Analysis of a recent election

On November 18, 2017, a by-election was held in my suburb of Northcote, on account of the death by cancer of the sitting member. It turned into a two-way contest between Labor (who had held the seat since its inception in 1927), and the Greens, who are making big inroads into the inner city. The Greens candidate won, much to Labor’s surprise. As I played a small part in this election, I had some interest in its result. And so I thought I’d experiment with the results and see how close the result was, and what other voting systems might have produced.

In Australia, the voting method used for almost all lower house elections (state and federal), is Instant Runoff Voting, also known as the Alternative Vote, and known locally as the “preferential method”. Each voter must number the candidates sequentially starting from 1. All boxes must be filled in (except the last); no numbers can be repeated or missed. In Northcote there were 12 candidates, and so each voter had to number the boxes from 1 to 12 (or 1 to 11); any vote without those numbers is invalid and can’t be counted. Such votes are known as “informal”. Ballots are distributed according to first preferences. If no candidate has obtained an absolute majority, then the candidate with the lowest count is eliminated, and all those ballots distributed according to their second preferences. This continues through as many redistributions as necessary until one candidate ends up with an absolute majority of ballots. So at any stage the candidate with the lowest number of ballots is eliminated, and those ballots redistributed to the remaining candidates on the basis of the highest preferences. As voting systems go it’s not the worst, although it has many faults. However, it is too entrenched in Australian political life for change to be likely.

Each candidate had prepared a How to Vote card, listing the order of candidates they saw as being most likely to ensure a good result for themselves. In fact there is no requirement for any voter to follow a How to Vote card, but most voters do. For this reason the ordering of candidates on these cards is taken very seriously, and one of the less savoury aspects of Australian politics is backroom “preference deals”, where parties will wheel and deal to ensure best possible preference positions on other How to Vote cards.

Here are the 12 candidates and their political parties, in the order as listed on the ballots:

Russell HAYWARDIndependent
Brian SANAGHANIndependent
Lidia THORPEThe Greens
Nina LENKAnimal Justice Party
Laura CHIPPReason Party
Philip COOPERIndependent
Dean ROSSITERLiberal Democrats
Clare BURNSLabor
Joseph TOSCANOIndependent
Bryony EDWARDSIndependent
Nevena SPIROVSKAIndependent
Vince FONTANAIndependent

For this election the How to Vote cards can be seen at the ABC news site. The only candidate not to provide a full ordered list was Joseph Toscano, who simple advised people to number his square 1, and the other squares in any order they liked, along with a recommendation for people to number Lidia Thorpe 2.

As I don’t have a complete list of all possible ballots with their orderings and numbers, I’m going to make the following assumptions:

  1. Every voter followed the How to Vote card of their preferred candidate exactly.
  2. Joseph Toscano’s preference ordering is: 3,4,2,5,6,7,8,9,1,10,11,12 (This gives Toscano 1; Thorpe 2; and puts the numbers 3 – 12 in order in the remaining spaces).

These assumptions are necessarily crude, and don’t reflect the nuances of the election. But as we’ll see they end up providing a remarkably close fit with the final results.

For the exploration of the voting data I’ll use Python, and so here is all the How to Vote information as a dictionary:

In [ ]: htv = dict()

In [ ]: cands = list(htv.keys())

Voting took place at different voting centres (also known as “booths”), and the first preferences for each candidate at each booth can be found at the Victorian Electoral Commission. I copied this information into a spreadsheet and saved it as a CSV file. I then used the data analysis library pandas to read it in as a DataFrame:

In [ ]: import pandas as pd
        firstprefs = pd.read_csv('northcote_results.csv')
        firsts = firstprefs.loc[:,'Hayward':'Fontana'].sum(axis=0)

Out[ ]: 
Hayward        354
Sanaghan       208
Thorpe       16254
Lenk           770
Chipp         1149
Cooper         433
Rossiter      1493
Burns        12721
Toscano        329
Edwards        154
Spirovska      214
Fontana       1857
dtype: int64

As Thorpe has more votes than any other candidate, then by the voting system of simple plurality (or First Past The Post) she would win. This system is used in the USA, and is possibly the worst of all systems for more than two candidates.

Checking IRV

So let’s first check how IRV works, with a little program that starts with a dictionary and first preferences of each candidate. Recall our simplifying assumption that all voters vote according to the How to Vote cards, which means that when a candidate is eliminated, all those votes will go to just one other remaining candidate. In practice, of course, those ballots would be redistributed across a number of candidates.

Here’s a simple program to manage this version of IRV:

def IRV(votes):
    # performs an IRV simulation on a list of first preferences: at each stage
    # deleting the candidate with the lowest current score, and distributing
    # that candidates votes to the highest remaining candidate
    vote_counts = votes.copy()
    for i in range(10):
        m = min(vote_counts.items(), key = lambda x: x[1])
        ind = next(j for j in range(2,11) if cands[htv[m[0]].index(j)] in vote_counts)
        c = cands[htv[m[0]].index(ind)]
        vote_counts += m[1]

We could make this code a little more efficient by stopping when any candidate has amassed over 50% pf the votes. But for simplicity we’ll eliminate 10 of the 12 candidates, so it will be perfectly clear who has won. Let’s try it out:

In [ ]: IRV(firsts)
Out[ ]: 
Thorpe    18648
Burns     17288
dtype: int64

Note that this is very close to the results listed on the VEC site:

Thorpe:    18380
Burns:     14410
Fontana:   3298

At this stage it doesn’t matter where Fontana’s votes go (in fact they would go to Burns), as Thorpe already has a majority. But the result we obtained above with our simplifying assumptions gives very similar values.

Now lets see what happens if we work through each booth independently:

In [ ]: finals = {'Thorpe':0,'Burns':0}

In [ ]: for i in firstprefs.index:
   ...:     booth = dict(firstprefs.loc[i,'Hayward':'Fontana'])
   ...:     f = IRV(booth)
   ...:     finals['Thorpe'] += f['Thorpe']
   ...:     finals['Burns'] += f['Burns']
   ...:     print(firstprefs.loc[i,'Booth'],': ',f)
Alphington :  {'Thorpe': 524, 'Burns': 545}
Alphington North :  {'Thorpe': 408, 'Burns': 485}
Bell :  {'Thorpe': 1263, 'Burns': 893}
Croxton :  {'Thorpe': 950, 'Burns': 668}
Darebin Parklands :  {'Thorpe': 180, 'Burns': 204}
Fairfield :  {'Thorpe': 925, 'Burns': 742}
Northcote :  {'Thorpe': 1043, 'Burns': 875}
Northcote North :  {'Thorpe': 1044, 'Burns': 1012}
Northcote South :  {'Thorpe': 1392, 'Burns': 1137}
Preston South :  {'Thorpe': 677, 'Burns': 639}
Thornbury :  {'Thorpe': 1158, 'Burns': 864}
Thornbury East :  {'Thorpe': 1052, 'Burns': 804}
Thornbury South :  {'Thorpe': 1310, 'Burns': 1052}
Westgarth :  {'Thorpe': 969, 'Burns': 536}
Postal Votes :  {'Thorpe': 1509, 'Burns': 2262}
Early Votes :  {'Thorpe': 5282, 'Burns': 3532}

In [ ]: finals
Out[ ]: {'Burns': 16250, 'Thorpe': 19686}

Note again that the results are surprisingly close to the “two-party preferred” results as reported again on the VEC site. This adds weight to the notion that our assumptions, although crude, do in fact provide a reasonable way of experimenting with the election results.

Borda counts

These are named for Jean Charles de Borda (1733 – 1799) an early voting theorist. The idea is to weight all the preferences, so that a preference of 1 has a higher weighting that a preference of 2, and so on. All the weights are added, and the candidate with the greatest total is deemed to be the winner. With n candidates, there are different methods of determining weighting; probably the most popular is a simple linear weighting, so that a preference of k is weighted as n-k. This gives weightings from n-1 down to zero. Alternatively a weighting of n+1-k can be used, which gives weights of n down to 1. Both are equivalent in determining a winner. Another possible weighting is 1/k.

Here’s a program to compute Borda counts, again with our simplification:

def borda(x): # x is 0 or 1
    borda_count = dict()
    for c in cands:
    for c in cands:
        v = firsts  #  number of 1st pref votes for candidate c
        for i in range(1,13):
            appr = cands[htv.index(i)]  # the candidate against position i on c htv card
            if x==0:
                borda_count[appr] += v/i
                borda_count[appr] += v*(11-i)
    if x==0:
        for k, val in borda_count.items():
            borda_count[k] = float("{:.2f}".format(val))
        for k, val in borda_count.items():
            borda_count[k] = int(val)

Now we can run this, and to make our lives easier we’ll sort the results:

In [ ]: sorted(borda(1).items(), key = lambda x: x[1], reverse = True)
Out[ ]: 
[('Burns', 308240),
 ('Thorpe', 279392),
 ('Lenk', 266781),
 ('Chipp', 179179),
 ('Cooper', 167148),
 ('Spirovska', 165424),
 ('Edwards', 154750),
 ('Hayward', 136144),
 ('Fontana', 88988),
 ('Toscano', 80360),
 ('Rossiter', 75583),
 ('Sanaghan', 38555)]

In [ ]: sorted(borda(0).items(), key = lambda x: x[1], reverse = True)
Out[ ]: 
[('Burns', 22409.53),
 ('Thorpe', 20455.29),
 ('Lenk', 11485.73),
 ('Chipp', 10767.9),
 ('Spirovska', 6611.22),
 ('Cooper', 6592.5),
 ('Edwards', 6569.93),
 ('Hayward', 6186.93),
 ('Fontana', 6006.25),
 ('Rossiter', 5635.08),
 ('Toscano', 4600.15),
 ('Sanaghan', 4196.47)]

Note that in both cases Burns has the highest output. This is in general to be expected of Borda counts: that the highest value does not necessarily correspond to the candidate which is seen as better overall. For this reason Borda counts are rarely used in modern systems, although they can be used to give a general picture of an electorate.

Condorcet criteria

There are a vast number of voting systems which treat the vote as simultaneous pairwise contests. For example in a three way contest, between Alice, Bob, and Charlie the system considers the contest between Alice and Bob, between Alice and Charlie, and between Bob and Charlie. Each of these contests will produce a winner, and the outcome of all the pairwise contests is used to determine the overall winner. If there is a single person who is preferred, by a majority of voters, in each of their pairwise contests, then that person is called a Condorcet winner. This is named for the Marquis de Condorcet (1743 – 1794) another early voting theorist. The Condorcet criterion is one of many criteria considered appropriate for a voting system; it says that if the ballots return a Condorcet winner, then that winner should be chosen by the system. This is one of the faults of IRV: that it does not necessarily return a Condorcet winner.

Let’s look again at the How to Vote preferences, and the numbers of voters of each:

In [ ]: htvd = pd.DataFrame(list(htv.values()),index=htv.keys(),columns=htv.keys()).transpose()
In [ ]: htvd.loc['Firsts']=list(firsts.values)
In [ ]: htvd

Out[ ]: 
           Hayward  Sanaghan  Thorpe  Lenk  Chipp  Cooper  Rossiter  Burns  Toscano  Edwards  Spirovska  Fontana
Hayward          1         3       6     7     10       5         6     10        3        2          2        2
Sanaghan        10         1       9     8     12      12        12     12        4       10         12        3
Thorpe           7         2       1     3      4       8         9      5        2        4          3        4
Lenk             6         5       3     1      5       6        11      3        5        3          7        5
Chipp            8         6      10     5      1       2         2      2        6        8          4        6
Cooper           5         7       8    11      6       1         7      4        7        9          5        7
Rossiter        12         8      12    12      7       7         1      6        8       12          6        8
Burns           11         9       2     2      3       3         5      1        9        6          8        9
Toscano          3        10       7     9     11      11         8     11        1        5         10       10
Edwards          2        11       4     4      9       9        10      9       10        1          9       11
Spirovska        4        12       5     6      2      10         3      8       11        7          1       12
Fontana          9         4      11    10      8       4         4      7       12       11         11        1
Firsts         354       208   16254   770   1149     433      1493  12721      329      154        214     1857

Here the how to vote information is in the columns. If we look at just the first two candidates, we see that Hayward is preferred to Sanaghan by all voters except for those who voted for Sanaghan. Thus a majority (in fact, nearly all) voters preferred Hayward to Sanaghan.

For each pair of candidates, the number of voters preferring one to the other can be computed by this program:

def condorcet():
    condorcet_table = pd.DataFrame(columns=cands,index=cands).fillna(0)
    for c in cands:
        hc = htv
        for i in range(12):
            for j in range(12):
                if hc[i] < hc[j]:
                    condorcet_table.loc[cands[i],cands[j]] += firsts

We can see the results of this program:

In [ ]: ct = condorcet(); ct
Out[ ]: 
           Hayward  Sanaghan  Thorpe   Lenk  Chipp  Cooper  Rossiter  Burns  Toscano  Edwards  Spirovska  Fontana
Hayward          0     35728    4505   5042  19370   21633     20573   3116    35607     4888       3335    18283
Sanaghan       208         0    2065   2394  18648    3164     19926   2748     2835     2394       2394    17715
Thorpe       31431     33871       0  21504  20140   20935     34010  19370    33760    35428      32726    32153
Lenk         30894     33542   14432      0  19926   33442     34229   3886    33760    33935      32726    31945
Chipp        16566     17288   15796  16010      0   18895     34443   6037    18845    18404      18960    33871
Cooper       14303     32772   15001   2494  17041       0     34443   3395    18075    18404      15548    31608
Rossiter     15363     16010    1926   1707   1493    1493         0   4101    18075    18404      17041    15906
Burns        32820     33188   16566  32050  29899   32541     31835      0    35099    35428      32726    32024
Toscano        329     33101    2176   2176  17091   17861     17861    837        0     3887       2902    18075
Edwards      31048     33542     508   2001  17532   17532     17532    508    32049        0      20359    18075
Spirovska    32601     33542    3210   3210  16976   20388     18895   3210    33034    15577          0    20717
Fontana      17653     18221    3783   3991   2065    4328     20030   3912    17861    17861      15219        0

What we want to see, of course, if anybody has obtained a majority of preferences against everybody else. To do this we can find all the values greater than the majority, and add up their number. A value of 11 indicates a Condorcet winner:

In [ ]: maj = firsts.sum()//2 + 1; maj
Out[ ]: 17969

In [ ]: ((ct >= maj)*1).sum(axis = 1)
Out[ ]: 
Hayward       6.0
Sanaghan      2.0
Thorpe       11.0
Lenk          9.0
Chipp         6.0
Cooper        5.0
Rossiter      2.0
Burns        10.0
Toscano       2.0
Edwards       5.0
Spirovska     6.0
Fontana       2.0
dtype: float64

So in this case we do indeed have a Condorcet winner in Thorpe, and this election (at least with our simplifying assumptions) is also one in which IRV returned the Condorcet winner.

Range and approval voting

If you go to you’ll find a spirited defense of a system called range voting. To vote in such a system, each voter gives an “approval weight” for each candidate. For example, the voter may mark off a value between 0 and 10 against each candidate, indicating their level of approval. There is no requirement for a voter to mark candidates differently: a voter might give all candidates a value of 10, or of zero, or give one candidate 10 and all the others zero. One simplified version of range voting is approval voting, where the voter simply indicates as many or as few candidates as she or he approves of. A voter may approve of just one candidate, or all of them. As with range voting, the winner is the one with the maximum number of approvals. A system where each voter approves of just one candidate is the First Past the Post system, and as we have seen previously, this is equivalent to simply counting only the first preferences of our ballots.

We can’t possibly know how voters may have approved of the candidates, but we can run a simple simulation: given a number k between 1 and 12, suppose that each voter approves of their first k preferences. Given the preferences and numbers, we can easily tally the approvals for each voter:

def approvals(n):
    # Determines the approvals result if voters took their
    # first n preferences as approvals
    approvals_result = dict()
    for c in cands:
        approvals_result = 0
    firsts = firstprefs.loc[:,'Hayward':'Fontana'].sum(axis=0)
    for c in cands:
        v = firsts  #  number of 1st pref votes for candidate c
        for i in range(1,n+1):
            appr = cands[htv.index(i)]  # the candidate against position i on c htv card
            approvals_result[appr] += v

Now we can see what happens with k approvals for 1\le k\le 6:

In [1 ]: for i in range(1,7):
    ...:     si = sorted(approvals(i).items(),key = lambda x: x[1],reverse=True)
    ...:     print([i]+[s[0] for s in si])
[1, 'Thorpe', 'Burns', 'Fontana', 'Rossiter', 'Chipp', 'Lenk', 'Cooper', 'Hayward', 'Toscano', 'Spirovska', 'Sanaghan', 'Edwards']
[2, 'Burns', 'Thorpe', 'Chipp', 'Hayward', 'Fontana', 'Rossiter', 'Spirovska', 'Lenk', 'Edwards', 'Cooper', 'Toscano', 'Sanaghan']
[3, 'Burns', 'Lenk', 'Thorpe', 'Chipp', 'Hayward', 'Spirovska', 'Sanaghan', 'Fontana', 'Rossiter', 'Toscano', 'Edwards', 'Cooper']
[4, 'Burns', 'Lenk', 'Thorpe', 'Edwards', 'Chipp', 'Cooper', 'Fontana', 'Spirovska', 'Hayward', 'Sanaghan', 'Rossiter', 'Toscano']
[5, 'Thorpe', 'Lenk', 'Burns', 'Spirovska', 'Edwards', 'Chipp', 'Cooper', 'Fontana', 'Hayward', 'Sanaghan', 'Rossiter', 'Toscano']
[6, 'Lenk', 'Thorpe', 'Burns', 'Hayward', 'Spirovska', 'Chipp', 'Edwards', 'Cooper', 'Rossiter', 'Fontana', 'Sanaghan', 'Toscano']

It’s remarkable, that after k=1, the first number of approvals required for Thorpe again to win is k=5.

Other election methods

There are of course many many other methods of selecting a winning candidate from ordered ballots. And each of them has advantages and disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages are subtle (although important); others have glaring inadequacies, such as first past the post for more than two candidates. One such comparison table lists voting methods against standard criteria. Note that IRV – the Australian preferential system – is one of the very few methods to fail monotonicity. This is seen as one of the system’s worst failings. You can see an example of this in an old blog post.

Rather than write our own programs, we shall simply dump our information into the Ranked-ballot voting calculator page and see what happens. First the data needs to be massaged into an appropriate form:

In [ ]: for c in cands:
   ...:     st = str(firsts)+":"+c
   ...:     for i in range(2,13):
   ...:         st += ">"+cands[htv.index(i)]
   ...:     print(st)

The above can be copied and pasted into the given text box. Then the page returns:

winner method(s)
Burns Borda
Thorpe Baldwin

You can see that Thorpe would be the winner under almost every other voting system. This indicates that Thorpe being returned by IRV seems not just an artifact of the system, but represents the genuine wishes of the electorate.

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