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Release ’em all

Pierce annex

Pierce elections

Those involved deeply in politics, professionally and otherwise, will pay attention next year to Pierce County’s county races, not so much because of their inherent interest – which may be substantial anyway, Pierce being an important swing county – as because of the way the votes are counted.

For its county offices – only those offices – Pierce will be using the “instant runoff” or candidate ranking method of vote-counting. If you think there’s only one way to count votes in political races, welcome to the new world: There are in fact many possible ways to vote and to count. Pierce (and are there any other jurisdictions in the Northwest doing this? We’ve not seen reports of any, though San Francisco has some experience with it) will be trying out one of the more heavily touted in recent years.

Roughly, here’s how it works (in this variation on the theme).

All candidates who file for the county offices up for election – executive, council (four seats), assessor/treasurer and sheriff – will be on the November general election ballot; there will be no primary for them. So might someone win the office with a plurality of 15%? No: This system requires a simple majority to win. Here’s how you get to 50% + 1 in a field of, say, eight candidates:

Voters can vote for more than one candidate – a first choice, a second and a third. (Or, if they want, just one or two.) You start by looking at the first-place votes. If you have eight candidates and the leader gets 30% of the first-place votes, then the last-place candidate drops out. Election officials then look at the ballots on which he was picked for first place, and extract the choices for second-place and add them to the totals for those candidates. If this still yields no candidate with 50% +1 of the vote, the new lowest-total candidate is booted, his voters’ second-place choices distributed, and so on.

The theory behind this approach – and it has a lot of support in the academic community – is that you wind up with an eventual winner who has broad general support, someone who is at least (usually) most people’s second choice. Certainly, this approach could have an effect on political campaigns – there’d be more emphasis on John Doe’s part in becoming a second choice for Jane Smith’s voters – and maybe more collegiality. It might de-emphasize splinter voting and cool off angry factions. Maybe. Pierce County may be a good laboratory for figuring out what the effects really are.

In his column today on the new voting, Peter Callaghan of the Tacoma News Tribune also highlights another consideration with the new voting approach: How often should partial results be released, and when?

“As each new batch of ballots is processed, the results can change much more than they do with traditional voting,” he writes. “For example, the fourth candidate in a field of four could get knocked out in the election-night count. The computer would look for the second choice of that candidate’s voters and apply them to the three other candidates. But as more mail ballots arrive and are tossed into the mix, that last-place candidate could move up and another candidate could fall to fourth place. Then that candidate’s second-choice votes are distributed to the other candidates. Traditional vote counting is cumulative. That is, counters don’t recount the ballots they counted on the first day but instead add ballots as they come in. But with ranked choice, counters may have to relook at all of the ballots with each count.”

The seeming winner on Tuesday night might be well behind days later – a situation much different than candidates and voters are accustomed to.

He points this out by way of the uncertainty of how Pierce County’s election officials will deal with releasing the results.

A blog on Pierce County’s instant runoff voting has posted on just this issue. Gig Harbor activist Kelly Haughton, who has worked on the election issue extensively, is proposing releases on election night and once or twice later that week.

The three logical possible choices to me are at the end of Tuesday night (Election Night), the end of Wednesday night or the end of Friday night. This is a tough choice, but I recommend doing it at the end of Election Night with the end of Wednesday night as a close second.

In addition, once you have started releasing the ranked choice voting round results, you should do it again each time you release the first choice counts. Further, there should be appropriate labelling of the results as preliminary at all times until they become final.

The Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy is faced with a tough choice on this one. While I come down on the side of Tuesday night’s close, this is a tough choice.

Would the auditor’s office dare not release the numbers on election night? It’s a little hard to imagine – a break with precedent that could lead to instant uproar, even if endless press announcements were made in advance.

And you would think that full daily releases should be a feasible thing. Managing the complexly shifting numbers may be trouble for many of us non-math majors, but computer spreadsheets are good at this sort of thing: Plug in the new numbers and see the outcome right away.

Although. A commenter to Haughton’s post pointed this out: “No matter what, we must release results daily after the ballots are counted just as we do now.” He said that in San Francisco, “wild percent[age] swings in the winners’ circle candidates percentages driven by small changes” led to local controversy, “So in the next election using RCV he chose not to release any info except how many first place votes each candidate received. That is far to[o] little information. I suggest that our Auditor release all the raw numbers as they are accumulated daily, but not apply the mathematical formulas until all the votes are in (certification).”

That seems a reasonable approach – even compromise.

Not that the Pierce auditor won’t be due some sympathy that election week.

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