20 October 2010

Turning Inclusive Debates into 'Reality'

The aftermath of Monday's inclusive New York gubernatorial debate, which spotlighted all seven candidates who'll appear on the November ballot, raises questions about the need for balance between inclusiveness and seriousness. The talk of the night and day after the debate, when not focused on the two major-party candidates, focused on James McMillan, the flamboyant candidate of the "Rent is 2 Damn High" party, who was said to have stolen the show with his eccentric appearance and mantric insistence on the driving issue of his campaign. For some observers, McMillan's performance proved that inclusive debates were a bad idea, since his time took away from whatever they considered the crucial questions of the race. A disillusioned Carl Paladino, who had insisted upon an inclusive debate, decided afterward that the format was "terrible," apparently because he expected all the other candidates to join him in attacking Andrew Cuomo. Some, notably Charles Barron and Howie Hawkins, embraced the task, but Paladino seems to feel that any time spent not attacking Cuomo at Hofstra was wasted time. He reflects an attitude expressed in many places that the subject for debate Monday should have been the front-runner's qualifications for office, not the full range of options for the state's political future. Meanwhile, even people who applauded the debate's inclusiveness could be troubled by the focus on McMillan at the expense of more credible independents like Barron, Hawkins and Warren Redlich. But to express reservations about McMillan (or Kristin Davis) begs the question of anyone's qualification to dismiss a duly accredited candidate as frivolous or a crank before a larger audience of voters gets to judge. We don't want some censorious counterpart of Iran's Guardian Council to decide whether people otherwise qualified are actually unfit (by what standard?) to run for office. But if the joint appearances we call political debates are to be meaningful, shouldn't there be a way to insure a more substantive discussion of the issues and choices facing the electorate?

Inclusive debates require some revamping of the debate format to avoid the conditions under which the Hofstra event will likely be the only and thus inevitably disappointing occasion when any of the candidates confront one another. If we want to commit to debates as essential to informed voting, every accredited candidate -- those with automatic ballot lines and those who meet the petition threshold -- must commit to a sequence of debates.

How should the sequence work? For those who think that the only proper debate format is one-on-one, the ideal might be a round-robin format in which each candidate faces off against each of his or her rivals one at a time, so that Paladino, Barron, Hawkins et al each get an individual shot at Cuomo but also have to debate each other along the way. The likely flaw in this approach is the likelihood that most voters won't bother tuning in for any debate in which the Democrat or the Republican candidate isn't involved.

An alternative debate schedule might incorporate some of the principles of so-called reality (i.e. "unscripted") TV, particularly the principle of audience elimination as practised on American Idol. In this format, all accredited candidates would appear in an inaugural debate -- which, to be fair to all participants, should be longer than subsequent encounters. Afterward, registered voters would be encouraged to call in or log in and determine which candidate would be eliminated from the later debates.

A candidate could be eliminated in one of two ways. It could be done simply by eliminating the candidate who gets the fewest positive votes from viewers, or viewers could vote expressly to eliminate a most-disliked candidate. Either method is vulnerable to abuse by irresponsible voters. The popularity-contest model runs the risk of what those with a little historical memory will recognize as a "Sanjaya" effect, in which transgressive jackasses conspire to promote an objectively unqualified yet perversely entertaining candidate. In our present context, the worst-case scenario could be Howard Stern fans or other trolls pooling their votes for McMillan after every debate until he made the final round. It might not improve his chances of actually winning the real election, but it would go a long way toward discrediting this debate format. On the other hand, if we have the audience vote against a candidate, we can anticipate that the first person eliminated would most likely come from one of the major parties, thanks to collusion between acolytes of the other major party and independents or pure trolls. While hardcore critics of the Bipolarchy might not object to such a result, it would most likely undermine the credibility of the remaining debates until viewers grow more accustomed to independents dominating the spotlight. In either case, the possibility of viewer/voters not behaving objectively is a cause for concern, but since that's never stopped us from having elections, we probably shouldn't worry too much when the stakes are lower. We might make the stakes higher for the candidates themselves by linking participation in the debate series to a self-imposed limit or outright renunciation of campaign advertising, but the viability of that idea is probably a subject for another time.


d.eris said...

I think the claim that the inclusive debate is a bad idea, based on whatever evidence, would have been the default position of partisan bipolarchists no matter what had transpired during the event. The people making the claim that candidates like McMillan and Davis turned what should have been a "serious" debate into a circus sideshow are themselves the ones who focus on the most superficial externalities of the whole process, whether third party candidates or major party candidates are the subject of the discussion.

In discussing McMillan, they focus on his beard and decontextualized misstatements, rather than the substance of his position: landlords have too much power, the possibility of declaring economic emergency to deal with the state's budget problems etc.

Of course, this is how these people treat every political event, and Americans have become accustomed to having politics narrated to them by the media, it's all superficialities, no substance. In fact, anyone who paid attention to what was said would have noticed that there were a great many serious issues broached in the debate, ones which are often avoided by Democrats and Republicans.

In a duopolized debate, we would have been treated to 90 minutes of two guys effectively not answering any questions, spoon feeding us bullshit and talking points.

But I like your ideas for shaking up the format. There are tons of possibilities there.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

As long as we use an electoral system which artificially restricts the number of viable candidates to two, whether or not we have a system of debates that can handle more than two is more window dressing than reform.

Anonymous said...

I really don't see how the electoral system restricts the number of viable candidates to two. That is entirely the fault of the Democrat and Republican parties, who hold far too much power they are not Constitutionally authorized to hold.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...


In a word: spoilers. Why is Ralph Nader a laughing stock? Because he not only lost, but was accused of making Al Gore lose. Because of that, his party got 96% fewer votes in 2004 than in 2000.

This is how it always happens with third parties: they spend years and years building support, and then they spoil an election, and all that work is destroyed. The jump from "not a factor" to "winning" is an insurmountable canyon of "spoiler". And being a spoiler not only means you didn't win, but that you made the candidate most-disfavored by the majority of voters win instead.

To blame the Ds and Rs is to confuse cause and effect; yes, they've enacted restrictive ballot access, locked minor parties out of debates, and so on. But this is always done to limit the likelihood of spoilers; to make it less-likely that the worst candidate wins.

If there were no spoilers, there would be no justification for these laws. There would be no 96% backlash against a growing third party. Third parties would continue to grow, and eventually win elections.

Still not convinced? Consider: If having a third candidate involved in an election is of absolutely no concern for our electoral system, as you assert is the case, than why do parties have primaries, rather than run multiple candidates?

Samuel Wilson said...

Dale: Thanks for writing. The pejorative concept of the "spoiler" depends on the premise of a "most-disfavored" candidate. While there will always be such a candidate in purely statistical terms, his statistical existence should be irrelevant to all voters for other candidates. If we've reached the point where voters are more concerned with preventing the worst candidate from winning than with voting for the best, something is wrong with our polity above and beyond Bipolarchy and ballot access issues.

To answer your final question, parties don't run multiple candidates because they were too clumsy in the past. When parties emerged in the 1790s, the Constitution allowed them to run at least two candidates for President, since presidential electors had two votes to cast, with partisans understanding that they should give less votes to the second candidate so he would be Vice President. Thomas Jefferson's party screwed up in 1800 and gave Jefferson and Aaron Burr the same number of votes, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. The Constitution was rapidly amended to fix the problem, but while the old system was in place it was actually to each party's advantage to run multiple candidates, and spoilage had nothing to do with it. When rules changes made the practice counterproductive, not to mention counterintuitive, it stopped.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

I'm not saying that it's *good* to be concerned about spoilers, but simply, that we *are*; and that this concern is the primary force driving the two-party system.

In fact, the best outcome for society--regardless of the voting system used--is when no one makes decisions based on spoilers; but the best outcome for each individual IS to consider them. So telling people they SHOULDN'T worry about spoilers is to tell them to vote against their own best interest, and to trust that their political opponents will magnanimously do the same. That is going to be a really hard thing to sell.

But, if we agree to instead use a voting system that doesn't suffer from spoilers, that gives significantly better results over plurality even when voters DO vote tactically, then we'd all be much better off, and we would also see a lot more success for third parties.


And "clumsiness" in a single election in a single nation 200 years ago using a system that has since been replaced does absolutely NOTHING to explain why virtually every election in every nation every year using single-member plurality districts boils down to a one-on-one fight. (It's huge news this year that, out of 435 house seats, 30-something senate seats, and I-forget-how-many governors that there are four races with more than two candidates that have a chance.) There were ALREADY precisely two parties by the time your example happened. Furthermore, your example points out that each party had determined that its best strategy was to get together ahead of time (i.e., hold a primary) and choose ONE candidate for each seat, P and VP; these two elections where intertwined in an odd way but they were effectively two separate election. And they screwed up on translating that strategy into their ballots, but that was the strategy: one candidate per office from each of two parties. Your hypothesis does not explain why they think that would be the best strategy, nor does it explain why that strategy is still used after the system was changed, nor does it explain why there were only two parties. "Spoilers" does.


Remove spoilers, see third parties win elections. It's that simple. The voting methods that do the best job of eliminating spoilers are approval voting and score voting.

Samuel Wilson said...

I ought to note that advocates of score voting, instant runoff or any arrangement that allows a voter to choose multiple candidates for one office are only asking for something like the right presidential electors enjoyed under the original Constitution. Each elector cast two votes for President, but not for the same man. There was no separate vote for VP, that office simply going to the runner-up in the presidential vote. Early partisans tried to game the system in order to get their men in both offices, only to botch the attempt in 1800. I bring this up again to suggest that intractable partisanship, especially if ideologically based, could find a way to beat any system designed to avoid a Bipolarchial result. One possibility is the creation of dummy parties that are independent in name only yet ideologically pure allies of one or the other big party. Skeptics may doubt this scenario, but there's no reason to assume that any set of rules is a more effective remedy for bipolarchial tendencies than an electorate that refuses to vote according to fear and has no cause to resent so-called spoilers. Representative democracy works best when no one considers any candidate intolerable.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

"There's no reason to assume that any set of rules is a more effective remedy for bipolarchial tendencies than an electorate that refuses to vote according to fear."

No need to assume, let me show you the simulation data:


This suggests that, in fact, some voting methods deliver markedly better results in multiple-candidate elections than others. In a two candidate election, all of these methods give identical results, but THIS graphic is for a 5 candidate election, and you can plainly see that there is a difference. For instance: even when voters ARE tactical, fearful cowards, the approval- and score-voting results are still better than if IRV or plurality voters were completely honest and fearless.

Yes, it's "only" a simulation; but doesn't it suggest that you might be the one making assumptions?

Anonymous said...

How is voting for someone you feel is a better candidate "spoiling" an election? I voted for Nader because the man has a long history of standing up to corporate America for consumer's rights. Al Gore, although having good ideas, is funded by corporate America, as are nearly all Democrats and Republicans.

People voting for third party or independent candidates don't spoil elections. People who feel only the "viable" candidates, and vote accordingly, spoil not only elections, but the entire political process in what is supposed to be a democracy.

Anonymous said...

Again, as I've mentioned elsewhere, perhaps part of the fix is to create an election law allowing any given candidate to run on only one line, rather than on multiple lines. That way, people are sort of forced between voting for a third party candidate that that more closely speaks for their interest or voting for the "lesser of two evils".

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

Because, by voting for your favorite, you end up with a MUCH WORSE candidate than if you had instead voted for one SLIGHTLY WORSE than your favorite.

I'm not saying this is GOOD or how it SHOULD be, I'm saying this is how it IS, and that we could make it LESS BAD by using a system that is less-susceptible to this problem.

And even if YOU don't see any difference between the two major-party candidates in any race (i.e., both are equally horrid) you would be a fool not to see that OTHER PEOPLE do. And that they vote based on those preferences. And that, out of fear of SPOILERS, they vote for the lesser of two evils rather than their true third-party favorite. Crucifying these people as false-adherents isn't going to win you any new friends, or new votes.

There's a formal definition for "spoiler"; it's a candidate who doesn't win, but whose presence changes the winner. If you honestly believe that in a one-on-one Nader vs. Bush election, and a one-on-one Nader vs. Gore election, that Nader would have won, then you can freely say that Gore was a spoiler for Nader. I'm not sure that's the case, but I grant that it's possible. In which case: Changing the voting system to one that is less susceptible to spoilers would have HELPED NADER. In other words, you should agree with me for purely selfish reasons.

I think you're getting hung up because you think that, when I say spoiler, that I'm blaming Nader for ruining things. That's not the case. This is simply an academic assessment based on a precise definition. (It's like if I were to refer to someone as "retarded," and you found that offensive, when I was using the term in its medical sense of referring to someone with an IQ measured below 60.)

Nader got less than 0.4% of the vote in 2004. An approval-voting trial found that he would have gotten 21% approval. That's more than 50 times as many votes; who knows how well he would have done in 2000, at the height of his, and the Green Party's, popularity?

Voters react not only to the candidates, but to the system used to adjudicate between them. Change the system, change the outcome.

Anonymous said...

Again, I have to disagree. By voting for Ralph Nader, I did not vote for George W. Bush. Other people did, he got elected. That is not Ralph Nader's fault, nor is it the fault of people who voted for Ralph Nader. It is specifically the fault of people who voted for Bush.

Why should I have to settle for less then what I feel is best for the country? This isn't a matter of "voting for your favorite." It is a matter of attempting to get a person you feel has the best set of ideas and value system for the nation as a whole. I will not settle for the "lesser of two evils", as that choice is still voting for "evil". People who are willing to settle for such a choice are people who are willing to sell out their values to be on the winning team. Such people are trash to begin with, as they have no real value system or morals, their interest is only in being on "the winning team" to begin with. Such people do not belong in a democracy as they obviously have no idea what "democracy" is.

A working democracy demands a certain amount of intellectual capacity from its adherents. An ability to weigh options, list the pros and cons of those options and come up with a viable, workable set of solutions for whatever problems face the country at any given time. The knowledge to understand that no solution will be 100% acceptable by 100% of the people and the willingness to find common ground and compromise are also necessary for a democracy. Finally, the wisdom to accept that there will be times when you (and those who politically agree with you) cannot always have what you want and be willing to work with what you have in those times.

The bottom line is we, as individuals, need to put the good of the nation foremost if it is a strong nation that we seek to be a part of. A strong nation needs a strong government. A strong people have no reason to fear a strong government. Weak people will always fear - that is the nature of weakness. A strong nation cannot exist if it's citizens are weak and fearful.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

"That is not Ralph Nader's fault, nor is it the fault of people who voted for Ralph Nader."

You're absolutely right, and I'm not assigning any blame to them: blame does not factor into. I'm using "spoiler" in a purely clinical sense.

If you want me to use a more technical/less loaded term for "spoiler", I can say "failure as respecting the independence of irrelevance alternatives," or "IIA failure."

"It is specifically the fault of people who voted for Bush."

And THEY did nothing wrong either; they voted, presumably honestly, and got what they wanted. You wouldn't demand that they do something different just to make you happy, would you?

I assign blame to the SYSTEM used to adjudicate the election. We WANT a system that (among other things) rewards us when we vote in a way that is consistent with our beliefs. When there is an IIA failure, it means that some people, who voted honestly, would have been better rewarded for voting dishonestly. I think that's bad; don't you? It's bad for them, it's bad for the candidates they support. And it's worse when, as is often the case, a great many people choose to seize that small reward, and vote dishonestly.

You don't do that: great for you! You're helping society (on average)! Because every voting system works better for society when more voters vote honestly; but each voter can also find an advantage for themselves by voting dishonestly (AKA tactically, AKA for the lesser of two evils). But you can't DEMAND honesty from people while REWARDING dishonesty, and expect that to work.

The system we use, plurality, is the WORST system in this respect. We can get BETTER results by using a BETTER system; one where IIA failures don't happen.

And that's what I'm arguing for here: a system without IIA failures, i.e., one where no one has to worry about spoilers; so more people can, and will, vote honestly; so society elects better leaders. And I expect many of those leaders would be third party members.

The single best way 3rd party supporters have to help their candidates is to fight for a better electoral system. I whole-heartedly believe that. And those systems are approval voting or score voting.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, it isn't the system that has a problem. It's the politicians. If every candidate running is of low quality, then it doesn't really matter what system you use, the result will be the same - low quality.

If, on the other hand, we (the people) allow only those with the highest quality run, then no matter who wins, the country as a whole wins.

Fixing a system you perceive as broken will avail you nothing if you don't also fix the candidates.