No voting process is perfect

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to Mr Chen Junyi’s 2 Sept 2011 letter.

Mr Chen is of the opinion that Mr Tan Kin Lian would have been a strong second choice for the 95% who did not vote for him and on that basis, he claims that Mr Tan Kin Lian would be the most acceptable compromise candidate. He therefore rejects instant run-off voting since it would have eliminated his supposedly most acceptable compromise candidate in the first round. Mr Chen further claims that to use this election to project how it would turn out under another is mere speculation.

It is Mr Chen who is speculating when he claims that Mr Tan Kin Lian would have been a strong second choice for the 95% who did not vote for him. There is every likelihood that 95% of voters would disagree with him. The proposal for instant run-off is in response to how this election turned out, not some other outcome speculated by Mr Chen.

Even if we grant Mr Chen his claim that Mr Tan Kin Lian would sweep away 95% of the 2nd choice votes, that doesn’t automatically make Mr Tan the most acceptable compromise candidate. It is also possible that within the same scenario, either Dr Tan Cheng Bock or Dr Tony Tan wins 5% of the 2nd choice votes and 60% of the 3rd choice votes in addition to the 35% first choice votes either candidate has gathered. That would have made either of them equally acceptable compromise candidates with 100% support from the electorate too.

The issue of who the most acceptable compromise candidate is can be answered using the Condorcet’s method of translating ranking to a voting score where each candidate is pitted against all others in turn to determine a candidate who would beat all others on a one-on-one. Had we used the Condorcet’s method, Mr Tan Kin Lian would indeed have won given Mr Chen’s scenario. If Mr Chen truly feels that Mr Tan Kin Lian should have won, he should support the ranking format since the Condorcet’s method depends on it.

However, the Condorcet’s method is not ideal as it may result in circular ambiguities with no clear cut winners. It is also difficult for the common folk to appreciate and is rarely used in real life to elect governments. Instant run-off voting is still the better alternative as it is much easier to understand and is actually being used in Australia, the US and the UK. No voting system is perfect doesn’t mean we remain status quo and avoid seeking improvements. Instant run-off voting is superior to the current first-past-the-post even if it is not perfect. A speculative scenario painted by Mr Chen cannot be the reason for not addressing the reality of the lack of a clear majority in this election.

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