By Devin McCarthy
Last week was baseball's annual Hall of Fame selection, which makes it a good time to revisit Fair Sports Rules' Hall of Fame voting reform suggestions from a year ago. 

At the time, I concluded that the Hall's approval voting method of election is probably the best option for determining who gets inducted. That might come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Fair Sports Rules and its parent organization FairVote, since we generally argue that ranked choice voting is a superior system in almost all types of elections. The reason approval voting seems to make so much sense in this case is that Hall of Fame voting is essentially a question of approval. A voter has to decide whether he or she "approves" of a given player as Hall-worthy, and approving of one player doesn't really hurt the chances of another player getting elected.

While we have suggested that ranked choice voting as a good idea for several sports-related elections, including baseball MVP voting, I restrained my Hall of Fame reform recommendations to relatively modest changes like lowering the threshold for staying on the ballot in future elections and removing the ten player limit for each ballot.

Nonetheless, we were pleased to see a few commentators this year suggesting a ranked choice voting system for Hall of Fame voting. Those included Tom Tango, author of the well-regarded sabermetrics book "The Book," and Geoff Buchan of RotoValue.com.

Tango's proposal works like this: every voter would rank ten players, as they currently have the option (but not the requirement) to do. However, voters would also have the ability to draw a line somewhere on that list of ten, to indicate which voters they actually think deserve to make it to the Hall. For instance, a voter could draw a line below their fourth-ranked player, indicating that he or she thinks four players are deserving of Hall spots. 

The first round of tabulating would function as now - players who were placed above the line by more than 75% of voters would be elected. After that, any ballots remaining with players above the line would have their votes count toward the player ranked one below their lines. Any ballots still remaining would transfer down to the next line, and so on.

It's an interesting idea, and one that would almost certainly avoid scenarios like the 2013 election where no players were inducted to the Hall. There are some potential problems with the proposal, however, that differentiate it from the ranked choice voting systems we typically support. Most importantly, there would be plenty of opportunities under this system for voters to vote strategically, both in the order of their rankings and in the placement of the lines. To give just one example: a voter who really did not want a player to get elected would leave the player off the ballot completely, even if he or she thought that the player was the fourth most deserving player but definitely not deserving enough.

Another issue is that it would be a common occurrence for voters' ballots to end up helping to elect players who they don't actually think should be elected. I would imagine a lot of dissatisfaction on the part of voters about that feature of the system. For those who want to keep the Hall of Fame a very exclusive institution, this system would also significantly increase the number of players elected each year.

The flaws in Tango's system do not mean we should completely discard ranked choice voting as an option for Hall of Fame voting. An alternative system would be to simply elect a constant number of players to the Hall each year - say, three per election - and determine those players using the multi-seat form of ranked choice voting (also known as the single transferable vote). Under this system, voters could rank as many or as few players as they want. This would remove all incentives for strategic voting, maintain the quality of players in the Hall, and not force voters to help elect players they do not think are deserving, while still allowing voters to express their full preferences and preventing inductee-less years like 2013.

The 2014 Hall election was another controversial one, with one voter barred for life from Hall voting for giving up his ballot to internet voters in protest of the broken process. The Baseball Writers Association of America has the power to propose changes to the voting system. They should absolutely be considering whether a ranked choice option might be the best way to go.
1/16/2014 03:20:01

Tango can speak for himself, but I think he was viewing voting for players you don't think cross the line as a feature, not a bug. He's basically written an algorithm for vote trading: so long as all the guys I really want in are not yet elected, I'll keep voting for extra people, hoping the additional rounds of voting add to the totals of the guy I want to get in.

So let's say we each draw the line between Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, but I have Bagwell just above, while you have Raines just above. Then using Tango's algorithm, if neither Raines nor Bagwell get in on the first round, then our ballots count in the next round, where you're giving Bagwell an extra vote (which I want), while I give Raines an extra vote (which you want).

The trading likely won't be that explicit, but the idea is that I really want all the guys above my line in, and I'm willing to vote for these other guys (in ranked order) if that buys an extra round of votes that could go to my guys.

Now here's a variation on his idea: what happens if you don't require everyone to vote for 10? If a voter genuinely thinks players should not be in under any circumstances, then he doesn't name him at all. And if he's confident fewer than 10 players deserve induction, then he votes for fewer than 10.

And maybe you can simply get rid of the limit in this model. Each voter selects the yes votes they want, and then can, if they like, rank their "maybe" preferences. That way you're not helping anyone get in whom you really think doesn't belong, but it does let you express an ordered opinion on those who you think are on the bubble.

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Devin McCarthy
1/16/2014 04:08:06

I understand that the "vote trading" aspect of the system was intentional, but I foresee that voters would still be bothered by the fact that their votes are electing players that they don't think deserve to get in.

There's also the game theory problem that if I were to put Bagwell just below the line I have no guarantee that you (or anyone else) would do the same for Raines. If I preferred that Bagwell not make it (because of steroids or something) then my dominant strategy would be to leave Bagwell off entirely and replace him with someone with no chance of making it in.

This also assumes that voters care more about getting people in to the Hall than keeping people out, which might not be true for all voters.

A variation that doesn't require 10 votes would be fine, though I suspect it would basically default to the current system. There might be a few voters who would use the line feature to rank their "maybe" preferences, but my sense is that most voters look at each player as a "yes or no" question. Still, it doesn't hurt to give voters more options, and there would be no incentive for strategic voting under this variation.

Thanks for your thoughts!

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