ballot should automatically come with another party to vote for, called the "None of the Above" party. If you do not want to vote for any of the candidates, choose the NOTA party. If it wins by more than 35%, it forces another vote in 1 month. All parties must put forward another (different) candidate. We keep going until we hit on a contest of honest, forthright people.

I would not have voted NOTA this past election, but in the last few elections? You betcha.

I, and many others are big proponents of multi-candidate ballots and even none of the above (which exists in some countries) is interesting. However, in practice it doesn't seem to have an effect after a while. It gets pretty low support, and people vote strategically as they really do have a preference even if they think all the choices suck.

interestingly enough, some places do have tiebreakers. i believe one place had to execute that option in 2004, but i forget where or how small the population was. then again, given how many of these state-wide elections have been ties you could imagine this happening more often. note that it only applied in the exact tie scenario, not your statistical tie scenario.

then again i think georgia solves this by forcing a revote.

These are common, but of course rarely used, and nobody debates their need. What is much harder to get people to accept is that there are all sorts of sources of error in elections, and thus a tie is far broader than an exact tie.

When people are divided 50:50 over a representative, randomizing the outcome will undermine faith in the outcome. As in sport, the only believable outcome is to play on. Most countries, like New Zealand, have responded to ongoing, large, minority votes (50:50 being the canonical case of a much larger problem) have adopted portional representation - essentially shifting the problem into the voting representative chamber where it is played out each day, or gamed away in deal making.

Putting aside the case that people are completely unified, and thus each party gets 50% because they are indiscriminable, I suggest that neither randomization nor proportionality address the fundamental problem. Instead, a 50:50 split or even a of a very large minority suggests that the people cannot be represented as they are fundamentally divided.

Large minorities indicate that the people no longer have a shared vision for the direction in which they wish to travel: more tax, or less?; tax the rich, or user pays?; individual liberty, or state power?; death penalty, or psychotherapy for criminals?; Are gays normal people, or perverted psychopaths? Should workers pay for the children and health of the poor? These are not questions that can be satisficed: they are different directions of travel.

Differences of opinion on such questions lead people to form new countries. This is exactly what the independent States, and, ultimately, America, represented: A decision to split asunder into units containing people who agree on what to do.

I propose that the answer to close elections is to greatly increase State's rights: Let States vary a lot bound only by a strictly (humbly) interpreted constitution.

Soon there would be no more hung 50:50 elections. Instead, accompanied by large flows of people into and out of each state (with citizen's right to move guaranteed by the constitution), some states would ban abortion and allow ostracism of homosexuals. A few more States would allow complete freedom over their citizens's over their own bodies. Many states would fall in between and vary on other dimensions.

With 50 states, soon one or two would have no state health care or welfare, and zero income tax. Another would reorganize along the lines of the Athenian city state, with few bureaucrats and high levels of citizen participation. Another couple would specialize in education, becoming friendly to high-IQ residents and tech.

With a market in constitutional governance, the covenant crowd would have their Jericho, and contractualists could build a neo-Enlightenment.... Soon one or more State's approach would see them with 20-times the GNP of the average state, and others would be copying.

Roll on the singularity.

The goal, though, of federalism is to compromise on a variety of issues in order to gain certain economies of scale. One of the large economies of scale (and natural monopolization ) is defence. And yet the country is very divided on the questions of Iraq and the "war" on terror.

But the other economies of scale are commercial. Frictionless commerce between the states benefits all, and provides larger and easier markets to all sorts of companies, old and new. The more you allow the laws to vary among the states, the harder and harder it is for a small company to handle selling to all the states, for they must now understand and follow 50 sets of rules.

This is so valuable that people agree to compromise even on things like abortion to get it. They don't think they are compromising on abortion of course, but they put the decision in the hands of a large electorate, including many who think differently from their state.

Now you propose something more akin to the EU. If you're right, the EU should thrive, with more individual control in various area but more frictionless commerce. Of course, some in the EU refused to join the common currency. Those who joined are sometimes happy, sometimes upset that they gave up the ability to set fiscal policy.

The EU was, in some ways, a reaction to the economic power of the USA, and Japan.

So no, 50-50 is not grounds for a divorce. But you could be right that it means finding another answer. My point is that 49.8 to 50.2 is just as much a sign of that as exactly 50-50, but people refuse to see that, and so we have expensive recounts and battles when there is a statistical tie. Still want to fix that one.

Hi Brad,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I understand your point about the illogic of being happy to accept a small win, but being distressed by very similar voting patterns resulting in numerical ties. But I think there is no solution: One might for instance selectively discard votes to get an outcome: perhaps the early votes as being less informative, or the late ones as being less conscientious, or votes from young people as less experiences... all would work, but none would be acceptable. Probably the best solution would be to re-open voting to get votes from people who thought their vote didn't matter. That at least involves nothing but real people voting and leads to a decision.

Or just get captain Adama to take us all to a new earth, just like the old earth :-)


But I see a few problems:

  • It may be as expensive if not more expensive than recounts. If not for the legal battles, recounts would be cheaper.
  • Some people might decide not to vote, figuring that either the election is not close and thus their vote doesn't count, or it's real close and voting later can make it count more.

The way forward at once unthinkable, yet inevitable. And the fifth, still in shadow, will claw toward the light, hungering for redemption that will only come in the howl of terrible suffering." I think that Saul "finds" Ellen in the Six so to speak, they are "enemies Brought together by imossible longing".

(Ed Note: This was a spam! Spam links deleted. The most on-topic I have seen in a while.)

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