Commentary & Analysis

Podcast 2013-05-27: Follow-up with Occupy Wall Street’s TJ Frawls

TJ Frawls updates us on his second poll in NYC using alternative voting methods. This time they used polling places on election day.





TJ Frawls: TJ is the founder of the Occupy Wall Street Politics and Electoral Reform Working Group (PAER). [Now Make Voting Count]

Aaron Hamlin: Executive Director of The Center for Election Science




CES: Welcome to The Center for Election Science podcast. The Center for Election Science is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to informing the public about voting systems. You can find more of our work on the web at’m Aaron Hamlin, co-founder and president of The Center for Election Science. And today, we’re talking with TJ Frawls.TJ is the founder of the Occupy Wall Street Politics and Election Reform Working Group. Last time we talked about his group’s pilot study. The group surveyed people in New York City using alternative voting methods. Now we’ll be talking with TJ about the group’s survey results from election day.

CES: Hey, TJ?

TJ: Hey, Aaron!

CES: How’s it going?

TJ: Good, how are you?

CES: Good, good. TJ, You’re in the Occupy Wall Street Politics and Election Reform Working Group. We interviewed you before. But go ahead and remind us and tell us a little bit about your group.

TJ: Great, thanks. I’m a founding member of the Occupy Wall Street Politics and Election Reform Working Group. The group was started up in late September 2011 with the intention of brainstorming ideas for political and electoral reform that can break open the two-party duopoly in government. What can we do to reform the electoral system to create a more representative government? So, the first thing we did was just brainstorm ideas and proposals. And what came out of that was a document called, “People Before Parties,” that provides for 11 or 12 recommendations for electoral reform that we think would do this. Recommendations look for things like alternative voting methods, independent nonpartisan redistricting, smaller and more localized districts (which would mean more representatives in government), proportional representation, expansion of franchise, ballot access reform, primary election reform, initiatives and referrenda, and so on. And so we worked on that for about two months. And then after that, an idea had been percolating within the group for awhile to conduct some kind of experiment that would look at alternative voting methods when you put them side by side with Plurality. There are about a dozen locals or towns across the country that have already implemented alternative voting methods of some sort. So we saw that as a big plus as a way to work from the ground up rather than from the top down. So you don’t have to go through the Congress. You don’t need the president’s approval. You don’t even need your state legislature’s approval. This is something people can do in their own towns.

CES: How do you see what you’ve done on election day with polling as being different form what you did during your pilot study.

TJ: For the pilot study we surveyed people at Occupy Wall Street events and demonstrations in New York over a period of two months. And we ended up gathering about 320 responses to it that way. And this was one of the first versions of the program. The question we asked for that whole study was what polling organizations call the generic ballot question: if this year’s elections were held today, what party or candidates would you favor? So we offered people six choices: Democrat, Republican, independent, Socialist, Green, Libertarian, et cetera. In doing that, we got a lot of feedback from people about how the interface works, what was good, what wasn’t good in terms of people just interacting with the interface. Because the program we developed was just an iPad application. The program is loaded up onto the iPad, and then the iPad serves as a kind of mobile voting booth. You ask someone if they want to participate. And if they say yes, then you push the button to run the experiment and you hand them the iPad. And then the program guides them through the whole survey.

CES: You looked at a number of voting methods, the same that you looked at during the pilot study. Would you like to remind everyone as far as which voting methods you looked at?

TJ: Sure. The program we developed tests four different voting methods among one another: the traditional method, which is Plurality Voting, Approval Voting, Score Voting, and Instant Runoff Voting. So, simply put, Plurality Voting (this is the one everyone’s familiar with), you have a list of candidates, check one off, and the person who gets the most checks wins. Under Approval Voting, voters indicate all of the candidates that they approve of. And they can approve of more than one. And the person with the most approvals wins. Under Score Voting, each voter rates each candidate on a given scale. On our task, that scale was zero to five. And the candidate with the most cumulative points wins. And under Instant Runoff Voting, voters rank candidates in their order of preference. In our program, that is limited to three because they list their top three. Other variants of Instant Runoff have you list more than three and rank all of them. But we limit them to three. Participants list who’s your favorite, who’s your second favorite, who’s your third favorite. And that’s tallied as an instant runoff.

CES: Now with the Instant Runoff, why limit the expression to three?

TJ: If I remember correctly, I think we wound up settling with three as a compromise. We’re all volunteers. This was programmed by a member of the group who’d doing this in his spare time. So I think it made the programming a bit easier, and it also lightens our data load that we would have to analyze. But limiting it to three choices is not unprecedented. I think in some places where IRV has been implemented like that, limiting it to a certain number. It’s not like this is something we’re just doing that’s totally off the charts.

CES: Right, right. With the alternative voting methods that you were testing, how did these compare with Plurality Voting?

TJ: In the results?

CES: Yeah.

TJ: What we did was we reproduced the presidential portion of the New York state ballot, which actually had six candidates on it: Obama; Romney; Jill Stein with the Green Party; Peta Lindsay of the Socialism and Liberation Party; Gary Johnson of Libertarian; and Virgil Goode, the Constitution Party Candidate. And what we found was that Obama won under every single method that we tested. And we were kind of expecting that given the political leanings of New York City. But that, I think, was not the most interesting part of what we found.

CES: What was the most interesting part?

TJ: More interesting than who won was who the runner up was. We ran the survey at polling places in one assembly district because of the way New York state releases its presidential polling data, it does that by assembly district by assembly district basis. So we figured if we did it in one assembly district that would be the best way for us to compare with the official results. In the official results Obama got 89% of the vote followed by Romney at like 7, and then Jill Stein at 3.2 and then the rest of the candidates beyond that. In our Plurality findings Obama had 85% and then Romney came in second, the Plurality findings, 8.3 followed by Jill Stein at 3.3, very very consistent with the official findings.

CES: That had to be somewhat encouraging, I would think. If you’re seeing that the Plurality results mirror to a large extent what the official results were, I would guess that that would give you a bit of encouragement–suggesting that your sample was representative of what was polled during the election.

TJ: Yeah, we found it pretty heartening. Under Plurality, Romney came in second. Under all of the other methods that we tested, Romney came in last–by far. And instead, the second-place finisher was Jill Stein of the Green Party. She came in third place under Plurality with 3.2% support, under Plurality. But under Approval, she came in second with 51% support. Under Score, she had almost 54% support. And in IRV, she was by far the favorite second choice candidate of all the voters. So this shows us clearly that from this district that it was a two-person race. But that two-person race was Obama/Stein, not Obama/Romney.

CES: The Instant Runoff voting results. I’m looking at it and it says that within the round that Obama won that Romney has 8 and a half percent and Jill Stein has 3.9%.

TJ: That’s right. That was the result for the top choice picks for the people who participated in this survey. That means under IRV, there is no (IRV stands for instant runoff), given the fact that Obama got the majority of first-choice picks, there is no runoff. There’s nothing to calculate because he already has the majority. Instant Runoff is calculated when no candidate wins the majority of the top-choice votes. And that was not the case here. In our report we have published what the results were for the second-choice votes and the third-choice votes. Among the top-choice votes, the IRV results are very similar to our findings for Plurality. But the second-place votes, which never would have come into play because Obama won outright in the first round, Jill Stein was by far the favorite candidate. She got 47.9% of the second-choice votes. And that was followed by the Socialist candidate in a distant second after her at 12.3%.

CES: So had this been an Instant Runoff voting election, people still would have seen Obama win in a landslide. But at the same time, with the election results they would view, they would still see Romney coming in second and Jill Stein coming in third with 4%.

TJ: That’s true.

CES: So, as from their perspective, had it been an IRV election, they would still see Romney coming in second and not know any better–even if a bunch of people had ranked Jill Stein second, which they did in this case.

TJ: Yes, that is true, unless there was some stipulation that the entirety of all ballots had to be made public.

CES: With the alternative candidates that are present, do you see just in general greater supporter for them with these voting methods compared to Plurality? Because, I mean, I’m looking right now at the Plurality results. And after Romney, everyone is under 4%. You’ve got Stein with 3.2%, Johnston with 1.8, Lindsay with 1. So they’re really getting small potatoes compared to the major parties there.

TJ: Yes, exactly. In the alternative methods, that is not the case. Stein jumps, from Plurality to Approval, Stein jumps from 3.2 % support to 51.9% support. There’s no way you would know that people were so open to Jill Stein’s Green candidacy under just the kind of Plurality. And there’s no way you would know that under traditional professional polling methods, right? Because when polling organizations come out and they do their public opinion polls, those public opinion polls are often modeled on a Plurality basis. they’re also missing out on this openness to these alternative candidates. I mean, I think that’s one of the more surprising results is that the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, got 1.8% that we found under Plurality, jumped to nearly 27% under Approval and almost 39% under Score Voting. I think a lot of Libertarians might be surprised and probably heartened as well by the fact that liberal Democratic New York is actually fairly open to a Johnson candidacy, but not at the expense of voting for a Democrat as you’re strategically kind of required to do under the constraints of the Plurality system.

CES: Now this has to be kind of a unique experience for a voter. So, as a voter we’re used to going to the ballot box or if we’re getting surveyed, the question is always choose one candidate. Now, you’re asking people to express themselves in a variety of different ways. You’re asking them to score candidates. You’re asking them to pick as they want. You’re asking them to rank candidates. How do people react to this?

TJ: Actually, it was very interesting to see people’s responses. Interestingly, people very quickly had opinions. There’s a write-in option for each of the methods. So we were also counting write-in votes. But some people, we got some responses in the write-in votes, people were writing in: “don’t like this method” or “really like this method.” So there was that. I don’t think people really had a problem very much with understanding how the alternative methods worked. I mean, I think they’re very intuitive. And I think they way we set up the program made it very clear. The bigger problem was actually, and we heard this, this is what our volunteers were telling us after we did our report backs at the end of the day was that people didn’t know who the other candidates were. They were saying things like, “How can I rate, how can I say if I approve or not when I’ve never heard of this person?” People were asking that in the middle of it. Our volunteers, they would just say, “You have to keep going, you have to make a decision.” The bigger problem that we found was not necessarily with the methods themselves but with the fact that now when they’re not constrained by Plurality, they can take these other candidates into account. But they didn’t have very much information (if any), which is a consistent problem for third-party and independent candidates who are often treated as second-class citizens. They’re not invited to the debates. They’re not invited to candidate forums. The debate process is controlled by the Democratic and Republican national committees, you know? But it pretends to be nonpartisan. So that was actually the biggest problem we had, the fact that people weren’t familiar with the other candidates who they now were open to expressing an opinion on.

CES: Now I think that raises a question. Under Plurality, to be frank, there’s not much incentive for a lot of people to learn about alternative choices because of that idea of throwing their vote away. And why dedicate the energy to learning about an alternative candidate if you don’t feel that they’re going to win and not vote for them anyway? Whereas, in these other methods, you’re asked to give an opinion about them. You can give an opinion about as many candidates as you want. So, given that, do you think that under an alternative voting method that people would be more inclined to learn about these alternative candidates?

TJ: Say, in a place where they’re using IRV, and you have to rank five candidates. Well when you have to think about more candidates just by the nature of the voting method. You’re invited to think about how more than two candidates relate to one another. It’s not, “Do I like the Republican more than the Democrat?” or vice versa. It’s how do I rank the Democrat and Republican in conjunction with all of these other option?

CES: Another issue is whether media will cover certain candidates is how they poll. So, if polling is the ruler that they use to determine popularity then if polling is also done by an alternative voting method, it would make sense that their perceived popularity would be more. And if their perceived popularity is more, well, it makes sense that also these media outlets would be covering these candidates.

TJ: Yes, definitely. I think people that advocate for the implementation of alternative voting methods. I think it makes sense to also lobby polling organizations to use different metrics and different methods in their polling. There’s this catch-22 in polling organizations. If you actually write a letter to polling organizations and ask them why they don’t include say the Green or the Libertarian or an independent in their polls (even though those candidates are on the ballot), they’re write back saying, “Well, we don’t include them because they don’t get any coverage in the media.” And then if you go to the media and you say, “Why don’t you cover these other candidates in your coverage of these political races even though they’re on the ballot?” they’ll say “Well, they don’t get any support in the polls.” You know? Well, they don’t get support in the polls because they’re not in the media but they’re not in the media because they don’t get support in the polls. It’s kind of a closed, two-party circuit that literally keeps other people out even though those people are on the ballot.

CES: Overall, what would you say your takaway from this study has been?

TJ: When we were doing this, a lot of people kind of had, “Ah ha!” moments when they were going through it. We got responses of people saying, “Wow! This is amazing! I never knew about any of these methods. This is crazy! I really like this one. I like that one, too. But I’m not sure about that one. I’m going to have to look more into this.” And that’s one of the real responses we were trying to get with this whole project. One of the things we wanted to do was collect the data and see how it works. But we also see this as an outreach tool to introduce people to these new methods. It’s one thing to kind of have a discussion and talk about alternative voting methods in the abstract and explain them to people. But sometimes they’re not really into this stuff. And you can kind of see people’s eyes glaze over when you talking about this in great detail about the differences between voting methods. But, if you actually just give them a little experiment, then they can actually have a practical experience with it. I think it brings it home for them in a new way that’s a little more concrete. I think there were a lot of people that had positive things to say about it that way.

CES: Is there anything else you’d like to add, TJ?

TJ: We’ve had some ideas moving forward thinking about doing something involving another survey, maybe revolving around the New York City mayoral election this year. And we’re thinking that in the mayoral election, there’s going to be a number of candidates on the ballot. And people are going to be familiar with most of those candidates. We’re even thinking maybe even the Democratic primary. You know, where Democratic voters will probably have opinions on a multiplicity of candidates. It’ll make it a different kind of response when people are very very well informed about five or six different candidates. We also want to work on outreach to bring more awareness to alternative voting methods to people in general which is why I like a lot what you all are doing at Election Science. We’re actually working on a Facebook app that will allow people to make group decisions that would use an Approval method that would let people make decisions on whatever they want, where should we go to dinner on Friday night or what have you. I just wanted to say thank you again for this opportunity to talk with you about this.

CES: TJ, it’s been great talking to you.This podcast was brought to you by The Center for Election Science. You can find a transcript of this podcast and more of our work at our website, If you enjoyed this podcast, you can support us by donating on our webpage and by sharing our work on Facebook and Twitter. You can keep up to date and get involved by signing up on our mailing list from anywhere on our site. Until next time, thanks for listening.



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