How to rig an election

After the historic signature collection there was a pitched battle to decide which questions to put on the ballot.  Alas, the battle resulted in somewhat of a defeat for the residents of Newton.  The councilors of Newton saw it fit to put two conflicting questions on the ballot, and to resolve the conflict by stipulating that if both questions pass, the one with the highest number of yes votes will prevail. As explained below, this forces residents to strategize, take a risk, and in a way answer questions against their true preference — a well-known, and bad, situation in election theory.

The two questions are:

  • Question 1:  Shall the City adopt the following general ordinance?
    All recreational marijuana retail establishments shall be prohibited from operating in the City of NewtonCouncilors unanimously approved the inclusion of this question on the ballot.
  • Question 2:  Shall the City adopt the following zoning ordinance?
    The number of recreational marijuana retail establishments shall be not fewer than two (2) nor more than four (4). Councilors approved the inclusion of this question on the ballot by a vote of 11 to 10.

Yes, the motion to put Question 2 on the ballot passed by 1 vote. Each of those 11 councilors can go home feeling satisfied that they bear full responsibility for ignoring the clear preference of their constituents.  It doesn’t matter what the chief of the Newton police says, or what the former head of the Newton-Wellsely hospital says, or what any of the other dozens of high-profile people say, or that you collected thousands of signatures.  Those 11 councilors know what’s best for Newton. (Oh, and by the way, the upper bound is meaningless and can be easily increased. )

Before they convened to deliberate I sent them this message:

  • If you want to put another question on the ballot besides a simple YES/NO question, then you should first collect 7,000 signatures.

I doubt they could have even collected 70 for Question 2.

But the real problem is the rule I mentioned before, that if both questions have a majority of yes votes, the one with the highest number of yes votes will prevail.  To illustrate, consider the following realistic scenario.  Suppose that a resident of Newton loathes recreational marijuana establishments.  When they go to the ballot, they obviously vote yes on Question 1.  What should they do about Question 2?  If Question 1 loses, they are better off if Question 2 wins.  Suppose they also vote yes on 2, and that 99% of Newton residents behaves this way. Then it’s enough that a merry 1% band of business(wo)men vote no on Question 1 and yes on Question 2, and they harness all the votes that people cast to their own advantage.

There do exist fair ways of having both questions on the ballot, but this isn’t one. The current setup forces people who really want to ban recreational marijuana to strategize by voting no on question 2, and risk that if Question 1 loses, they end up with unlimited recreational stores.

Maybe it’s a little hard to understand this in terms of marijuana.  Consider the following scenario:

  1. Question 1: Do you want to ban torture?
  2. Question 2: Do you want to limit the amount of torture that can be inflicted upon you?
  3. Default: Unlimited torture can be inflicted upon you.
  4. If both Questions 1 and 2 have majority Yes, the one with the highest number of yes prevails.

It is not going to be easy, but it seems that in the upcoming campaign we will have to convince people to answer ‘NO’ to question 2.