Friday, May 30, 2008

Suppose Israel does choose to switch to regional voting, with a single winner in each region. How should the winner be chosen?

Simple, you say. Just use the tried-and-true plurality method: let every voter choose their favorite candidate and let the candidate with the most votes win. This plurality method has the virtue of simplicity, but it suffers from certain well-established weaknesses. The main issue is the Ralph Nader effect. Suppose there are three candidates: the moderate Red candidate (R) gets 48% of the vote, the Blue candidate (B) gets 49% of the vote and the extreme Red candidate (R+) gets 3% of the vote. Under the plurality system, B wins. But, since the R+ voters obviously prefer R to B, the true majority preference (R) is thwarted by the plurality method. (Side comment: there was a lie in the previous sentence. As is clear from a cursory reading of the meshugosphere, R+ voters prefer anybody but R.) Formally, we say that R is a Condorcet winner, since in head-to-head, R would beat each of the other candidates. Thus, the plurality method might not choose a Condorcet winner, which is a bad thing. (A similar thing happens when, instead of one major Red candidate and one minor one, there are two major Red candidates that split the vote.)

Another, closely related, weakness of plurality voting is that voters are forced to vote strategically, rather than sincerely. To use the above example, if your real preference is R+, but you know that voting for R+ might tilt the results from R's favor to B's favor, you're likely to vote for R (your strategic choice), rather than R+ (your sincere choice). This is also a bad thing.

The weakness of plurality voting lies in the fact that voters give very little information. We know their preferred candidate (or at least, their strategic choice), but we don't know what they think about the other candidates. Thus, the fact that R+ voters prefer R to B is never given expression and is not taken into account in computing results.

A wide variety of solutions have been proposed and all involve eliciting more information from the voters. The simplest proposed improvement is approval voting: a voter can vote for all the candidates he approves of. If he has one clear favorite, he can vote just for that candidate. If he doesn't care much about most candidates but really despises one of the candidates, he can vote for all but the one he hates. (This should be immensely popular around these parts.) The candidate with most votes wins.

This method has much to recommend it. First of all, in our above example, R+ voters can simply vote for both R+ and R. This solves both problems mentioned above. First, voters are more likely to vote sincerely, not strategically (they really do prefer both R and R+ to B). Second, R is likely to beat B, thus giving the voters their true choice. In fact, it can be shown that approval voting generally (though, not always, as we'll see) results in victory for Condorcet winners.

But, there are problems. First of all, imagine that there a whole bunch of candidates running and a voter has a clear ranking of the candidates in his head. He still wouldn't quite know where to draw the line: between his most favorite and second favorite? between 5th favorite and 6th favorite?. This mushiness can result in two voters with identical preferences casting vastly differing ballots.

If that doesn't sound especially awful, consider another situation. There are three candidates. Our old friends, R and B, and a third candidate, whom we'll call P for Pareve. Let R be the favorite of 70% of the voters, B the favorite of 30%, and P the favorite of nobody. Now , it is perfectly possible that P is so perfectly inoffensive that 75% of the voters (whether they prefer R or B) also vote for P. Then despite the fact that R is a massive Condorcet winner and P is nobody's preference, P would win the election.

Well, if approval voting addresses the problems with plurality voting by eliciting more information from the voter, we can try to solve the problems with approval voting by eliciting even more information. Specifically, we can ask a voter to rank the candidates in order of preference -- most favorite, 2nd favorite, and so on. This, of course, tells us a lot more about a voter's preferences than just approve/don't approve. Of course, once we know every voter's preferences, it isn't exactly obvious how we ought to determine the winner. We need to define some appropriate aggregation function that takes all the votes and computes the winner.

Now, it's important to know that there's no perfect aggregation function. This follows from Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, which argues that some really simple set of properties (that you surely would hope for an aggregation function to have) are not simultaneously satisfied by any aggregation function. Nevertheless, there are some reasonable aggregation functions. The most famous of them is the Borda count, more familiar to Americans as MVP voting (sort of). If there are ten candidates, then a candidate gets 10 points for each first-place vote, 9 for each second-place vote, and so on down the line.

The extra information provided by ranking does indeed come in handy. Thus, in our example with the pareve candidate, P might indeed get lots of second-place votes, but R would still win, since second-place votes are worth less than first-place votes.

And yet, no surprise, there are problems with this too. First, it's really asking too much off voters to have them rank a whole gaggle of candidates. Second, it seems that using Borda count, Condorcet winners are actually less likely to win than they are using approval voting. Moreover, Borda count invites strategic voting. For example, suppose there are two real candidates, R and B, and eight bogus parties, which we'll call Pensioners1, Pensioners2, etc. Let's assume that nobody really wants to see any of the Pensioners candidates anywhere near the victory stand. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear what voters will do. (You know what you would do.) The R voters would bury the B candidate behind all the Pensioners candidates and the B voters would return the favor. One of those Pensioners candidates could even win as a result, to everybody's horror.

Of course, there are those who propose to remedy these flaws by asking voters to provide even more information. This can be done by having voters assign a grade, say from 0 to 100, to each candidate. This is clearly more general than ranking, since it imposes an implicit ranking and even facilitates indicating by how much, say, one's 4th favorite candidate is preferred over one's 5th favorite. This is a new idea and the literature on it is still a bit raw.

I personally think the simplest thing would be to use approval voting but limiting a voter to at most two approved candidates. The reasons I prefer this will have to wait for another occasion.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

One of the main arguments put forward by R. Avraham Sherman against R. Druckman's conversions is that R. Druckman signed on conversions at which he was not present. This was a technical matter since it is not disputed that three dayanim were present at each of those conversions.

As they say: kol haposel bemumo posel. I am holding in my hand a document written by the Commissioner of Complaints against Judges, Tova Strassberg-Cohen, and signed by her on March 31, 2008. The document is a response to a complaint against a panel of dayanim sitting on a case involving a divorce dispute.

The whole panel seems to have been out of control: they heard testimony in the presence of only one side, neglected to keep protocols, and so on. But the main complaints involve the aforementioned R. Sherman (RAS).

First of all, RAS failed to disclose that one of the lawyers appearing before him was at the same time representing his daughter in front of another court. When this was discovered, he was asked by Rav Amar to cease hearing the case. RAS simply ignored Rav Amar's request.

Second, RAS signed the ruling despite not attending a session of the court at which testimony was heard.

You can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Today I'll follow up on my previous post about election systems. The upshot of the last post was that switching to a (partial) first-past-the-post (FPTP) regional voting method will result in two major parties (and possibly one or two minor parties with regional appeal).

In this post, I'll explain the overall advantages and disadvantages of such a system as compared to the current proportional system.

In an excellent article in Azure, Amotz Asa-el outlines the failures of Israel's proportional representation system. He identifies the crucial issues as:
1. A plethora of small parties representing special interests. Since such parties are necessary for forming coalitions, they have power that is incommensurate both with their limited size and with their limited sense of national responsibility.
2. Greater accountability of MKs to their parties than to their constituents. This leads to all manner of irresponsible and even corrupt behavior, as predicted in a brilliant paper by Ferdinand Hermens, cited at length by Asa-el.

So will FPTP solve these problems?

With regard to the first issue, as discussed in my previous post, there is no doubt that most small parties will be eliminated. But then there are two possibilities. The less likely one is that neither major party will have an absolute majority and will need to form a coalition with some minor regional party. In this case, the problem of disproportional power is not diminished but rather greatly exacerbated, since the minor partner is likely to be the sole coalition option and hence will have the same voting power as the major partner. The more likely possibility is that one party will have an absolute majority. This is a scary proposition, unless Israel's major political parties become significantly more responsible than they are now.

Which leads to the question of accountability to the voters as opposed to party interests. Clearly the need for MKs to please the voters leads inevitably to a weakening of the parties. Just as clearly, as voters abandon small parties in regions where those parties have no chance, the larger parties will be incentivized to run candidates in those regions who are attractive to the floating voters. In the long run, this will lead to great improvements. Unfortunately, it will take a fair amount of time until 1) voters learn to abandon parties with no chance and 2) parties learn to run attractive candidates rather than ones that are loyal to the party line. Until that happens, matters will be worse rather than better.

As a result, we are better off if, during a transition period, we adopt a system that combines direct election of MKs with proportional results (and I don't mean half this and half that). There are a number of ways to do this. One is to use single transferable vote, in which elections are regional but more than one candidate is elected in each region in such manner that each party receives a number of seats proportional to the number of overall votes it received. The other is to use a system as in Belgium in which elections are national and proportional, as they are now, but in which a voter specifies preferred candidates within the party he has selected.

Both these systems encourage personal accountability while preserving proportionality. Once Israel's parties have learned the principle of accountability, we can take the next step and move to ordinary regional elections. Once we do, I hope we use something a bit more sophisticated than FPTP. As I did in my previous post, I once again promise to explain the alternatives in my next post.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Most Americans in Israel are in favor of personal elections for the Knesset. It's what we are used to and, having experienced both proportional and direct elections, we know that directly elected politicians tend to be more responsive to their constituents. But a sober evaluation of the alternatives suggests that the issue is not as clear-cut as some think.

Consider, for example, the election reform bill recently proposed by four MKs from across a spectrum of political parties. Briefly, the idea is that only 60 of 120 MKs would be elected in the proportional method currently used; the other 60 will be elected one each from 60 regions in first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections. (FPTP means simply that each voter chooses one candidate and the one with most votes wins -- the method we are used to.) In other words, each voter has two ballots: one is for voting for a regional candidate affiliated with one of the parties and the other is for voting for a party.

Sounds pretty innocent. Sort of half-way between the current proportional method and the American method of voting for congressmen. What could be bad? But you might have second thoughts if you look at the results of a simple simulation done by my friend Avram D. Avram computed what the distribution of Knesset seats would have been in the 2003 and 2006 elections had the proposed new method been used instead of the old one. (He assumed that every voter would have simply used both ballots to vote for the same party; experience in other countries with similar methods suggests that this is a plausible assumption -- but see caveats below.)

Here is what would have happened (actual results are in parentheses):
In 2003, Likud (38) would have gotten 87 seats. Shinui (15), Shas (11), Ichud Leumi (7), Mafdal (6), Meretz (6) all would have been wiped off the map. In 2006, Kadima (29) would have gotten 58 seats and the Likud would have been wiped off the map.

How does the thought of Sharon with 87 seats grab your fancy? Or Olmert with 58?

The reason this happens is plain to see. A party that has a slight edge in each region gets all the regional seats in a disproportional manner. (In the case of the particular method proposed here, the problem is exacerbated by a stipulation that a party that doesn't win any regions is disqualified from getting any seats in the proportional part as well.)

It should be noted that what will really happen if the proposed method were adopted is a bit different than these numbers suggest. According to a straightforward principle known as Duverger's law, FPTP elections inevitably result in a two party system, or at the very least each region becomes a two-party race, because voters will simply stop voting (in the regionals) for any party that has no chance of winning. So it is likely that some of the votes that went to small parties in the regions where they lost badly would actually go to a larger party such as Likud.

While I understand perfectly well the huge advantage in terms of accountability conferred by direct elections, I am scared to death of the thought of any party having 87 seats. I think a plethora of parties is a blessing not a curse; it makes compromise both necessary and possible. (The more parties the more potential coalitions.) To be sure, I think datiim would be better served by having clout in the major parties than by being represented by ineffective politruks (same for Arabs, Russians, etc.), but even so I'm not ready to contemplate a two-party system here quite yet.

One very partial remedy would be for the regional elections to use some system other than FPTP. There are many such systems, each with advantages and disadvantages. In my next post, I'll give an overview.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

If you want to get some idea of the standards maintained by Israel's newspaper of record, Haaretz, have a look at this piece. Not recommended after meals.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Let's summarize the basic facts and relevant legal issues in the latest Olmert affair.

At about 11:00 PM (Israel time), the police and the Justice Ministry issued a statement. (As always, read the original.) It's mostly technical stuff about the gag order but the key paragraph is this:

החקירה עוסקת בחשד לקבלת כספים שלא כדין, על-ידי מר אולמרט, במסגרת כהונתו הציבורית כשר התמ"ת וכראש עיריית ירושלים. על-פי החשד, התקבלו על-ידי מר אולמרט כספים בסכומים משמעותיים, מגורם או מגורמי חוץ, לאורך תקופה ממושכת, חלקם במישרין וחלקם בעקיפין

Briefly, Olmert is suspected of accepting money illegally from foreign sources over a long period of time. The word "bribes" is not used but the media have been using the word freely. Uri HaCohen Aharonov of Channel 1 claims that a senior police source told him explicitly that Olmert accepted envelopes filled with cash.

The police have gotten testimony from at least four sources. One is Moshe Talansky of Woodmere, who raised money on behalf of Olmert and many other organizations. Another is Olmert's trusted assistant of thirty years, Shula Zaken, who, unfortunately for Olmert, is known for keeping meticulous records. A third is Olmert's old law partner, with whom he has had an ongoing shady relationship and who is involved in all the open police files on Olmert, Uri Messer. The fourth is an unnamed senior politician associated with Kadima ("Deep Throat"), variously rumored to be Avraham Hirschson (because he has good reason to sing) or Shimon Peres (because you can't have a conspiracy without him). In addition, a number of Haredi makhers, who "did business" with Olmert have been questioned.

In his carefully prepared statement tonight, Olmert said a number of important things:

1. He admitted that he received money from Talansky but claimed they were campaign contributions. Olmert agrees that Talansky was passing on funds from others. (A key question is the identities of the donors and what interests they may have had.) Note carefully that he said that he didn't accept bribes and he didn't put money in his pocket. He did not say that he didn't break the law. He couldn't say this because, even if his story is true, he violated any number of campaign funding laws.

2. He said that the technical matters involving the campaign funds were dealt with by Uri Messer. In short, he threw his old friend Messer to the wolves. I can only assume that Messer has already done the same or will shortly. There is the matter of privileged information here, since presumably Olmert can argue that Messer was acting as his attorney.

3. Olmert admitted to receiving money from Talansky even after the last campaign in which Talansky was involved (Olmert's run for leadership of Likud against Sharon in 2002). Olmert's spin was that this was to pay off debts incurred in the campaign. Note that the older bribery investigations against Olmert revolve around payments made in 2003 and 2004, so the chronology is beginning to make more sense.

4. Olmert said that if indicted, he will resign. Note that he did not say he would suspend himself temporarily. This has crucial political consequences, as I'll explain.

To put matters simply, since Olmert all but admitted to violating campaign funding laws (and since just about everybody understands he's guilty of much worse than that), he is toast.

Legally, how does this play out?

According to Basic Law: The Government, a Minister or Deputy Minister, other than the Prime Minister, must resign if he has been convicted of a crime with turpitude and has exhausted all appeals. In the case of Deputy Minister Rafael Pinchasi of Shas, the Court ruled that he could not continue to serve as a Deputy Minister after he was indicted and before he even stood trial. Since the law quite explicitly says one thing and the court said another (this possibility is a special feature of the Israeli legal system), it is hard to know what is actually supposed to happen in future cases.

In any case, with regard to the Prime Minister, the law is that even a final conviction with turpitude is insufficient to force resignation; the Knesset then needs to vote no confidence in the Prime Minister. This is to preserve separation of powers; ultimately only the Knesset can bring down a Prime Minister, not the courts. Thus the Pinchasi ruling is inapplicable here (despite the unfounded contrary claim on Channel 1 tonight by a certain clueless law school dean, who makes a habit of sucking up to the Court). In short, if Olmert is brought down by the Attorney General or by the Court, it would be a tragedy; if the Court properly keeps its nose out of this and the Knesset fails to bring him down, it would be a farce.

So what are the possible scenarios?

1. Olmert declares -- or the Attorney General rules -- that Olmert is temporarily incapacitated ("nivtzarut zmanit"). Then the official substitute Prime Minister, Tzippi Livni, takes over automatically for a period of up to 100 days. Once 100 days have passed, it is as if the Prime Minister has resigned.

2. Olmert resigns or is incapacitated for 100 days. Then the President offers the Knesset Member most likely to be able to form a coalition of 61 MKs the opportunity to do so. If he or she fails to do so, and an alternate candidate also fails, we go to elections.

3. The Knesset disperses itself. Then elections are held within 90 days.

Note the crucial distinction between the PM suspending himself or being ruled temporarily incapacitated and the PM resigning. In the first case, Livni gets a free 100 days to establish herself as PM before having to either pull together a coalition or face elections. In the latter case, she doesn't get the 100 days. So Olmert's promise that he'd resign following an indictment has some significance.

The next big explosion will be when the identity of Deep Throat is revealed.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

In case I neglected to mention it, Israel is the best country on earth and moving here was one of the best things I ever did.

If we complain about Israel, it's only because we are so grateful that we can complain.

If we take the great miracle that we have a Jewish State for granted, it's only because Israel has been so successful that we've forgotten how bad off we were without it.

If most of the world is convinced that Israel is the most the most dangerous country on earth, we can be grateful for that too.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Connect the dots...

Sept 2006: Olmert sold that home in 2004 for $2.7 million to an offshore company controlled by U.S. tycoon S. Daniel Abraham, the billionaire founder of the Slim-Fast diet products, who contributed to an earlier Olmert election campaign. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss investigated the sale amid suspicions Olmert sold the house at a price higher than market value and then rented it from the new owners at an unrealistically low rate.

Apr 2007: The investigation concerns Olmert's role as finance minister in the government's 2005 sale of a controlling interest in Bank Leumi, one of the country's largest financial institutions. Police are investigating whether Olmert intervened — unsuccessfully — in the sale to help two wealthy associates, Lowy and American billionaire S. Daniel Abraham.

May 2008: Prime minister questioned by police after AG issues special order to begin urgent probe regarding alleged bribery by American businessman prior to his induction in office