The Center for Election Science Year End EA Appeal

by aaronhamlin12 min read17th Dec 201922 comments

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This is the 2019 case for supporting The Center for Election Science. (Here's our intro page.) We need your financial support to succeed in our mission. This outline details what you can look forward to in this post. Also, you can hear in (very) long form about our work from an episode of 80,000 Hours. And there’s our EA Global Presentation.

  1. Who we are
  2. Why we do what we do
    1. Importance
    2. Tractability
    3. Neglectedness
  3. What we will do with sufficient funding
  4. Why we’re asking for funding from you
  5. Why there is urgency
  6. My ask to you
  7. FAQ

Who we are

The Center for Election Science (CES) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that studies and advocates better voting methods. Voting methods are the way you put information on your ballot and how that information is calculated to produce a result. For example, choosing one candidate and selecting whomever has the most votes is a voting method—albeit a terrible one.

It’s hard to overstate how important our work is. We focus primarily in the US—arguably the most influential country in the world given its GDP and heavy reach over foreign policy. You don’t want a country with this stature to have a broken voting method. Bad policies and irresponsible spending are inevitable, and they affect the rest of the globe. You may have noticed.

Why we do what we do

Firstly, what we do is important.

We currently use the worst voting method there is—a choose-one method called plurality voting—to decide who makes enormous policy and spending decisions at the local and national levels throughout the US.

The current voting method does a number of things wrong. Here are three of the big ones:

  1. Our current voting method chooses bad winners. Vote splitting occurs everywhere because voters can only choose one candidate. This results in consensus-style candidates getting squeezed out when there are many candidates—particularly in primaries. In the general election, even minor vote splitting can cause a bad outcome.
  2. Our current voting method fails to capture the support of all the candidates. Because you’re limited to giving information about just one candidate, there’s a lack of information about other candidates. Also, voters fear throwing away their one and only vote on a losing candidate, which exasperates the issue. This mischaracterization of support means new candidates and ideas—particularly from third parties and independents—are easily marginalized and aren’t given the opportunity to grow. Candidates may not receive proper media coverage, or they may not be invited to debates.
  3. Our current voting method discourages good candidates from running. The current voting method discourages candidates who aren’t considered “viable”. Unfortunately, viable often means having a war chest of funding and name recognition. But those characteristics aren’t necessarily good predictors for whether a candidate does a good job in office.

Fortunately, there’s a better approach to voting, approval voting. Approval voting lets voters pick all the candidates they want (no ranking, just selecting). The candidate with the most votes wins. This method is simple and addresses these same three concerns:

  1. Approval voting chooses more consensus winners. Under approval voting, voters can pick all the candidates they want, which means they can hedge their bets with moderate candidates to guard against extreme candidates winning. This results in more consensus-style candidates that bring higher utility to voters. Below is an example of one simulation that looks at approval voting compared to other methods:

2. Approval voting captures the support of all the candidates. Approval voting lets you offer information about all the candidates. And, all that information is fully used and expressed in the results. This means you can see a clearer reflection of support from all the candidates. This is robust in every voting method study I’ve ever seen. With polls typically matching the voting method, this could also affect the growth of candidates throughout the election. This is even more optimistic than voting method studies which are only able to take a snapshot of candidate support at one point in time. With clearer support, candidates are less likely to be marginalized by media or kept out of debates. Here’s an example from the 2020 Democratic Primary:

3. Approval voting encourages good candidates to run. Here’s one reason better candidates don’t run. They don’t want to waste their money or get called a spoiler. Viability is everything for candidates. But with approval voting, viability changes. Yes, candidates will still need enough resources to get their message out. But because voters can always support their favorite, having good ideas is enough. Under approval voting, good candidates can run fearlessly.

This approach to voting method reform is uniquely important. Approval voting supports growing new ideas while favoring the electorate’s middle. This environment can foster the stability necessary to support continuity of government and influence policy over the long term. This not only benefits those alive now, but it also benefits future people. Our children and their children benefit from the improved policies of today.

Secondly, what we do is tractable.

We have a way to get things done—working with local groups and running ballot initiatives. It’s expensive yet highly cost effective. And it works.

In 2018, CES had its first year of real funding and we were able to hire full-time staff for the first time. We passed a ballot initiative in the 120,000-person city of Fargo, ND. It was the first city ever in the US to implement approval voting. We helped pass it by 63.5%.

We did this by running a strategic campaign alongside key stakeholders within the community and copying best practices. Other campaigns have advanced alternative voting methods as well. We used their tactics. They work.

This is worth repeating. Within less than a year of our initial funding, we hired our first full-time staff and got approval voting passed in its first US city ever. This is a brag at how efficient we are. We’re fine with that brag.

We didn’t even take a breather before taking up our second city of St. Louis, which our polls already show is above 70% support. That's before it's even made the ballot. We haven’t even formally launched the education campaign.

We also now have a Director of Campaigns and Advocacy to help us coordinate with partners. Our Director has also helped us start a chapter system to kickstart campaigns in new cities and states.

With funds, we have the means to run campaigns in multiple large cities. And we can do this with states. As we’ve shown, we are efficient, and we are fast. While we are not the first to the scene of advancing alternative voting methods, we take every opportunity to leverage our second-mover advantage.

Thirdly, what we do is neglected.

While there are other organizations that advance alternative voting methods, we are the only ones who are successfully advancing approval voting. And if the comparison between other organizations’ budgets is of any indicator, we are extremely underfunded.

Before 2017, we operated on a budget of $50K or less (we have a standout transparency page if you’d like to look). We basically used that to build a website, set up a structure, and provisionally get the word out. In 2017, our income included our Open Philanthropy Project grant at the very end of the year plus our regular fundraising. This put us at about $650K for 2017.

In 2018, we raised over $250K with $30K coming from Open Phil. We also had fundraising staff for the first time in 2018. We received a second grant at the beginning of this 2019 year from Open Phil, which is expected to last for three years. That gives us a floor of $600K for 2019 if we break that up through 2021.

It’s important to look at all this in context to others in this space.

In 2017 alone, all organizations that had ranked choice voting (RCV, a competing effort), as their primary mission had a collective annual income of nearly $10M. (This excludes other large organizations who still include RCV among their activities.) The largest organization (with their sister 501c4 nonprofit) had an annual income of over $5M (over 7.5x ours for the same year) and 36 employees currently on their staff page. The second largest (and their 501c4 sister) had an annual income of over $3M (over 4.5x our 2017 income) and listed 31 employees on their IRS filings for 2018.

In contrast, we hired our fourth staff member in 2019.

Even more, these organizations have had time to grow and get established. When looking back five years from 2017, the now largest organization brought in well over $10M cumulatively (their older 990 filings have been tough to track down for a clearer number); and the now second largest also brought in over $10M cumulatively. And they’re growing. For CES, our aggregate income has been $762K looking past five years since 2017.

For reference, it’s taken RCV nearly three decades and tens of millions of dollars to get where it is now. The first organization to push RCV took a decade for its first win despite RCV already having been implemented in the US and internationally. As it stands, RCV is used in 22 US cities and one state. It’s failed to pass in three cities and one state when it made the ballot (not counting cases when it took multiple attempts to pass). It’s also been repealed in six cities with local opponents primarily pointing to voter confusion.

Funding for approval voting has caused its progress to pale in comparison. But I assure you, with $5M in annual funding, we won’t take three decades to progress with approval voting where RCV is now.

What we will do with sufficient funding

We will run effective campaigns. Earlier, because of resources, we were passive about how we targeted cities. Cities came to us. Now we have the sophistication to identify geographic concentrations of support to develop chapters that can grow into campaigns. We will use this tactic to enter into major cities across the US. This requires existing support for infrastructure and staffing. It also requires funding for a separate 501(c)4 nonprofit to sidestep our existing organization’s spending limits for lobbying.

It’s also worth noting that perceived capacity to fund a campaign heavily influences which organizations will collaborate with you. Without the right budget, organizations will not invite you to join in collaborative statewide campaigns and will instead go with the leading alternative. They’re open about this.

We will lobby legislators. Because of approval voting’s simplicity, there are opportunities for lobbying elected officials. Normally, this isn’t an option because of the conflict of interest with those elected. But the opportunity presents itself when the party in power suffers because of vote splitting yet wants to avoid implementing a complex method. There are places where RCV is stalled out where we have opportunities. These are typically higher risk but very high reward since they don’t require the same resources as a campaign. Our estimate is that they can be one sixth the expected cost per citizen compared to ballot measures when factoring in their relative probability of success. This also requires funding for a 501(c)4 to do this effectively at scale.

We will do research. We’ve leaned heavily on volunteers and academic partners, but having only staff member (myself) with a technical and research background limits us. As executive director, I have other responsibilities to prioritize. We need a Director of Research, support staff, and funds to carry out the research. Imagine being able to have real analysis of all the elections that use an alternative voting method. Imagine getting the type of data you want to see after approval voting is implemented. It takes labor and funds to design that methodology, partner with the right collaborators and contractors, collect the data, analyze it, and them disseminate it in a way people can understand.

Doing research helps us to see the impact of approval voting and also helps us look at other methods. We have to compare methods to evaluate the case for approval voting or else the default will be for RCV. Research achieves multiple other goals as well. It makes lobbying easier, attracts media, evaluates whether we’re advancing the right reform, and has us more fully achieve our mission as an organization that furthers voting method research.

We will increase our outreach and broaden our funding and support base. It’s important that we have a far reach so that we can be identified by partners and so that approval voting is a less foreign concept in cities. Ideally, we’d like to push so hard and quickly that we’re able to reach a tipping point. Approval voting’s simplicity lends itself well to that. Increasing our funding and support base also signals diverse buy-in, which is important even in scenarios with continued concentrated funding.

Why we’re asking for funding from you

Firstly, we want to achieve everything from the previous section. We are capable of performing at an even higher level if we are given the funds to do so.

Traditional funders are not keen to try new ideas. That’s true even when there is strong early evidence. And it’s especially true when a funder has supported competing ideas.

Our current small size creates an additional problem. Funders around this area—even when they find our work compelling—show pause when they look at our income. Being a smaller organization can cause leading national funders to pass us up, particularly when they see other larger organizations with existing capacity.

Additionally, funders require many years of relationship building before any significant funding is provided. While we are making those connections now, they will take awhile before we can successfully leverage them. And it will be even longer before we can leverage them for larger amounts of funding.

If there’s a particular community that’s vetted us, it’s the EA community.

Why there is urgency

We’re struggling for airtime with multiple organizations who all outfund us. We have the advantage of a simple solution that also works better. But without significant funding, we will get left behind.

My ask to you

My ask to you is for your investment in a fairer, more representative US democracy. It’s rare we come across a cause area so neglected with so much room for improvement—particularly when it’s this important. This is a good investment whether you give $500 a year or $500K a year.

Some of you may be in a different seat where you can leverage even more funding. It’s worth noting here that leaders in the nonprofit field have made the case for a more aggressive funding model. A more aggressive funding model provides much longer support to enable richer planning, nimbler decision making, and more risk taking. Part of this case involves throwing the caveat of concentrated funding to the wind, but it also means things get done efficiently.

(Another interesting note is that even with the long time ramp, one of the two leading voting method organizations still gets half its funding from just two sources. We don’t have the data to to see what the case is for the other.)

Our demonstrated proof of concept, vision, and efficiency makes us a great target for continued large-scale funding. Thank you ahead of time for your support.

FAQ

Q: If people had more voting power, how do we know they’d advance better policies?

A: Consider the counterfactual. Who decides when it’s not the voters? If it’s not the voters, do those people have our best interests in mind? And if some policy areas are failing in rhetoric, perhaps that deserves to be an EA cause. Better democracy will not lead to perfect policy. But bad democracy will lead to bad policy and bad people in government who aren’t looking out for the collective utility of all of us.

Q: I heard there was this thing about approval voting that wasn’t so good or that another voting method was better. Also, don’t forget about Arrow’s Theorem.

A: All voting methods have quirks, but we maintain that the quirks of approval voting are comparatively mild compared to the alternatives. You can see this article where we go into all the details about approval voting criticisms. Also, I talked with Kenneth Arrow personally for an hour and he said that our choose-one voting method was bad. Really.

Q: How does RCV match up to approval voting?

A: Not very well. From encountering avoidable anomalies to being needlessly complex, RCV falls well short of what approval voting can offer. Here’s an article on that topic. And here’s a critical look at RCV. In short, RCV can tend towards a more polarizing winner in challenging elections. It also does a much poorer job at measuring the support for all the candidates. Between the two, approval voting is also much more viable long term for US presidential elections. This is due to technical features like precinct summability, the type of data used, and overall complexity.

Q: Why do you bring up or criticize RCV?

A: Those who are aware of the voting methods space tend to only be aware of RCV. We’re in a period where there are false claims on RCV that you can rank your favorite first every time and that it gives a majority winner. These misperceptions create an unlevel playing field when voters and governments are evaluating their options.

Because of the complexity, reporters and other outlets don’t have the sophistication to question it. It’s also part of our mission to effectively evaluate different voting methods and educate the public on their merits. It’s worth noting that we went into this sector agnostic about which method we would advocate for. Only after that evaluation did we arrive on approval voting.

Q: How do you decide what makes a voting method good?

A: We look at the type of winner it tends to elect as well as practical issues from simplicity to implementation. Here’s an article on that topic.

Q: Will approval voting increase the number of parties?

A: Probably, but not by much. Those parties can, however, get their voice heard (and ignored if they have bad ideas). Here’s an article on Duverger’s Law. (Fun video here). Also, third parties and independents clearly benefit from approval voting. Note that the multi-winner proportional version of approval voting would encourage more parties. But it’s more complicated on the calculation end. It’s still a strong approach among proportional methods.

Q: Why don’t you go after organizations that do achievement awards?

A: We do, though we limit our resources to high-impact opportunities. Here’s an article about how we worked with The Webby Awards. We’ve also done an article on giving games. I’ve personally encountered some resistance when talking with some large awards organizations. They don’t collect the data to know whether their current voting method is bad. Plus they likely perceive that changing their voting method may reveal that their previously given awards have less value.

Q: The Electoral College is awful. Why aren’t you working to get rid of it?

A: The current actions to make the electoral college moot would still leave us with that awful choose-one voting method. Approval voting would work with this current approach though (RCV wouldn’t). We wrote a whole article about it.

Q: Why don’t you go after primaries? You should be going after primaries.

A: In areas where we run initiatives and there are primaries, we will be having them use approval voting. We’ve written lots about primaries. Here’s an article. Here’s one, too. Here’s one more. We’ll likely write another one before too long as well.

Q: Why don’t you target third parties to get their support?

A: We target third parties to get their support. Green and Libertarian chapters in multiple states support and use approval voting. The Libertarian Party even uses it for national internal positions. Other third parties use it, too. Many of those folks have already bought that IRV will help them, so we have to explain how approval voting would be better.

Q: I listened to the 80,000 Hours Episode, but I felt that you didn’t go into enough detail in certain areas.

A: It seems like you always think of things after the fact. Here are some quick follow-up details into areas like voter turnout where I could have given a more complete answer.

Q: Don't you have money already?

A: Our grant from Open Phil lets us operate. At $1.8M over three years, however, that means a $400K shortfall each year if we want to target a $1M annual budget. That’s the average budget we’ll need to take on cities larger than Fargo, ND. In 2018 when we received our first $600K grant, which worked great for that year, but we took on a smaller city of 120,000 people. We’ve made substantial gains since then, but it’s unrealistic for us to hit $400K immediately. This grant was game changing for us, but still leaves us substantially short of what we need to optimize our effectiveness and grow or impact. As laid out above, we have enormous room to operate effectively with more funds.

Even just aiming at a $1M budget (we can effectively use much more), we have a lot of ground to cover. It can also take a long time to get a donor base, staffing, infrastructure, and some big wins. For example, we effectively have $600K per year available starting from 2018. And we have a budget moving towards $1M in 2019. The first year of having funding in 2018, we raised an additional $200K outside any grants (4x our normal revenue from previous years). To cover the budget gap for the remaining years, we need to increase our donations by 50% each and every year after that. So that’s $300K in 2019, $450K in year 2020, and $675K in 2021.

This is an extremely ambitious growth rate, which is why we need your support.

Q: How can I help again?

A: Let other people know about our work and invest in a better democracy. If you’re particularly well connected, consider joining our board.

Q: Someone told me Aaron has a bunch of technical resources on efficient giving and minimizing tax burden in the US. Is this true?

A: You’re right! You can find those resources here. In particular, you should check out the articles on philanthropic giving, planned giving, and donor-advised funds.

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