Electoral Rubbish

Sep 30 2010 Published by under Bad Math, Bad Statistics

And now, for your entertainment, a bad math quickie.

I live in New York. 'round here, we've got a somewhat peculiar feature of how we run our elections. A single candidate can run for office on behalf of multiple parties. If they do, they appear on the ballot in multiple places - one ballot line for each party that they represent. When votes are tallied, if the candidate names for two different ballot lines match exactly, then the votes for those two lines are combined.

The theory behind this is that it allows people to say a bit more with their votes. If you want to vote for the democratic candidate, but you also want to express you preferences for policies more liberal than those of the democratic party platform, you can vote for the democrat, but do it on the liberal party line instead of the democratic party line.

In practice, what this means is that we've got lots of patronage parties - that is, lots of small parties which were set up by a small group of people as a way of making money by, essentially, selling their ballot line.

One thing we hear, election after election, is how terribly important these phony parties are. This year, we keep on hearing, over and over, how no Republican has won a statewide election since 1975 without the backing of the Conservative party! Therefore, winning the backing of the Conservative party is so very, very important!

This is, alas, a classic example of the old problem: correlation does not imply causation. The Republicans don't lose elections because they don't have the backing of the Conservative party: the Conservative party always backs the republican candidate unless it's completely clear that they're going to lose.

Some background, to help understand where this all comes from:

To get on the ballot, you've got two choices. You can get onto the ballot by petition, or you can get on the ballot by doing well in the previous election. Getting onto the ballot by petition is incredibly difficult: NY has a notoriously strange and difficult system of handling ballot petitions, which makes it extremely easy to force ballot petitions to be discarded. It's a crazy system which is really designed to keep people off the ballot unless they're approved of by at least one of the two big parties.

So, for these patronage parties, there's a rather subtle dance. On the one hand, their primary reason for existing is really to get money and attention for their founders. So they really want to sell the line to the highest bidder. On the other hand, they need to make sure that whatever they do, they make damn sure that they'll win at least 50,000 votes statewide, so that they don't lose their ballot line.

Two of the worst historical offenders in these electoral hijinks have been the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberal party nearly always chose the Democratic candidate for their line; the conservative party nearly always chose the Republican candidate. They were generally able to extort enough money from the big parties so that just continually endorsing them was a good investment. After all, they might make more this year by selling their line to someone else - but if that cost them their line, then that would be the end of the gravy train. So if the major party candidate is going to win the election, then the phony parties would naturally sell their line to the major party!

But when the major party candidate is certain to lose, then their calculations get trickier. They need to find someone who can get at least 50,000 votes. And with the major party candidate in trouble, he's not going to spend any time telling people to vote on the conservative line! He's going to be struggling to win votes, and talking about this phony fringe party isn't going to help. So in those circumstances, the party will sometimes choose someone else - someone who has money or fame, and who's willing to use that to get enough attention to get the 50,000 votes that the party needs.

One of the tricky parts of this is that NY has a very late primary: our primary is the second tuesday in September! So the secondary parties often choose their candidate before the actual primaries, which are very late in NY. This means that in election years where there's a contested primary, and the result isn't what people predicted, the little parties can get it wrong. For example, in the last governor's election, the liberal party guessed wrong, and backed Andrew Cuomo. When Cuomo didn't win the nomination, it was too late for them - they'd already officially selected him as their candidate, and so, backing the wrong candidate, they didn't get their 50,000 votes, and lost their line.

Ok, there's your background.

Now, in NYC, we actually had a contested republican primary for the governorship this year. We had the republican party hack, Rick Lazio; and we had the tea-party darling, Carl Paladino. Everyone expected the guy with the party backing to win - so the conservative party, naturally, selected him for their ballot line.

But he got crushed. The tea party backed candidate absolutely obliterated him. Crisis for the conservatives! They needed to scramble to find a way to get rid of Lazio, so that they could replace him with Paladino on their ballot line, or risk losing it!

Oh, what to do? What to do? Once you've put a candidate on the ballot, it's almost impossible to change it! And now the poor conservative party is backing a guaranteed loser - they're in danger of losing their line!

Well, there's a little loophole in New York election law. If a candidate is nominated for a judgeship, then they can withdraw, and the party gets to choose a new candidate. So the republican party went and nominated Rick Lazio for a judgeship, knowing that he wouldn't actually get it. But it gave them a way to get him off the line.

So the Conservative party finally met, and selected their new candidate. Every news source - every single one that I saw: NBC, CNN, CBS, CBS Radio, NPR, the NYT - every single one had stories about how the Conservative party was choosing its new candidate, and this was really important, because no Republican candidate for statewide office has won without the backing of the Conservative party since 1975! So it's really important who the Conservatives choose - it could make the difference between winning and losing for Paladino!!

The backing of the Conservative party in NY is totally meaningless. Whether they had Paladino on their line or not this year wouldn't make any difference to anyone except the Conservative party. For them, it's a big deal: the tea party types are the people who typically vote for Republicans on the Conservative line when it's the same as the Republican. They're not going to vote on the Conservative line for anyone who might cause Andrew Cuomo to win the election. So for the Conservatives, their survival as a party is on the line. For everyone else? It's total bullshit.

If you look at the electoral history, what you'll find isn't that the republicans tend to win when they've got Conservative party backing. Instead, what you find is that the Conservative party only chooses someone else when they're absolutely sure that the Republican is going to lose.

But still, every election cycle, all of the media go and write stories about the stupid little fake parties. No Republican has won since whenever without the Conservative party. No democrat has won since whenever without the Working Families party. Therefore we need to pay attention to them, because their endorsement of a candidate can be the difference between winning and losing. Blah-diddy-blah-diddy blah. It's nonsense.

No responses yet

  • Vicki says:

    Well put. The interesting question is, how often/how recently have candidates won election with only one of those lines? The Conservatives got a senator in for one term—in 1970. John Lindsay was re-elected mayor of New York with only the Liberal Party endorsement—in 1969.

  • James Sweet says:

    Thanks for all the background, Mark... I am a NYS resident, but I didn't realize all of this shennanigans. The fact that the Conservative Party had to scramble to get off Lazio and onto Paladino really tells you how phony they are... I mean, Paladino is just the kind of racist classist fucktwist that the Conservative Party claims to support, eh? If they had any integrity, they would have supported him to start with. (Of course, if they had any integrity, they wouldn't be the Conservative Party in the first place, now would they?)

    Two things:

    One, how about Paladino's signs, eh? Red on black?! Are you serious?!?

    Two, Paladino is batshit crazy. It's really depressing that he's actually on the ballot.

  • Andrei says:

    In my country, we have a different electoral system, but I recognise the style from the soccer news when they say things like "Team A hasn't lost against Team B on its home field since 2002" or something similar...

  • chezjake says:

    You're correct as far as state wide races are concerned, but in the city of Albany the Working Families Party has made significant progress in denting the power of the Democratic machine and forcing the rewriting of the city charter to reduce the power of the mayor. The WFP is now more influential than the Republican Party in local politics here.

  • Don Doumakes says:

    It seems meaningless today, perhaps, but when the Conservative Party was founded, they made an explicit decision that they didn't care whether Republicans lost. As a result of Conservative candidates pulling votes away from Republicans, Democrats started winning in districts that had been comfortably Republican under the two-party system.

    The political result was that Republicans scrambled to the right in order to win back Conservative Party voters, and Democrats ALSO scrambled rightward, trying to peel off the least-conservative Republican voters and maintain their newfound majority. Bottom line: the right-wing third party with little support moved the political center of gravity in its own direction. The partythat used to include Nelson Rockefeller would not welcome him today. That's not meaningless.

    In my district, I have a choice between a Republican who's so right wing, he literally admires Joe McCarthy, and a Democrat who's just another uninspiring pro-corporate type. Wish there were a Labor or Socialist or Green candidate sniping at him from the left.

  • Roger Witte says:

    An election that is a two horse race can be completely fair and equitable, but when there are three or more choices there are limits on how well the electoral system can represent the wishes of the voters (Look for Arrow's theorem on Wikipedia for more details). So the little parties in New York do have the possibility of making the election less fair (eg by confusing less well educated voters orby encouraging tactical voting by political sophisticates), and that may part of the reason for their existence.

  • Vicki says:

    Arrow's Theorem is fascinating, and a good reminder of the limits of any decision-making system, but too often people seem to use it as a reason not to bother improving things. It's like saying "nobody can make you live forever, so there's no point going to the doctor."

    Up in Alaska, the pollsters are having a hard time deciding how to phrase their questions in the senate race: there's a Democratic nominee, a Republican nominee, and a Republican incumbent running as a write-in. The incumbent is the only candidate most people have heard of. Any poll that just asks "which party are you voting for?" will undercount her support, and probably list much of her support as going to the other Republican, because voters know she's a Republican. (Some of it may, come Election Day, but not all: there's a definite "Lisa's doing a good job, keep her" sentiment. Offering "or Lisa Murkowski as a write-in" apparently has the effect of exaggerating her support. And "Who are you voting for?" also exaggerates her support because people don't know the other names: they may say "Murkowski" because they want to satisfy the questioner by giving a name.

    • Michael Ralston says:

      The way the Alaskan pollsters SHOULD be asking the question is this:

      Are you going to vote for [democratic nominee], the Democrat, [republican nominee] the Republican, or a write-in?

      Then if they say write-in, follow up with "Okay, who?"

      (They should randomize the order of the two names, of course, unless Alaska's ballot has some kind of known order in which case they should go with that.)

      This will most closely mimic the actual experience the voters will have, and thereby give the most accurate results.

      Of course a lot of the pollsters are biased in one way or another - they either want to enhance Murkowski's apparent support, diminish her apparent support in favor of the Republican nominee, or try to split apparent support between her and the Republican in order to favor the Democrat - so they word the question to favor whichever candidate they're working for.

    • Vicki, your comment on Arrow's theorem deserves a harumph. I think this theorem is surpassed perhaps only by Godel's in the extent to which it is misunderstood or (mis)applied in situations where it is inappropriate. Although Arrow's result is "popular" and well-known, subsequent results seem to be less so, that make Arrow's seem a lot less paradoxical/surprising/pessimistic. D. Saari has several great books on the subject, from very readable to very comprehensive depending on your level of interest.

      I wouldn't still be ranting about this if I hadn't done so just a couple of weeks ago at: http://possiblywrong.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/more-voting-not-unanimous-just-involved/.

  • Interestingly, James Molinaro--Staten Island borough president and a prominent member of the Conservative Party--has endorsed Cuomo over Paladino. The latter is a total fucken nutjob. He even threatened to "take out" a journalist who was asking him what evidence he had that Cuomo had affairs while married (a claim Paladino has since retracted). Paladino is a classic far-right-wing loon: vicious, angry, stupid, zero self-control.

  • Dave W. says:

    I don't buy most of your political analysis here, Mark. Maybe it applies to the governor's race, if that's the one that determines ballot placement, but the other races can be a different story. It was just last year that the NY Conservative party made national news by endorsing a Tea Party-backed candidate over the otherwise almost certain to win moderate Republican, thus throwing the election to the Democratic candidate. So it's hardly nonsense to say that the Republicans can't win without the Conservative party endorsement - that's the very point the Conservatives were making in that election (that, and trying to get a more conservative candidate elected while purging moderates from the Republican party...).

    Also, I don't think having Lazio on the ballot would have been a problem for the Conservatives keeping their ballot line if he had decided to remain actively in the race. If he was polling at around 16% of the vote in a three-way poll (admittedly, before Paladino consolidated his support post-primary), the Conservatives wouldn't have had any problem mustering 50,000 votes with him even if he lost a few percentage points from there. I suspect it was a combination of ideological purity considerations and Lazio's decision to withdraw (that was probably influenced by the former and his overall chances of winning) that made the ballot-line manuvering necessary.

    Now admittedly, the existence of the Conservative and Liberal parties made more sense back in the day when you had Rockefeller Republicans like John Lindsey and Jacob Javits running on a Republican/Liberal combined endorsement, and occasionally a Democrat who also ran on the Conservative line. Back then, the third party endorsements served as useful ideological markers. But I think they still can serve as a means to promote their ideological goals, even if they mostly endorse the major party candidates.

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