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Hugo voting: to express a preference, put it on the ballot

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There's a Livejournal post that's making the rounds, about how to use No Award in your Hugo voting. It gives sound advice, except that it's only talking about one particular situation, and addressing one particular misconception about how the voting system works; in a different situation, following the advice in that post may lead to an undesired result.

So here's some more-nuanced information about the effect of explicitly putting things on your ballot vs leaving them off:

  • Putting an item on your ballot (even if you put it after No Award) means you're ranking it above all of the items you don't put on the ballot. (This is the point the LJ post was making.)
  • In other words, leaving one item off of your ballot is the same as putting it in last place after everything else.
  • Leaving multiple items off of your ballot is the same as saying they should all tie for last place, after everything that you put on your ballot.
  • Therefore, in a category where you have an opinion about the ranking of all of the items, you should put all of them on your ballot, even the ones you hate.

Below are a couple of examples.

Example #1

Say you've read all of the books in the Best Novel category, and you've given them these nicknames that indicate how much you like them:

  • Awesome Book
  • Good Book
  • Bad Book
  • Awful Book
  • Worst Book Ever

Note that in this example, you have an opinion about all of them, not just some of them, and you have a clear ranking for all of them. Even though you would rather that none of the bad books won, you would nonetheless prefer Bad Book over Awful Book or Worst Book Ever.

In this case, if you followed the advice given in the LJ entry, your ballot would look like this:

  1. Awesome Book
  2. Good Book
  3. No Award

What that ballot says is “I want Awesome Book to win; if it doesn't, then I want Good Book to win; other than that, I don't care what wins—the other books are tied for last place.“ But that means you're saying that you don't care whether Bad Book or Worst Book Ever wins. If a bunch of people vote for Worst Book Ever, it might win.

In this situation, you should instead fill out your ballot like this:

  1. Awesome Book
  2. Good Book
  3. No Award
  4. Bad Book
  5. Awful Book
  6. Worst Book Ever

What that ballot says is “I want Awesome Book to win; if it doesn't, then I want Good Book to win. I hereby register my opinion that the rest of the books don't deserve an award. However, I know that one of them might win. So if one of those three has to win, I prefer Bad Book. And if it comes down to a choice between Awful Book and Worst Book Ever, I'd rather see Awful Book win.”

(Side note: in this situation, you could alternatively just leave Worst Book Ever off of your ballot; if you leave only one item off of your ballot, that's the same as ranking it last.)

Example #2

But what if you don't have a ranking/preference among the bad options? Imagine that, in your opinion, the options are:

  • Awesome Book
  • Good Book
  • Bad Book A
  • Bad Book B
  • Bad Book C

And you truly don't care which of the three bad books wins, if it comes down to one of them winning. In that case, the advice in the LJ entry is sound; fill out your ballot like this:

  1. Awesome Book
  2. Good Book
  3. No Award

Again, that says “I want Awesome Book to win; if it doesn't, then I want Good Book to win; other than that, I don't care what wins—the other books are tied for last place.“

Example #3

What if you don't have a ranking/preference among the middle options, but you do among the bad options?

This one is trickier. Say these are your choices:

  • Awesome Book
  • OK Book A
  • OK Book B
  • Bad Book
  • Worst Book Ever

In this case, you might be tempted to just put one item on your ballot:

  1. Awesome Book

But remember that by leaving the others off, you're saying that they're all tied for last place in your ranking; you're not expressing any preference among them. You're saying that if Awesome Book doesn't win, you don't care which of the others wins.

So instead of doing that, you might be tempted to include the bad books (to express a preference between them) but to leave off the OK books entirely, because you don't care about them either way. This is more or less the situation that the LJ entry was talking about. So you might want to vote like this:

  1. Awesome Book
  2. No Award
  3. Bad Book
  4. Worst Book Ever

But that would be a mistake, because remember that anything you leave off your ballot is something you're saying should be in last place. So if you leave off the OK books, as shown on that last ballot, that's the same as saying that you prefer Worst Book Ever over the OK books.

So in this case, if you truly don't care which of the OK books wins, but you do want to express a preference between Bad Book and Worst Book Ever, then I recommend flipping a coin to decide which of the OK books to put before the other. So your ballot should end up looking like this:

  1. Awesome Book
  2. OK Book B
  3. OK Book A
  4. No Award
  5. Bad Book
  6. Worst Book Ever

(Or the same thing but with OK Book A and OK Book B switched. Or you might put No Award above both OK books, if you don't think either of them should get an award.)

That ballot unfortunately does say that you prefer OK Book B over OK Book A, which isn't really true. But there isn't a way to say “these two options are a tie for me.” (Except in the special case of “tied for last place.”)

Summary

I guess the key thing that I'm trying to say here is that the only way to express a preference among the options is to list those options on your ballot. If you leave one or more things off of your ballot, you're giving each of those things a last-place vote.

PS: I know I've entirely failed to discuss the No Award Test here. I'm saving that for another post.

2 Comments

Well done. That's very clear and expresses what the Instant Runoff preferential ballot is supposed to do.


Thanks, Kevin!


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