Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Political thoughts

Recently I've been unhealthily fascinated by this website, it groups together the latest poll results from across the States into one nice clickable map. It is strangely addictive, to see how things are changing day to day. I'm particularly interested by the way that they take these poll results and try and predict the final result. The latest of these is predicting a victory for John Kerry. Which is odd because the latest poll results, on the main page, indicate that Bush is slightly ahead. In the latest poll Bush is a couple of percentage points ahead in Ohio, whilst on the predicted final result page they have Kerry just winning Ohio, which is the difference between him and Bush winning the whole thing. The difference comes from the fact that undecided voters, as in those who told the pollsters they were undecided, are split two to one in favour of Kerry (not sure why, I guess some poll told them that's the way undecided voters are going to vote). Amazingly some 10% of Ohioans are currently undecided. You've got to wonder what they are waiting for. If they haven't made up their mind yet when will they? Or will they just wake up next Tuesday, drive down to their polling station and flip a coin to decide whether to vote. Then, if the coin so decrees, flip the coin again to choose between the candidates.

They also have a crazy map where they try and do a least squares fit to the poll results to predict what the final result will be based on the trends. Which cannot possibly work (they freely admit that the map shouldn't be taken too seriously), and is predicting a win for Bush. Sitting here watching all the election nonsense as an, interested, observer it's all strangely fascinating. It's a bit like watching an entire country go through a car wreck, in so much as you don't really want to look, but you can't look away. I will be glad when it's all over, I may also be terrified and dismayed, but still I'll be glad.

In related news, it seems that those nice folks over at have blocked anyone outside of the US from visiting the site. Now even if we ignore all those Americans who happen to be overseas, and now can't look at their President's re-election website (they're "Building a safer world, and a more hopeful America" in case you are currently in the disenfranchised portion of the world... now I'm not sure about the world being safer, but certainly most of the Americans I know are terribly hopeful that something is going to happen on November 2nd), surely this is sending some sort of a message to the Rest Of The World. And maybe it's not the sort of message that the leader of the world's only superpower and, lets not forget, of the coalition of the willing, should be sending. But hell I'm just some dirty foreigner, what would I know about international relations.


Georgiana said...

It's hard to decide if it is all more frightening or more amusing. Did you know that in Maryland, where I live, if you wanted to go see George W. in his "vote for me or some terrorist will cut your head off" tour you had to sign a piece of paper saying you would vote for him?

What happens if you thought you might want to vote for him but you weren't sure? What about our right to assemble peacably? What about common courtesy? Yes I do realize I am raving mad if I think the words peace and courtesy apply to our current president so I'll stop now.

It's funny to me that you called yourself a "dirty foreigner." My wonderful boss is from Hungary and he calls himself a "filthy immigrant."

Re people who are undecided, I am still undecided. I am not voting for Bush because I loathe and despise him but I don't care for Kerry much. I'm trying to decide if I believe the hype that if I vote for someone else entirely I am "wasting my vote." I don't think we have a hope of getting away from a two party system if we keep guilting people into continuing to support that system. As my oldest son says it's a waste of a vote to vote for someone you don't truly beleive in.

Sorry for the excessive use of quotation marks. I'll try not to let it happen again. It's just so hard to talk about this stuff and not use some sort of irony punctuation mark.

Anonymous said...

A couple of quickies:

1. I was amused to learn that Florida seems to have lost 58,000 postal votes. You'd think that having completely arsed up the last election (can chads be a little bit pregnant?), they'd be a little more concerned about not arseing up this one too. Apparently, you'd think wrongly.

2. Georgiana: It's a weakness of the electoral system that you worry about a "wasted" vote. Here's my take on the situation:

i. Either Bush or Kerry will win the election. That's not in dispute. If you live in a likely "swing state", your vote could actually affect the outcome. In that case, it would seem to be to your benefit to vote for whichever of the two you dislike least, as that will increase the chance that you'll get your preferred outcome (out of the two outcomes that are actually possible).

ii. If you live in a state which is not in dispute (and it looks like Maryland is going to go for Kerry whatever), it may be to your advantage to vote for a minority candidate who more closely represents your views. A good showing for, say, the Green Party, might raise environmental issues a little higher on the political radar. Obviously this backfires if, say, enough Kerry-preferers vote Green to split the vote and give Bush the state, but that's pretty unlikely (unless you're in a swing state).

iii. The fact that you have to make judgements about whether voting for your favourite minority candidate will cause your least favoured major party candidate to win is a fundamental flaw in the electoral system. Instead of forcing you to select only one candidate, the states should allow you to rank the candidates in order of preference. Each state would then choose the Condorcet winner (if one exists) as the recipient of its electoral votes. In the absence of a Condorcet winner, the Ranked Pairs method should apply. Google is your friend. The advantage of this method is that one can prove that the optimum strategy for any voter is to vote his honest preferences. You can't construct "tactical voting" cases where you need to vote for a bad guy in preference to your favourite in order to prevent a worse guy from being elected.

iv. Such a method makes minor parties much easier to create and vote for. You could run on an anti-abortion pro-family "save a baby: kill a gay" ticket without worrying that you would take votes away from the Republican party and let some limp-wristed commies in. We wouldn't have to worry about Perot or Nader "spoiling" the election, as you can't split the vote.

Ryan said...

Yeah I'd heard, from The Daily show I think, that if you wanted to go and see Bush you had to sign a loyalty pledge. It did rather seem to be defeating the purpose... but I guess the real purpose of all these rallies is to get a twenty second sound bite on local TV that night.

Yes we of non-American origin always like to qualify ourselves with an unclean adjective. For me it's partly a reflection of the way the any American government has effectively a presumption of guilt about any foreigner in the country, c.f. my many visa/entering government laboratory problems. But mainly I just love the phrase dirty foreigner, there's a nice ring to it. (Interestingly I once read a welcome to America guide produced by one of the experiments I worked on. They empathised that in America most people shower or bathe everyday, and expect others to do similar. Now if this experiment had a large number of collaborators from poorer, third world countries I could understand the statement. But as it is all the non-American collaborators were European, and strangely enough most of us are pretty clean, so I wasn't sure what they were getting at. I really hope that it was put in the guide as a joke, but fear that this was earnest advice for us the great unwashed. And no French jokes.)

I guess when I read undecided I always think of people who can't pick between the two candidates, as opposed to those who can't decide if their least disliked candidate is good enough to vote for. Like I say I used to feel this way about Kerry, until the last month or so (not that I have, or want, a vote). In fact I saw him at a rally, here in Columbus, last night which I will probably post my thoughts about a little later.

The word chad amuses me, for two reasons. Firstly, I work with a Chad, so hearing about pregnant Chads is rather amusing. Secondly, it sounds so much like chav. I'm not sure if you have the chav phenomenon in America... but it is a perfect description of some of the urban youth of Britain.

I'd agree that the American election system could do with a shake-up, we could probably do the British and a few other systems at the same time. Although I'm not sure if the Condorcet method is actually as wonderful as its proponents suggest. I fear that it would just tend to elect bland candidates who were better than X, where X is the thing you hate, but weren't really people you'd want to be elected.

Basically I think you're buggered whatever you do. But I'm sure there are some systems where you'd be less buggered than under the current system.

Anonymous said...

The tendency for Condorcet to elect "bland" candidates is a reflection of the wishes of the electorate. Condorcet does no more than faithfully reproduce the stated wishes of the voters. If right-wing nut-jobs prefer the centrist candidate to a socialist, and militant left-wing wackos prefer the centrist candidate to the nut-job, you'll elect the centrist.

If people really didn't want a "blah" candidate, but wanted someone with firm views, they wouldn't vote for the centrist at all, though. If it was really true that people thought that any opinion was better than no opinion, the right-wingers would vote in order RLC (right, left, centrist blah), the leftists would vote LRC, and nobody would put C first. In that case, you'd chose whichever of L and R was more popular. So if you're right, and people don't want a blah candidate, then they won't get one.

Ryan said...

I fully believe that the Condorcet method reflects the view of the voters, I just think that the effect of the method would be to elect candidates that were the most noticable non-descript ones (if that isn't too much of an oxymoron). As I can pretty safely predict the right-wing crazies are going to vote for the non-descript candidate over the left-wing one, and vice versa for the left-wing militants. Which leaves us with the candidate hated by the least number of people, as opposed to the one preferred by the largest number of people. And maybe that's a good candidate to have, I'm just not convinced that it is.

Of course in a real election under Condorcet rules you'll likely have more than three candidates, and then I'm not really sure what will happen. Election night would certainly be interesting though.

Anonymous said...

Which leaves us with the candidate hated by the least number of people, as opposed to the one preferred by the largest number of people.True, but only with a very specific meaning of "preferred". Your statement is true if you assume that first preferences are all that matter. The Condorcet winner is by definition the candidate preferred over all other candidates (put the winner in a head-to-head election against any other candidate, and the winner will win).

If you're trying to argue that the most desirable winner from a disinterested abstract point of view is not the person preferred by the electorate but another person, then I'm not going to disagree with you. People are dumb, and often make bad choices. However, the point of a democracy is that the idiots do get to chose, and the Condorcet winner is the honest preference of the electorate. Arguing that the person with the most first preference votes should win is really arguing that people are too dumb to make the best choice (ie. they're so dumb they'll pick a wishy-washy nobody in favour of a strong leader they disagree with) so we have to fiddle the electoral system to make sure we don't chose the candidate the people elected.

C'est magnifique, but it's not democracy.

Ryan said...

My only real complaint about the Condorcet method is that I think in a deeply polarized country, like say America, you stand a pretty good chance of electing a patch of dirt. If the three choices on the ballot were Bush, Kerry or a patch of dirt, I think that the patch of dirt may well end up being elected.

Now as you point out the patch of dirt does represent the wishes of the electorate, but in some situations they need to be saved from themselves. Quite who should be doing the saving though, I wouldn't like to say.

Anonymous said...

Actually, looking at the vote for Bush in the recent election, he'd have won if each state determined its eectoral votes with Condorcet. If you get 50.000001% of first preferences, you automatically beat anyone else.

The real benefit of Condorcet for American politics would be to allow people to vote for third party candidates without all the accusations of, say, Nader spoiling the election for Gore. Assuming Nader voters would vote 1. Nader 2. Gore, that would be the same (from the point of view of Gore vs Bush) as a vote for Gore ahead of Bush. Oh, and with Condorcet, Gore would have won Florida.

The fact that people can then vote freely for a third party candidate without increasing the changes of their most hated candidate means that third parties actually become viable, and also means that one can effectively vote for a single-issue party to register your support for their platform. That's got to be a good thing for politics, surely.

The problem is, it's not necessarily a good thing for politicians, so it won't happen.