Coombs' method

Coombs' method is a ranked voting system popularized by Clyde Coombs.[1] It was described by Edward J. Nanson as the "Venetian method",[2] but should not be confused with the Republic of Venice's use of score voting in elections for Doge. Coombs' method can be thought of as a cross between instant-runoff voting and anti-plurality voting.

Like instant runoff, Coombs' method candidate elimination and redistribution of votes cast for that candidate until one candidate has a majority of votes. However, unlike instant-runoff, each round eliminates the candidate rated last by the most voters (instead of first by the fewest voters).[1]

The method fails most voting system criteria, including Condorcet's majority criterion, monotonicity, participation, and clone-independence.[3][4] However, it does satisfy the median voter property.

Procedures

Each voter rank-orders all of the candidates on their ballot. Otherwise, the candidate ranked last by the largest number (plurality) of voters is eliminated, making each individual round equivalent to anti-plurality voting. Conversely, under instant-runoff voting, the candidate ranked first (among non-eliminated candidates) by the fewest voters is eliminated.

In some sources, the elimination proceeds regardless of whether any candidate is ranked first by a majority of voters, and the last candidate to be eliminated is the winner.[5] This variant of the method can result in a different winner than the former one (unlike in instant-runoff voting, where checking to see if any candidate is ranked first by a majority of voters is only a shortcut that does not affect the outcome).

An example

Suppose that Tennessee is holding an election on the location of its capital. The population is concentrated around four major cities. All voters want the capital to be as close to them as possible. The options are:

• Memphis, the largest city, but far from the others (42% of voters)
• Nashville, near the center of the state (26% of voters)
• Chattanooga, somewhat east (15% of voters)
• Knoxville, far to the northeast (17% of voters)

The preferences of each region's voters are:

42% of voters
Far-West
26% of voters
Center
15% of voters
Center-East
17% of voters
Far-East
1. Memphis
2. Nashville
3. Chattanooga
4. Knoxville
1. Nashville
2. Chattanooga
3. Knoxville
4. Memphis
1. Chattanooga
2. Knoxville
3. Nashville
4. Memphis
1. Knoxville
2. Chattanooga
3. Nashville
4. Memphis

Assuming all of the voters vote sincerely (strategic voting is discussed below), the results would be as follows, by percentage:

Coombs' method election results
City Round 1 Round 2
First Last First Last
Memphis 42 58 42 0
Nashville 26 0 26 68
Chattanooga 15 0 15
Knoxville 17 42 17
• In the first round, no candidate has an absolute majority of first-place votes (51).
• Memphis, having the most last-place votes (26+15+17=58), is therefore eliminated.
• In the second round, Memphis is out of the running, and so must be factored out. Memphis was ranked first on Group A's ballots, so the second choice of Group A, Nashville, gets an additional 42 first-place votes, giving it an absolute majority of first-place votes (68 versus 15+17=32), and making it the winner.
• Note that the last-place votes are only used to eliminate a candidate in a voting round where no candidate achieves an absolute majority; they are disregarded in a round where any candidate has more than 50%. Thus last-place votes play no role in the final round.

In practice

The voting rounds used in the reality television program Survivor could be considered a variation of Coombs' method but with sequential voting rounds. Everyone votes for one candidate they support for elimination each round, and the candidate with a plurality of that vote is eliminated. A strategy difference is that sequential rounds of voting means the elimination choice is fixed in a ranked ballot Coombs' method until that candidate is eliminated.

Potential for strategic voting

Like anti-plurality voting, Coombs' rule is extremely vulnerable to strategic voting. As a result, it is more often considered as an example of a pathological voting rule than it is a serious rule.[6] Coombs' method is extremely sensitive to incomplete ballots, compromising, push-over, and teaming, and the vast majority of voters' effects on the election come from how they fill out the bottom of their ballots.[6] As a result, voters have a strong incentive to rate the strongest candidates last to defeat them in earlier rounds.[7]

This results in a Keynesian beauty pageant that is extremely sensitive to minor variations in the perceived strengths of candidates.