First of all, I would like to expand a bit on the voting system in Australia. Like the US, and very much patterned on the US, the Commonwealth of Australia was a federation of a number of states. The Commonwealth is governed by two houses of parliament: the Senate, in which each of the six states has equal representation with a few extra seats for territories, and the House of Representatives, where each member of parliament represents a roughly equal number of constituents.
Simplifying slightly, in federal elections the voters fill out a ballot for each house by numbering the candidates in their order of preference. (Voting is done with pencil and paper.) For the House of Representatives each district is represented by a single member who is elected by a straightforward ranked-choice vote in which the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes go to the next choice of the voter. This process of elimination continues until one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes.
For the Senate, where each state is a single district usually choosing six representatives, counting the votes becomes more complicated. When choosing six representatives any candidate who get more than one seventh of the votes is elected immediately. Their surplus votes will be redistributed but each of these redistributed votes will only be worth a fraction of a single vote. For example if the candidate received one and a half times as many votes as they needed the redistributed votes will only be worth a third of a single vote, because a third of the votes were surplus. Once this redistribution has taken place the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed at full value. And so on. This is why this voting system is sometimes referred to as STV – Single Transferable Vote. Each voter gets to contribute a single vote to the process, although part of it might go to one candidate and part to another. The Senate system is a very fair way of electing the required number of candidates and results in proportional representation of the electorate. On occasion when all twelve seats are up for grabs in each state it becomes even more representative with smaller parties having more chance of winning a seat. Of course the big parties don't like this but it is what the voters want. The Senate system is a variation of the Hare-Clark system which you may have heard of. The Hare-Clark system has been used in the state of Tasmania since 1909. I think that the Senate system is slightly more fair in the way in which votes are transferred.
After I arrived in America and when the subject came up in conversation I would point out what I regarded as two things in the Australian voting system which produced more representative results from elections, but I soon realized that there was a third which was every bit as important. This was the Australian Electoral Commission and the corresponding state electoral commissions which are made up of civil servants who act impartially in determining the boundaries of the electoral districts as well as in running the elections. Gerrymandering is a powerful force in maintaining a minority government in power, when its political appointees are able control redistricting. They aim to create as many districts as possible in which their party has a small but safe majority, thus ensuring that the voices of opposition supporters in these districts are nullified. The remainder of the voters are corralled into districts that are as close as possible a hundred percent opposition supporters. In this way these voters elect as few as possible opposition candidates. Just last year the Supreme Court validated the right of states to gerrymander. In gerrymandered districts the winning candidate is always appealing to a majority of supporters. They have no incentive to reach out to the other side. They just need to gin up their voters to make sure they get out to vote.
Those first two differences I had noticed between the two voting systems were compulsory voting and preferential voting (or ranked choice voting as it's being called in this election).
Three weeks ago Jenny Mansbridge mentioned that she was leery of preferential voting because it dampened the debate between opposing sides. She might have been thinking of the 2018 election for the mayor of San Francisco which used ranked choice voting. In this election two of the candidates who opposed the front runner and who realized that they had more in common with each other than the front runner decided to join together and swap second preferences. Of course, they can actually only recommend that their supporters put the other second, they cannot compel. The ability to express a second (or third or fourth etc) preference prevents a third candidate acting as a spoiler as happened in the 2000 presidential election when Ralph Nader's candidacy deprived Al Gore of the presidency. Also, even when courting valuable second preferences, the candidates still need to put their positions clearly and draw a distinction between their policies and their opponents'. It is true that a candidate is probably less hateful towards the other candidates than they would be in a first-past-the-post election, but I regard this as a plus. It is much less likely to incite violence in their supporters. It is much less polarizing.
By the way, in San Francisco the front runner still won. From my experience in Australia, I can say that there is still a very robust debate at election time, and, in practice, about seven times out of eight preferential voting gives the same outcome as the first-past-the-post system, but that eighth time still matters.
What about compulsory voting? Why should I be forced to vote? You can all think of reasons why that is a good thing. Just think of all the money and effort that is spent on trying to get out maybe 60% of the vote, money and effort that could be much better spent on explaining policies. One of the techniques used is to scare voters to the polls by portraying the opposition as monsters. This has the effect of further polarizing the electorate. I also suspect that compulsory voting would act as another hurdle to bad actors disenfranchising voters. When everyone votes it goes without saying that the result is much more representative of the people. Voting is not very onerous, and actually, in Australia, you are not required to cast a valid vote, just to turn up. I saw recently that people were fined $55 for not voting in state elections in New South Wales. When I left Australia I think the fine for not voting in a federal election was only $20. Still who wants to pay $20? Voter turnout in Australia is around 95%. It could probably be better. I believe that voting is not only a privilege but also a duty.
In a representative democracy the aim of voting should be to select the most representative representatives. Impartial districting, ranked choice voting and compulsory voting all do that. In addition, it turns out, they all have a tendency to decrease the polarization of the electorate which is a welcome benefit.
All of the above explains where I am coming from, what informs me with regard to voting systems. Now to WomenExplore.
In 1896 Anna Parker Lowell, the wife of a Harvard professor, started a group called the Society of Harvard Dames which met on Thursday afternoons for a talk followed by afternoon tea. You might be interested in this notice  that I found in the Harvard Crimson from nearly a hundred years ago.
Published: Thursday, May 10, 1923
The Society of Harvard Dames will be addressed by Professor L. J. Johnson '87 on "Proportional Representation" in Phillips Brooks House at 3 o'clock this afternoon. The feature of the meeting will be a mock election to illustrate the subject of the speech.
Clearly the subject of voting systems has been with us for a long time and is not going away.
In the late 50s the divinity school resurrected the Society of Harvard Dames as Ladies Lectures. In 1973 Brita Stendahl with a small advisory committee reformulated these lectures as the Theological Opportunities Program (TOP). Like the Ladies Lectures they weren't just open to Harvard wives but to any women who were interested. TOP evolved into the WomenExplore we know after Liz Dodson Gray became coordinator in 1978. She opened the advisory committee up to all who attended, developing our unique method of devising a lecture series through the topics that are on our minds. She then introduced the idea of an existential focus to ground the topic of the day in the experiences of one of the women who attended. Today I am that woman. These two features are what distinguish WE from the myriad of other lectures that are available to us.
In 2003 TOP/WomenExplore cut its ties with Harvard, becoming an independent non-profit. This legally required us to have a board which was initially selected by Liz, who became the executive director and president of the board. In 2008 Liz asked whether we, the Advisory Committee, could set up a committee to nominate potential new board members. I was on that committee along with Louise McMurray, the chair, Erica Kenny and Sandy Wayne. What Liz was looking for was a list of volunteers in the order of preference of the Advisory Committee. We decided on the procedures for running an election whenever it might be required, and I volunteered to come up with a voting system, because I was intensely interested in ensuring that our board members truly represented the Advisory Committee and that the elections were as fair as possible.
From what I have just been telling you about my background, you might guess that I would choose a system like the Senate system and you would be right. However when I looked closely I realized just how unwieldy that system could be, even for such a small group as WomenExplore. I dreaded the thought of trying to explain how to count the votes to all the future generations of WE members. Then I had the idea of just averaging the order of preference numbers that each candidate received (or simply just summing them). The result would give an overall order of preference of the candidates, with the most preferred candidates having the lowest numbers. It was immediately obvious that this had some advantages over other systems I have mentioned. You can imagine the situation where there is a compromise candidate, I'll call her Claire, who is liked by all the voters, but not quite as much as they like their first choice candidate. So everybody ranks her second after their varied first choices. Under other systems she would be the first candidate to be eliminated, and the voters would lose the opportunity to have elected a candidate that they are all happy with. This method of counting the votes tends to select consensus candidates which is very much in line with the philosophy of WomenExplore which always looks for consensus in its decision making. As a way of making it easier for voters by allowing them to number only as many of the candidates as they like we give the unnumbered candidates the average of the numbers that the voter missed. This is equivalent to saying that all of the unnumbered candidates are equal last in order of preference. It does not distort the result and encourage voters to game the system (or “vote strategically”), not that I think anyone in WomenExplore would deliberately do that. Still it is what we all do when we vote Al Gore rather than our first choice, Ralph Nader. [This method of using the average of the missing numbers can also be generalized to allow voters to, for example, give two candidates equal second preference. This would translate to each getting a preference of 2.5 and the next candidate in order of preference would have a preference of 4. It is somewhat like awarding places in a running race.] Preferential or ranked-choice voting is one thing. Interpreting those votes for all the voters in a district is another.
With a little bit of research I discovered that the WE voting system is just one of a family of voting systems called Borda counts, named after Jean-Charles Borda who devised the method in 1770. A number of these variants are used in different places around the world, including the Harvard Undergraduate Council which, in 2018, adopted one of the Borda variants for its elections, after finding the Hare-Clark system too complicated, following in WomenExplore's footsteps.
The following slide takes the example of a small district which needs to elect one of three candidates. The first two candidates, Adele and Brooke are very polarizing. Supporters of one would do anything rather than vote for the other. Our friend Claire is the third candidate. Some of her supporters favor Adele as their second choice and some Brooke.
The slide shows how the different systems can give different results with the same votes for a simple case of 100 voters.
And the second slide shows the tally sheet from a real WE board election. The names are changed to protect identities.
 Jane Kim and Mark Leno  London Breed
Main lecture: Eitan Hersh