Voting – Reimagining Our Preferences

It’s General Election time again in Ireland, and this of course brings into the public sphere a whole different terminology and analysis. In particular, the PR (Proportional Representation) voting system throws up rich scenarios for those of us fascinated by such things – how will votes be transferred, how will the order of eliminations affect likelihood to be elected and so on.

Other countries often look on in bemusement at the whole convoluted process. Take the UK for example – their first past the post process yields results simply and quickly, and they scratch their heads at why we are on an 8th count to fill the 4th seat in a constituency 3 days later.

However, in Ireland we are attached to the system, as evidenced by us twice having voted to keep the PR system instead of bringing in first past the post. Why do we like it? Well, a large proportion believe that this is a fairer and more accurate way of gathering the will of the people, which is, after all, what elections are about.

As a market researcher whose job it also is to understand the preference of the people, this is an interesting point. There are many ways of understanding preferences – if Ireland is seen to choose the convoluted path, why don’t we go all in?! Dust off the e-voting machines, get the statisticians on standby, and consider a few other options which might well serve to better reflect the will of the people…

Chip allocation

An oldie but goldie as a market research technique. People get an allocation of chips/tokens to divvy up among candidates in accordance with their preferences. They can give all to one candidate if they are especially passionate, or split it out among 2,3 or more candidates in whatever fashion they like. Alternatively this can be done using a percentage system – you allocate your 100% in whichever way you see fit across candidates, e.g. 100 all to one person, or maybe 50/30/20.

Why? The best way of deriving preference among a set of options involves both absolute and relative measures. In other words, how much do you want one candidate to be elected, but also, how does that compare to other candidates? PR gives a ranking, so is good for relative measures (e.g. I prefer my second preference to my third) but less so absolute measures (by how much do you prefer your second to your third preference?). Chip allocation addresses this and every candidate ends up with a score – the top candidates are elected in a way that gives people more leeway to express their preferences. It is a more rounded way of gauging preference.


Max diff

A great technique to determine the number 1 preference right the way down to last preference, max diff might be more of a stretch at the ballot box. If we have 12 candidates, we give people a series of choices – they will select their top and bottom choice from a group of 4 candidates and repeat this simple exercise a number of times over with different groups of candidates. All candidates end up with a single score and this is a very robust way of identifying in full who people want in and who people don’t want. And while it sounds complex, the actual analysis is relatively straightforward and in a digital voting system will yield results quickly.

Despite all its advantages and its usefulness in a market research context, max diff might be a bridge too far for general elections. What it gives us in accuracy is offset in terms of complexity, cost and time at ballot box, so this one is unlikely to fly any time soon. Never mind the addition of TURF analysis to gauge the optimal coalition combination!

Chip allocation, however, could be a runner. There is a basic gamification to the process and the idea is simple. It allows people distribute their votes in a different way that can give them greater rein to express their preference. It allows the committed voter to express their strong preference and the undecided voter to spread the love in whichever way they want.

Whatever the merits of these methods, the chance of these, or any other ideas, displacing PR any time soon is very slim. This is a light-hearted look at voting through the lens of a market researcher. However, it never hurts to rethink ‘how things have always been done’, and what’s more, next time someone tells you our voting system is complicated, just remember it could be a whole lot more convoluted than it is!

I for one, will be following the counts and the transfers with great interest in the next few days!


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