Tallying procedures likely lead to inaccurate results
Student Union election results appear to incorrectly reflect the actual student vote, a Justice examination of 2010 and 2011 election data has revealed.
The issue stems from a conflict between two major aspects of Union elections. These two aspects are the Union's constitutional election procedures and its instant runoff voting system. The result of this conflict is a vote-tallying system that distributes student votes to candidates in a way that is likely inconsistent with voters' intentions.
The ensuing problem is particularly significant in multi-position elections, such as those for seats in the Student Judiciary.
It is highly plausible that two additional candidates for the judiciary in last Thursday's election—John Fonte '12 and Claire Sinai '15—would have been declared winners had the instant runoff system operated true to its original intent. Fonte and Sinai received the most votes in the initial round of voting, and Gali Gordon '15, the candidate who won the judiciary seat, came in third.
According to article IX of the Union constitution, "If abstain receives the greatest number of votes during a final election, than [sic] there will be a vacancy in the office until the next election."
The apparent problem arises because candidates who receive the most votes in initial voting calculations may be systematically prevented from defeating "abstain" in a given election. This is due to the fact that Union's rules concerning the "abstain" option are not accounted for in the calculations of the Union's instant runoff system.
In a phone interview with the Justice, Gregory Dennis, a board member of Citizens for Voter Choice, a Massachusetts organization that promotes instant runoff voting and proportional representation, who was briefed on the election data for the latest judiciary election, said "The tally, the tabulation, was right, but the interpretation was wrong."
"There were four candidates in this race that won. Three of them were people, and the fourth was ‘abstain,'" said Dennis, who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in computer science and has been involved with voting technology processes. In 2010, Dennis consulted with Sahar Massachi '11 MA '12 in order to advise the Constitutional Review Committee, which at the time was considering the implementation of the voting system currently in use.
The Union began conducting instant runoff elections last fall, in line with a constitutional amendment approved by the student body in spring 2010.
In instant runoff elections, voters rank their choices for a given position. For instance, in last Thursday's election to fill the four available seats on the Judiciary, students were presented with nine candidates and asked to rank them in an order that reflected their preferences.
After the polls close, the system calculates a threshold for victory—the number of votes required for a given candidate to win. This threshold is calculated by taking the number of voters in that election—excluding voters who chose "abstain"—and dividing that figure by the sum of one plus of the number of open positions in the election.
Then the system starts calculating the winners.
First, the system declares any candidates whose votes meet or exceed the threshold as winners. For the judiciary election, those candidates were Fonte and Sinai.
Next, the system reallocates winners' excess votes in a trickle-down process.
To do this, the system subtracts all votes beyond the threshold from the first position candidate and distributes them proportionately among the second-choice candidates of that winner's voters. From then on, the system considers these winners as removed from the process and prevents them from receiving any further votes from redistribution. For the judiciary election, this meant that Fonte's surplus votes were distributed proportionately according to his voter's second choices. Fonte was then prevented from benefiting from further vote distribution.
This process continues until the system finishes distributing the surplus votes of all candidates whose votes met or exceeded the threshold. For the judiciary vote, because there were only two candidates who met the standard, this meant that Sinai's surplus votes were then distributed by the same process as Fonte's. Sinai was then prevented from benefiting from further vote distribution, and that part of the process was complete.
The system also reallocates the votes of candidates with the fewest votes in a trickle-up process.
One by one, the system works its way up from the bottom starting with candidates who received the fewest number of votes, eliminates them and distributes their votes proportionately among the second-choice candidates of their voters. The system completes this process once there are no more candidates that could receive further votes. For the judiciary election, the system completed the process once the vote count of Gordon exceeded the threshold, making him a winner.
Gordon, however, was in third place after the initial tally, which incidentally allowed him—unlike Fonte and Sinai—to acquire a number of votes greater than that received by "abstain." Because the system had excluded Fonte and Sinai from receiving any further votes—having already considered them winners—their initial leads in the vote count actually worked against them, preventing them from acquiring the votes necessary to beat "abstain" and win.
In an interview with the Justice, Union President Herbie Rosen '12 said, "Honestly, this is something our union came to inherit. And it's things like this that get brought to our attention that we will move to correct and fix. Sorry for the confusion and inconvenience, but you can expect better from us in the future when we come up with as a solution."
In a phone interview with the Justice, Fonte, a candidate for the judiciary who may have been affected by these election issues, stated that, although he was unwilling to discredit the Union's results, "If the results are false, then to be honest that's more of a problem on the Union's part. … I would still run again. According to the numbers I saw, ... I had a good running chance."
Sinai, another candidate for the judiciary who may have been affected by these issues, wrote in an email to the Justice, "The situation is unfortunate for both Fonte and myself … I was really looking forward to serving Brandeis as a member of the Judiciary. "
In a phone interview with the Justice, Rob Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, a national organization focused on election reform, who was briefed on the election data for the latest judiciary election said, "[The result of last week's judiciary election] sounds like that was a misinterpretation of the rules, because these other candidates weren't even in the position to get votes anymore, … so it sounds like someone misprogrammed the system." In 2010, Richie consulted with Massachi in order to advise the Constitutional Review Committee.
Concerning the way votes were tabulated for the judiciary positions, Richie said, "That's nutty. That doesn't make any sense to then say that they lost, because they weren't able to win."
Regarding the victory of "abstain" over several candidates in the judiciary election, Dennis, an expert on election processes said, "Just over 20 percent of [voters] didn't want anyone [to be elected]. ... I don't think those 20 percent of people should get basically 75 percent of the say, which was the result."
—Andrew Wingens and Emily Kraus contributed reporting.
Clarification: Sinai originally misunderstood the situation when first presented to her. This article has been updated to reflect her reaction with a full understanding of the situation.