Tuesday, March 20

Submission: Criticism of USAC voting system shows misunderstanding of its purpose

In a recent Daily Bruin Opinion column, assistant Opinion editor Abhishek Shetty criticized the Undergraduate Students Association Council Election Code for the way it elects general representatives. Shetty described how USAC uses the single transferable vote system and proposed the Election Board adopt a weighted voting system instead, on account of a wide lack of understanding of how the system works. But his desired solution reveals his misunderstanding of what a voting system should accomplish.

The single transferable vote system, as the name implies, is based on the idea that each voter gets a single, equal vote. Each voter uses that single vote for their preferred candidate, ranking the candidates per their preferences. From a voter’s perspective, nothing could be more intuitive.

After all of the ballots are cast, the first-place votes are tallied. At this point, the transferable part of STV comes into play. Each transfer of votes occurs in a round determined either by the elimination of the candidate with the least votes, or the mathematical guarantee that a candidate has been elected. For USAC elections, in which the goal is to elect three general representatives, the number of votes a candidate needs to be elected is one more than one quarter of the total number of voters. For example, in a runoff between at least four candidates, with a total of 10 voters, each candidate would need three votes to be elected. In a more realistic scenario with 1,000 voters, each candidate would be elected once they reach a threshold of 251 votes.

After a candidate reaches a winning threshold or is eliminated, votes are transferred to the remaining candidates. The goal of this is to ensure that each person’s vote is actually counted by the system. If a candidate only needs 251 votes to be elected, but they get 401 votes, the additional 150 votes cast for them must be redistributed. Otherwise, 150 voters wasted their votes when they cast their ballots for that candidate. Similarly, if a candidate only attracted 50 votes when they needed the 251, and was thus eliminated, those 50 votes for them ought to be redistributed to the voters’ next-preferred choices, ensuring that all the votes can be counted.

As the excess votes from winning candidates, as well as the votes from eliminated candidates, are redistributed, a second – and eventually third – candidate will reach the threshold and become elected.

While Election Board Chair Jack Price said STV is “byzantine,” it is the best option available. No matter how “arcane” the process is, STV ensures votes cast for both the most popular candidates and least popular candidates are not wasted.

Shetty misunderstands STV’s strength as a weakness. He lamented how in the 2016 USAC election, Shubham Goel, who received more first-place votes than Inan Chowdhury, was not elected due to the vote-transfer mechanics of STV. While Chowdhury may have received fewer first-place votes than Goel, more voters overall preferred him. Electing Goel would have been undemocratic, as it would have meant voters who preferred Chowdhury but did not select him as their first choice would have wasted their votes.

Furthermore, STV protects against abuse of the system through tactical voting. While hypothetical scenarios exist in which ranking a preferred candidate lower can actually benefit them, such tactics are far too high-risk to be rationally utilized. Under STV, the only strategy any campaign strategist worth their salt follows is to maximize the number of first-place votes possible – a strategy that average voters intuitively assume, even if they don’t consciously realize it, when they rank their top-three choices. On the other hand, a strategist who encourages supporters to rank their preferred candidate second will likely face deserved defeat – as Shetty says, elections should be based on competence and leadership, not gimmicky strategies.

Shetty’s proposed plan creates more problems than it solves. The system he proposed would award four points to first-place votes, two points to second-place votes and one point to third-place votes. Under this system, voters who prefer either the most popular candidates or candidates unpopular on the whole see their votes wasted, as some of their voting power goes to candidates who would either be elected without the addition of their vote or to candidates who don’t have a chance to win, even with their vote included.

This preferred voting method invites campaign strategists to play all sorts of games aimed at electing their preferred candidate and keeping the opposition off the council table. Campaign strategists for one candidate could tactically coordinate an effort to ensure opponent joke candidates edge out legitimate opposition. Powerful slates can sway huge swaths of the voter pool and could work together to ensure the combined total of each of their candidates’ first-, second- and third-place votes beat out any singularly popular opposition. There is a greater chance for instances in which, despite receiving 33 percent of the electorate – an amount that would get someone elected – a candidate is boxed out because because the second- and third-preference votes of other candidates put them over the top.

While Shetty is right to point out the widespread lack of understanding of how STV works, he fails to see its successes as a voting system. A weighted voting system tramples on the concept of proportional representation.

An extensive knowledge of how votes are transferred is unnecessary for the average voter – they are wholly served by being told, as they are each year, to rank each candidate according to their preferences. By granting every student a single vote that will not be wasted, candidates are forced to seriously compete for the highest rankings. STV is the best option out there for USAC elections.

Cracraft is a fourth-year political science student who has served in the past as a campaign strategist for multiple USAC candidates.

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