Madison civic hackers want to improve how we vote with online tool | Technology

Madison civic hackers want to improve how we vote with online tool | Technology

Lucas Dailey and Keith Furman say they’re frustrated with the traditional way people vote in America.

“I can attribute all of our great political ills to this voting system that created a two-party system,” said Dailey, a former alder with the city of Madison and a product manager at the tech company Propeller Health. “If it’s ‘us versus them’ in every election, you never want to risk the greater evil winning.”

“People won’t vote for a third party, because they feel like they’re throwing away their vote,” said Furman, a current alder and a former tech executive. “And frankly, they are.”

Those perceived failures are why Dailey, Furman and an unincorporated team of civic hackers — computer-savvy members of the public who make software for the public good — have made an online voting and ranking tool that they say provides a nuanced and democratic alternative to plurality-based voting.

Pivot Libre is a browser-based, no-frills software for voting by ranking preferences. Users can sign onto the service to drag and drop candidates into lists, or to administrate elections themselves. According to its makers — a team including civic hackers Carl Schroedl, Tyler Harter and Nathan Eckberg in addition to Furman and Dailey — the software has all sorts of applications: It could be used by pollsters to gauge public opinion, or by groups of friends figuring out where to go for lunch.

“Someday, it would be amazing for this to be the way to vote for president,” said Furman. “But we recognize that we’re way off from that.”

Perhaps its biggest use case has been with the City of Madison. Alders on the City Council’s Executive Committee relied on Pivot Libre last year to figure out who should fill in a vacant seat on City Council, after Ald. Denise DeMarb announced her resignation in June.

Lisa Veldran, legislative services manager with the city, said that the city’s Executive Committee used Pivot Libre to rank applicants that had interviewed for the appointment. Veldran said that the software was an interesting and helpful tool; however, she also said there were aspects of using it that were somewhat “clunky.” To avoid creating public records of the secret ballots, city staff had to enter alder’s scores into Pivot Libre for them.

“If alders are OK with the public knowing how they rank things, with the budget or what have you, it works fine. But we hit that wall where we want some confidentiality,” she said.

Veldran said that the tricky-to-explain nature of ranked pairs was another barrier to its use. She said that there are no immediate plans for using the tool again.

Furman, himself a City Council appointee, noted that the city seemed to stop experimenting with Pivot Libre after he had requested the software not be used during his own appointment process to avoid a conflict of interest. He said that he hopes the city will pick it back up, especially given that the anonymity issue is a fixable one.

“Those are not hard problems to solve,” he said. “It’s actually easier to hide these ballots electronically than it is on paper.”

Dailey first established the project in 2017 with a squad of politically-minded developers in the civic hacking community after learning about the science of alternative voting methods. Dailey said he was captivated by the idea of “a voting system where people vote for their hopes, and not their fears.”

At the crux of the new tool, built during get-togethers at Michelangelo’s Coffee House, was “ranked pair” methodology, a voting system devised by the economist Nicolaus Tideman in 1987. In it, voters rank their preferences, with a winner being selected based on how frequently candidates outrank their rivals in head-to-head matchups.

The advantage of ranked pairs, said Dailey, is that it allows people to express preferences, instead of having to pinpoint one candidate. Dailey also noted that with ranked pairs, a candidate who outranks all others automatically wins, something he said that even instant runoff voting doesn’t guarantee.

“Allowing people to say, here’s my first choice, here’s my second, here’s my third, and collectively taking those ballots and saying, here’s the collective will of the group, it just works,” said Dailey. In November, Maine became the first U.S. state to used ranked-choice voting to decide a federal general election.

Dailey had long envisioned the software as a good fit for local government, and originally pitched the software to members of the Common Council as a way to figure out its spending priorities in the budget. However, after DeMarb announced her resignation, he saw another opportunity in the city’s council appointment process.

The Pivot Libre team has shifted its focus toward new horizons: building out a version of the software that could be deployed in the 2020 elections. The plan, say Furman and Dailey, is to have something that other institutions could use to gauge public opinion of primary candidates. 

“To be able to see by state and by country how other candidates are being ranked … that would be such a cool way to show people, here’s what the technology could do,” said Furman.

Despite the ambitious plans, the small team has no immediate plans of incorporating as a business, although Furman said they’d discussed the possibility before. Said Furman, it remains a side project for people “passionate about technology.”

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