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Standard voting creates strategic quandary for at-large race

I'd love to see Sekou Biddle, Patrick Mara, and Bryan Weaver all get seats on the DC Council. All three are smart and have generally good policy ideas. I'd vote for any of the three over at least half of the incumbents.

Photo by luisgomezphotos on Flickr.

Unfortunately, only one can win on April 26. Or, very possibly, none of these will. For the many residents who'd prefer one of several candidates over Vincent Orange, this election is going to either force some deep strategic voting, or result in a winner who's low on the ranked list for many voters.

Biddle was endorsed by 8 members of the DC Council, environmental and progressive groups, and a few of the better unions. Orange has most of the unions including the teachers. Weaver is strong in youth groups and students, and Mara has the police, the Washington Post and, of course, the DC GOP.

Biddle (chat transcript) has a great grasp of policy and it's probably unfair that he's been tarnished by his association with Kwame Brown. He got pigeonholed as the insider candidate, but if elected to the Council he would have his own ideas. He understands urbanism and often rides the bus or his bicycle, and knows better than most how to fix education and would make an ideal chair for an education committee.

Mara (chat transcript) has been absolutely clear on his beliefs from the start, which is commendable. I strongly agree with some of them, like transit and bicycling, and disagree with others, like taxes. He would absolutely push against corruption in the Council and the DC government, as David Catania does. As for being a Republican, if he simply pretended to be an independent or Democrat, as so many do, he wouldn't seem out of place at all; since both oppose a tax increase, there aren't really many policy differences between Mara and Biddle, for instance.

Weaver (chat transcript) gets relatively little attention because most of the press thinks he's probably not going to win, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's too bad. He had by far the most insightful answers to questions on our chat and masterfully analyzes and describes issues around youth, crime, gentrification and much more. He also has the best video ads. If he doesn't win I hope he'll write lots more articles for Greater Greater Washington and other outlets conveying his wisdom. And he's for the tax increase, which the Post hates but I think it the right policy.

Orange (chat transcript) doesn't seem to stand for much. He's aggressively pushed big box development but insists he's a big supporter of local retail corridors. He said he's for increasing the height limit but has given strong support to groups neighbors fighting any growth at campuses. He was against marriage equality before he was for it. He won't support a tax increase in the budget, but he hasn't endorsed any cuts.

Basically, Orange has avoided explaining how he would make any tradeoffs at all, which has made it hard for anyone to concretely explain why they oppose him but isn't a good sign that he'd be a principled councilmember. Many of his colleagues have slipped out of some of the same policy tradeoffs; several oppose taxes but haven't detailed cuts to compensate, and most were somewhat equivocal on campus plans. Orange, though, has tried to play both sides of virtually every issue much more than any of the others.

Lopez (chat transcript) has a lot of promise, which is what everyone says. He needs more experience with the issues before being on the Council, but this race is only the beginning for Lopez.

Alan Page, Dorothy Douglas, Tom Brown and Arkan Haile don't deserve to be totally ignored, but that's what's happening nonetheless.

Whom to vote for? A recent poll showed Orange with strong leads among registered voters, though in a special election most registered voters don't vote. Whoever can turn out the biggest base will win, and it's not clear who that could be. Orange is already busing seniors to early voting, so he's a strong contender.

For those of us who would put any of the top-tier candidates above Orange, it's a quandary. Basically, if Orange really is going to probably be one of the top two vote-getters, I want to vote for whomever is the other one of the top two. But it's not clear whom that is.

Either Instant Runoff Voting, where people rank choices, or Approval Voting, where people simply can vote for more than one, would work well in this case. If we had Approval Voting, I'd vote for Biddle, Mara and Weaver; if IRV, I'd probably rank Weaver first, then the other two, followed by Lopez and maybe some of the other ignored candidates.

Unfortunately, that's not the system we have. Ironically, the current Council has been uninterested in voting reform largely because of fears it might weaken the Democratic Party's dominance; in this case, the current system could well mean that the one man they least want to work with could end up becoming their colleague.

Who do you want to see elected? Take the IRV-based poll below by ranking one or more of your choices, from your favorite candidate 1st down to as many as you want. Here's more about how it works.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I just want someone whose last name isn't a color. It is impossible to follow all of the corruption stories when it reads like the script to Reservoir Dogs.

by bayma on Apr 14, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

That poll, from the end of March, indicates it is Orange's race to lose.

Of the rest of the candidates, who has the broadest city-wide support to chip away? I would guess Biddle or Mara, but Mara just doesn't seem to have any strong background or policy gravitas. Being a lobbyist (is that what he does?) seems to be on the wrong side of what the city should have in a Councilmember.

by William on Apr 14, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

Orange playing both sides of the issues? Sounds like the Vince Gray One City campaign.

by Paul on Apr 14, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

Very cool write-up, and agreed, there's no reason we don't implement IRV in DC.

One final thought: Fuck, we're getting Orange, aren't we?


by oboe on Apr 14, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

This race just goes to show that party labels in municipal elections are worthless and should be scrapped.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Apr 14, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport

Better explanation:

It has cartoon animals.

by Adam L on Apr 14, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

Alan Page doesn't have to be ignored on the site you control. How about a GGW chat between me and the readers here? That's within your power to arrange, if you're seriously concerned about candidates being heard. Thanks.

Mara's chat, by the way, was very thin on new policy ideas. He basically explained how IMPACT worked, said he supported Carlos Rosario's workforce development program, and proposed pay cuts for District workers earning over 100K (the only specific spending cut proposal I recall therein). I'm hard pressed to understand why anyone is enthusiastic about Mara from a policy perspective, even though he seems like a nice guy. Weaver has lots of policy depth. I don't understand how you could put Mara and Weaver on the same level as far as policy depth; on policy, Weaver is in grad school and Mara is still in elementary.

Why has no one asked the primary candidate pushing spending cuts exactly what cuts he proposes to make up a $322 million budget shortfall? Soundbites are not enough, nor is vague talk about "wasteful spending" without identifying areas to cut.

The "tax-and-spend liberal" types like me are pretty clear on where we want to raise revenue. I'd expect the same from the other side of ideological spectrum. We need that to have a viable dialogue/debate on these issues.

I answered an extensive questionnaire weeks ago for an article that was supposed to appear on this site. It never did. We can't have dialogue without the full spectrum of voices at the table.

by Alan Page on Apr 14, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

You can't criticize Orange for flipflopping on issues and support Biddle, who has flipflopped both on the progressive income tax and on whether or not he supports vouchers.

Saying one thing on a candidate questionnaire and the diametrical opposite at a candidate forum, depending on what group you're speaking to, is a deeply troubling characteristic in a public servant.

by Keep It Real on Apr 14, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport

Came back just to say that it irks me that I referred to myself in the third person above. I really wish I could edit that; people who refer to themselves in the third person annoy the heck out of me. I hope I'm not turning into one of those people. LOL.

by Alan Page on Apr 14, 2011 12:31 pm • linkreport

Yes we should have instant runoff voting. And for special elections like this one, maybe we should just have mail-in ballots, no open polls.

by Richard Layman on Apr 14, 2011 12:32 pm • linkreport

What it really shows is the flawed, elitist and lazy politics of many in the so-called new-urbanist movements. New-Urbanist have built a narrow political constituency and policy implementation that has little real grassroots support beyond some general theory. No candidate can really support or move forward such a narrow approach on an at-large basis, especially if they adopt so-called new urbanist priorities. The bottom-line is New Urbanist Crew is either too arrogant, lazy or afraid to sell these priorities on a grassroots level, but wants a candidate who will. But any candidate who would, doesn't have the political capital.

This is why we have elections, this is a good lesson in democracy vs. blog posts and glad handing.

by W Jordan on Apr 14, 2011 12:39 pm • linkreport

I'm a big fan of ranked voting, but I think the Condorcet Method is superior to Instant Runoff Voting. This helps explain why:

by Dan on Apr 14, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

@W Jordan:

I'm glad you're on board for an IRV system, then, because they're better at preventing candidates from being elected by narrow constituencies.

by Mark Jordan on Apr 14, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

This is a really solid explanation of the IRV system and vey helpful for understanding the system.

It may be helpful to break the candidate apart by issues. For example, if a voter wanted to vote for education who who would you vote for? (my guess is Biddle because he has the stronger portfolio.)

If it was on mass transit issues, who would you vote for? (probably Weaver?)

If it was on anti-corruption who would you vote for? (Probably a toss up between Biddle, Mara and Weaver)

by Prof. Brusoe on Apr 14, 2011 1:18 pm • linkreport

Prof. Brusoe: How is voting for Gray, Kwame, and half the establishment's guy (Biddle) in any way, shape, or form "anti-corruption".

by John on Apr 14, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

I just read a book about Instant Runoff Voting and I would love for this to be institute in the District of Columbia. Possibly having 3 representatives per Ward, 4 at-large members elected at once and making it a 28-member Council would not be bad. It would definitely be more representative of the people in the District. I enjoyed doing this simulation.

by Markus Batchelor on Apr 14, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

Could not possibly agree more re: Biddle/Weaver/Mara. These guys would all be welcome additions to the council.

After all, none of them worked for Pepco. That's a leg up on Orange already.

by Conor P. Williams on Apr 14, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

Of all of the candidates, Bryan Weaver is the best choice. Several publications have said that he had by far teh best answers to their questions and was most knowledgeable about policy (Northwest Current, GGW, Wash Post, etc.). If this is the case, then they should be supporting him! I do like several of the other candidates (especially A. Page), but i think Bryan would be the best man for the job. The candidate who scares me is V. Orange; he really seems to stand for little of anything...I liked Biddle but he has scared me with some of the things he has suggested (consolidating Roosevelt and Coolidge High Schools for example-that's ludicrous!). Hopefully the best man (or woman)comes out on top.

by slevydc on Apr 14, 2011 1:45 pm • linkreport

And so GGW's experiment in IRV is being completely gamed by the campaigns. Biddle has tweeted about it three times and sent out an email blast.

If you really wanted to show people how IRV works without having people game the system you should have chosen hypothetical candidates.

by Not a fan of IRV on Apr 14, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

IRV in some form would be great for this election, and useful for the Democratic primaries as well. Would this change require a change to the Home Rule charter, or would it only be applied to non-Federal races?

by DCster on Apr 14, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

Orange is the most "inside" candidate, in my opinion, and has failed, repeatedly, to garner the votes of the people of this city. I can't abide rewarding someone for being an also ran. I think Biddle is unfairly tarnished by his association with current politicians who are scandal-plagued. I also think Weaver is the most innovative thinker of all of them. For me it boils down to Weaver or Biddle.

by meanteeth on Apr 14, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport

@Not a fan of IRV: Because who wants topical and relevant content, right?

At any rate, thanks David, for capturing the true problem with this race. I've yet to decide how to use my vote within the system we are in.

by Jake Sticka on Apr 14, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

Heh, certain irony here considering who is stuffing the ballot box.

Seagraves at Ward 3 forum night before Mayor's budget asks, "do you support raising the tax on parking garages, and have you taken donations from the industry?". All candidates answer except...

Biddle - "I don't know enough about the issue to respond." This skips the money question.

12 hrs later after Mayor's budget taxes parking garages...

Biddle - "I do not support taxing parking garages!" (BTW - he also doesn't support increased street parking costs, kidz.)

A cursory review of finance records and his web site shows money from "AutoPark, Inc", David A Wilmot an officer of Auto Park was on his host committee, and money from DC garage construction.

Doesn't GGW support increasing the garage tax like the Mayor's budget proposes?

by John on Apr 14, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

For single-winner positions (as this is in this instance), Approval Voting is a good pick for both selecting better winners and being simple. It's easily better than IRV ( Unlike IRV, Approval Voting always lets you vote your favorite and is immune to vote splitting.

It's clear in this instance that the author is referring to one person being elected. But that's strange considering this is an at-large council. This means when multiple seats are up for election that a bloc system is used--here it's Multi-member Plurality. That equates to regular Plurality when a single seat is open. When multiple seats are open, bloc systems like this one allow a single majority voting bloc to assign all the seats. Any minority voice can be entirely shut out from the council.

But what's interesting is that the author doesn't mention a district-based proportional representation(PR) system since this is an at-large council. Such options include semi-PR systems like cumulative voting. A traditional PR system that's also used in Cambridge is STV--not to be confused with IRV. Other newer (and more sanely behaving systems) include Asset Voting, Reweighted Range Voting, and Proportional Approval Voting.

Any of these PR systems are going to provide you with a more representational diversity than any single-winner system. Further, PR systems work best when all the seats are being voted on at once. Given the diversity of DC, I think voters would be happy to see this alternative.

by Aaron Hamlin on Apr 14, 2011 3:25 pm • linkreport

My main issues are: no corruption (let's work towards ending that), competence, and an eye out for the not so rich among us. I think Bryan Weaver is the best candidate and I am going to vote for him. I also think that he is just too good to lose. He is dedicated and from what I can tell not corrupt and does work hard. Moreover, he is very responsive, something we in Ward 1 have gotten used to.

Sekou Biddle seems kind of flat and dull and like he does not have any great ideas. Much of Orange's funding comes from outside the city. I don't know much about Mara, but the one time I saw him, he didn't seem to take all that much seriously. So I won't take him seriously.

by Jazzy on Apr 14, 2011 3:26 pm • linkreport

IRV would not helps us much at all. Would not produce any better candidates or elected officials. The problem is at the grassroots not so much the office holders. We don't want serious people, just political bellhops, doesn't matter how they are elected.

by W Jordan on Apr 14, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

Aaron Hamlin, I agree that approval voting is simpler, but it's not just a matter of voting your favorite. Approval voting means you need to decide where to draw the line between candidates you approve of and candidates you don't, with no opportunity to express preferences within each of those two groups. Do you "approve" of only your first choice, or your first and second, or first, second, and third? And where you decide to draw that line can affect the outcome, so as usual that brings up strategic voting and trying to calculate how other people will vote.

by Keith Ivey on Apr 14, 2011 5:32 pm • linkreport

Of the three top-ranked candidates, only Sekou Biddle has a shot at beating the reactionary Vincent Orange.

So despite where our hearts may be, I hope we will vote for Sekou --

on election day, Tuesday April 26, or

during the early voting which has already started at One Judiciary Square.

by John Zottoli on Apr 14, 2011 6:14 pm • linkreport

In this case, IRV appears to work--at least from the author's perspective--because there are clearly just two kinds of voters: those who want Orange to win, and those who want anyone BUT Orange to win, and don't care who it is.

But IRV fails whenever there's any more nuance involved.
Basically, if there's any number of voters out there who prefer Biddle, Mara, or Weaver first, but Orange 2nd or 3rd, then IRV would fail in the same way that standard (plurality) voting does, even if Orange would lose in a one-on-one contest against one of the other three.


45%: O > M > B
25%: M > O > B
30%: B > M > O

Even though M is preferred over O by 55% of the voters, O still wins. But M would win instead if some of the B > M > O voters strategically betray their favorite, and voted M > B > O instead.

Approval voting, which Aaron suggested, doesn't have this problem. Under approval, if really all you care about is "not Orange", you can vote for everyone except Orange, but there is never a situation where you can improve the election outcome by not giving your top-choice top-marks.

As Keith points out, sometimes you have to make a hard choice whether or not to also approve your 2nd or 3rd choices too; but in those situations, what you're risking is getting your 2nd or 3rd choice elected instead of your 1st choice; whereas under IRV, when deciding whether or not to strategize, what you're risking is getting your LAST choice instead of your 1st or 2nd choice. And it's because of this that, from a strategic voters perspective, approval voting is a much, much better voting system.

by Dale Sheldon-Hess on Apr 14, 2011 7:25 pm • linkreport

I like to think I'm a pretty smart guy, and I've thought about various voting systems before. But all the anti-IRV arguments in the comments here make my head hurt. And that's a limiting factor on actually implementing them.

That's why IRV (actually, I prefer "alternative vote") is the most-used alternative to first-past-the-post in the U.S. San Francisco, Minneapolis, Memphis use it; locally, so does Takoma Park. For voters used to FPTP, IRV/AV is the easiest to understand. Since D.C. never lacks for candidates, it makes even more sense here.

by Gavin on Apr 14, 2011 7:46 pm • linkreport


Wait... because you can't understand the arguments against something, it must clearly be a good idea?

::sigh:: Okay then, here's a picture:

Literally ANYTHING (except plurality or "random winner") would be better than IRV. Approval is both dead-simple and damn effective. (And IRV gets progressively worse with more candidates, so it's even worse for DC.)

by Dale Sheldon-Hess on Apr 14, 2011 7:52 pm • linkreport

There is a group of extremely passionate people out there who will find any thread on any blog around the Web and show up and argue passionately why any given voting reform method is terrible and theirs is better.

Unfortunately, they are all missing the forest for the trees. All of these voting systems are better than what we have today.

All are also imperfect, but mathematically it's been proven that any system is imperfect. But because a small group of people carpet bomb every thread with criticisms of a voting reform system, you end up making it a lot more difficult to get any voting reform.

I'd always be hesitant to push any kind of approval voting, anywhere, because the people pushing it are so rabid and inflexible.

by David Alpert on Apr 14, 2011 8:04 pm • linkreport

"All are also imperfect, but mathematically it's been proven that any system is imperfect."

I assume you're referring to Arrow's impossibility theorem.

One of the reasons "that group" is so passionate about this is because approval voting beats that theorem, by satisfying all of Arrow's axioms. Basically, it does the impossible.

It can do that because, by the strict mathematical definition Arrow used to prove his theorem, approval voting isn't even a voting system.

That said, it still isn't perfect. But one of the other reasons we're so passionate about it is because of the extensive computer simulations which conclude that it is significantly closer to perfect than, for instance, IRV, which turns out to be the worst possible system after plurality.

by Dale Sheldon-Hess on Apr 14, 2011 8:30 pm • linkreport

At the Ward 3 Democrats candidate forum at least Vincent Orange knew that higher parking fees serve as surrogate commuter taxes and he said this. Mr. Biddle on the other hand talked about reducing the hours that meters are in operation. Neither one would commit to higher taxes on high income residents. All Mara could do is talk about slashing the size of DC government.

by Smart Growth Guy on Apr 14, 2011 9:46 pm • linkreport

We use approval voting in our homeowners association. However, it's in a specific context. We don't care how many people are elected to our board of directors, it could be 5 or 50. What matters is that each person gets the approval of more than half of the owners. Most of the time all the candidates are elected.

I doubt it works well when there's only one opening.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 14, 2011 10:15 pm • linkreport

I've watched the candidates, spoken with a few. I had Weaver, Lopez, and Mara in my top 3, and settled on Weaver. I also plan to vote for who I think the best candidate is - not who I think will win.
Interesting discussion about how our voting system should be.

by J on Apr 14, 2011 10:47 pm • linkreport

Michael Perkins,

Actually, Approval Voting works BEST when there is just one winner. See these Bayesian Regret figures:

With more than one winner, it's generally preferred to use a proportional system, so you have some representation of different "factions". Reweighted Range Voting and Asset Voting are good here.

by Clay Shentrup on Apr 15, 2011 12:36 am • linkreport

God, the anti-IRV trolls are worse than Lance.

by David desJardins on Apr 15, 2011 2:43 am • linkreport

IRV seems to be trying to fix something that isn't broken.

One person, one vote.

It's that simple.

by Fritz on Apr 15, 2011 8:17 am • linkreport

This unfortunately this is more about some wanted to change to rules so that their candidate could win. Then once they feel they have a race where their candidate would win with the old system they would want to change back. Anything, but getting their hands dirty with the real work that comes with being a real civic or political leader. Cop-Out City should be DC's new urban tag line.

by W Jordan on Apr 15, 2011 10:01 am • linkreport

@David desJardins

Yes - they're trolls because they don't agree with you.

by asuka on Apr 15, 2011 3:59 pm • linkreport

No, the trolls are the people who have no interest in any subject but IRV and show up just to bash it. I can't tell what fraction of them are just misguided and seriously think their favorite voting system is massively better, and what fraction are just trying to defeat any challenge to conventional plurality voting. Probably some of each.

by David desJardins on Apr 15, 2011 6:46 pm • linkreport

@ John: Sorry, it's been one of those crazy days at work.

You should not make the mistake to confuse incumbency with corrupt. Though it may seem that way a lot of times. One of the things that I like about CM Biddle is that he introduced legislation regulating the usage of leased vehicles by the city and requiring council approval. This is by no means a solution, but it's a start.

by Brusoe on Apr 15, 2011 8:57 pm • linkreport

Bruscoe: You mean the meaningless "double law" Jack infro'ed, and added Sekou to for pump up purposes? The one that says "Council must review each year and insure the existing laws we ignored and broke to now are followed!". Which has no more power than the existing laws they broke.

I like to call it the "Fox Guarding Henhouse Public Smokescreen Law"

by John on Apr 16, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

David desJardins,

I am by no means misguided. Score Voting and Approval Voting are just massively superior to IRV, based on objective metrics like ballot spoilage rates, Bayesian Regret, Kolmogorov complexity, Favorite Betrayal Criterion compliance -- you name it.


If you want to call us "trolls", then please provide one iota of evidence to support your position. I've been actively researching this issue for nearly five years, and I'll willing to bet you cannot offer any argument that we have not already encountered before and refuted.

by Clay Shentrup on Apr 16, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

In many ways I liked the Statehood Green candidate, but in spite of Weaver's inability to name more than one Metrorail end station, he seems decent.

Although I generally don't listen to endorsements (WaPo's usually drives me to look closer at who they don't endorse) I do pay a great deal of attention to GLAA's. Their questionnaire reflects my own priorities for the most part.

I disdain Orange for being the mouthpiece of the Chamber of Commerce in all matters and I was so thrilled to see the idiot gone that would have voted for a porcelain tea pot if they had a chance to beat him.

by copperreddc on Apr 17, 2011 12:41 am • linkreport

DC is open to the referendum process, as long as it doesn't infringe on the DC Human Rights charter. There's an election in the fall next year. Get a petition going to change the system, and see if you get it through.

by copperreddc on Apr 17, 2011 12:45 am • linkreport

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