(Copyright 2002 Bryan Ford)
How it works
Single-winner elections are used to elect candidates to offices that can inherently be occupied only by one person at a time, such as President, Governor, or Treasurer. Delegative voting in a single-winner election works as follows. Well in advance of the election, each candidate submits to the electoral authority a list of next-choice candidates, in which order is not significant. This list indicates which other candidates the candidate in question considers to be (most) qualified to take the office in his place, if he himself is not elected to that office. In essence, before the election each candidate publicly casts a "approval vote" among all the other candidates. The electoral authority publicizes the next-choice lists of all the candidates along with other public information it makes available to voters for consideration.
When the popular vote is taken, voting and ballot counting is done exactly as in plurality elections: each voter simply chooses one from the set of candidates, and the counting process merely involves totaling the number of votes cast for each candidate. The only difference between plurality and delegative voting is in how the winner or winners are determined after all the ballots have been counted and the raw totals established.
To determine the winner of a single-seat election, the list of results is sorted according to the number of votes each candidate received, and the candidate with the smallest number of votes is successively eliminated until only one remains. When a candidate is eliminated, his votes are not simply "lost", but are instead transferred to other candidates still in the race. The votes received by the eliminated candidate are divided evenly among all of the candidates on his next-choice list that have not already been eliminated. In effect, the votes of an eliminated candidate remain "in play" and can affect the outcome of the rest of the election, providing an identical "boost" to each of the next-choice candidates.
AdvantagesIn contrast with plurality systems, which often elect a candidate that is supported by far fewer than a majority of voters, delegative voting can ensure that the winning candidate always receives a majority of the valid votes, as long the candidates cast their next-choice "approval" votes intelligently (and it is generally in their own best interest to do so). The vote transfer mechanism eliminates the "spoiler" effect that plagues plurality systems, in which two closely-aligned candidates or parties lose to a third candidate that is the least popular overall because the votes for the first two are divided.
As an example, suppose there are three candidates in a close election: Left, Center, and Right. Left is more closely aligned with Center than with Right, and Right is similarly more closely aligned with Center than with Left; therefore Left and Right each list ("approve of") Center as their sole next-choice candidate. Center, not wanting to take sides between the other two candidates, might either include both Left and Right on its next-choice list, or leave the list empty. Suppose the popular vote is then taken: Left receives 32% of the votes, Center receives 33%, and Right receives 35%. In a conventional plurality system, the Right candidate would win this election despite having only a minority of support (35%) and despite probably being the least favored by up to 32% of the electorate. In a delegative election, in contrast, the Left candidate would be eliminated first and his 32% share of the votes transferred to Center, who subsequently wins with a solid 65% majority.
Delegative voting removes the effective "lock-out" on smaller parties inherent in plurality systems, enabling less popular candidates to influence the election even if they cannot win it and thus giving them a stronger incentive to run. This friendliness to secondary candidates increases the effective choice voters have because it allows them to vote their conscience - i.e., for the candidate they really prefer rather than for the least undesirable candidate they think can win - without wasting their vote or risking spoiling the election for the mainstream candidate who is most closely aligned to their views. Delegative voting also encourages greater cooperation between candidates and discourages negative campaigning, because mainstream candidates often must depend on receiving some transferred votes from other candidates in order to win a majority.
Relationship to Instant Runoff VotingThose familiar with electoral systems will immediately notice that this system is similar to Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in the way the winner is determined. Both alternative systems involve the successive elimination of candidates and the automatic transfer of the eliminated candidate's votes. In IRV, however, voters explicitly rank the candidates in order on their ballots, and the ballots of eliminated candidates are transferred according to the voters' rankings. Delegative voting in contrast gives this power to the candidates themselves, effectively making their political alignments a fixed part of their public "platform".
Although DV may seem to give voters less "choice" than IRV if the number of candidates is assumed to be fixed, DV nevertheless has several important advantages over IRV: