Why OpenStreetMap US elections should use Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Posted by Alan on 18 December 2016 in English. Last updated on 4 February 2020.

Today is the final day of the board elections for the US chapter of OpenStreetMap (OSM-US). Just a few days ago the international OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) also held its elections. If you are a member of both groups, you may have noticed that the two organizations do their elections a bit differently. In OSM-US elections you just choose from a list of candidates, while in OSMF elections you rank the candidates in order of preference. What are these two systems, and which one is better? Well, I’m glad you asked…

The international OSM Foundation uses a system called Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and produces a proportional result (meaning, for example, that 40% of the voters can choose 40% of the seats on the board). OSMF has been using STV in their last few elections, and Richard Weait wrote some detailed post-mortems of these recent elections, such as OSMF Board Election Results 2015, and the more descriptive OSMF Board Election Data 2014. He has more blog posts on STV here.

OSM-US currently uses a non-proportional Block Voting system (technically, “Plurality-at-large voting”) where each voter can choose five candidates, and the candidates with the most votes win. While this voting method is easier to implement, it requires the electorate to vote strategically, rather than expressing their true preferences. Also under this system, there is the potential that 51% of the electorate could choose all five seats on the board.

So which method is better?

STV performs better than Block Voting in a few key ways:

First, voters can express themselves more fully because they rank the candidates from their most favorite to their least favorite. Voters don’t have to make arbitrary binary choices of who’s in and who’s out.

Second, voters can vote sincerely for who they really like the most, without having to guess about whether their preferred candidate has a chance of winning or not. Because your vote transfers to your second choices if your first candidate doesn’t win, you don’t have to worry about throwing your vote away on “spoiler” candidates. STV lets you vote idealistically without giving up your chance to influence the results.

Third, every group within the electorate has a chance to elect someone who represents their views. Because STV is a proportional system, it’s impossible for a slim majority of the voters to dominate the board. The result of STV is a board that represents the full diversity of the OSM community, and is better able to resolve differences and find compromise.

The consensus of all the major non-partisan electoral reform groups (FairVote in the US, FairVote Canada, the Electoral Reform Society in the UK, and so on) is that STV is significantly better than Block Voting. None of these organizations recommend Block Voting, and all of them include STV among their most recommended options.

For these reasons, OSM-US should switch to STV elections before we vote on the next board in 2017.

Ok, but is there actually a problem that we need to fix?

It’s true that currently the OSM-US board elections are small, civil, and friendly affairs, and we do not have the concept of political parties and contentious campaigns. Right now with OSM-US our election system isn’t causing any significant problems that we can see. The system isn’t broken, yet.

In fact, there is a good chance that STV and Block Voting would produce mostly the same results in recent elections. Brandon Liu ran a simulation based on the previous two OSMF elections, and found that Block Voting and STV would have produced the same results.

Why is there little to no difference? Currently we still have a small number of candidates relative to the number of seats (roughly twice as many candidates as seats) and we don’t really have strong factions (yet), so the difference between the two systems shouldn’t be very noticeable. But we shouldn’t be complacent and assume that these the status quo will not change in the future. When factions do emerge in the electorate, we need a system that will respond well to those changes without breaking. We need STV.

Then why should we change?

As OSM keeps growing, we will probably get more candidates, and see more vote splitting and factions forming. Also, if stronger divides in opinion develop within the OSM-US community, we might see board elections that fail to represent the diversity of opinions in the electorate.

The board should be able to resolve conflicts between different factions in the community if and when they develop. To do this, the board needs to include representatives with diverse perspectives. But with block voting, there is the strong likelihood that a minority group would not be able to get any members on the board to advocate for their views.

Imagine if 51% of the electorate wanted to ban imports (just as an example), and 49% did not. If the anti-import group ran a slate of five candidates (a common practice in elections using Block Voting) they could win all the seats under our current rules. The minority would be shut out completely. Under STV, however, the minority faction would be guaranteed some seats on the board.

But STV is also great because it doesn’t require party affiliation like other proportional methods do. Voters can choose to rank candidates based on differences in their platforms, or they could allocate their vote based on regional affiliations, or gender, or whatever differences matter to them. STV produces boards that are proportional across whatever dimensions are important to the voters.

Who supports the change?

During the current OSM-US election, I asked each of the eight candidates whether they support a switch to STV or not. All the candidates who were familiar with STV supported it enthusiastically, and the others who hadn’t considered the issue before were tentatively supportive. No one strongly supports Block Voting, and the only reason we keep using it is institutional inertia.

Furthermore, the OSM-US bylaws are not prescriptive about the exact method of our elections, so it should be relatively easy for the board to switch to STV elections without any change of the bylaws. Given the apparent consensus of the incoming board members (no matter whoever gets elected), hopefully we can switch to STV before the next elections in 2017.

Even if OSM US doesn’t have problems yet, there’s inherent value in us using the most democratic voting methods we can, and being a model for best practices of self-governance. OSMF is taking the lead here, by using STV for their elections, and it’s time that OSM-US joined them.

Location: City Center, Bellingham, Whatcom County, Washington, 98225, United States


Comment from Vincent de Phily on 19 December 2016 at 11:14

Insert jokes about americans clinging to demonstrably-flawed election systems here (sorry for the smugness, Eurrope isn’t free from election problems either but the USA’s is quite high-profile).

For what it’s worth (I’m not going to be an OSM-US member anytime soon), switching to STV would IMHO be a great thing to do.

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