Hi folks! Please enjoy this guest post on the Hugos!:
Hi, I’m Jameson Quinn, the guy who came up with the basic idea for the E Pluribus Hugo proposal to fix the Hugo Award voting so that minorities like this year’s Sad and Rabid Puppy slates can’t take over the nominations. I’m also a board member of Electology.org (the Center for Election Science) and doctoral candidate in statistics at Harvard. Regular readers of this site will probably recognize me from the comment threads here, where I post using a Kafka/Martin inspired nym. I’m using my real name for this post, and ask that you refrain from using my nym in comments please. I also have to say that the political views expressed below are my own. I speak for Electology.org only when it comes to the voting theory.
Regular readers here are probably also already familiar with the basic outlines of the Hugo/Puppy affair. Here are the basics:
- The Hugo Awards are important awards in science fiction, which for over 60 years have been both nominated and given by fans attending or supporting the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). This year’s WorldCon was last week/weekend in Spokane, Washington.
- For the past 3 years, conservative authors have been promoting slate voting in Hugo nominations. They coyly called their slate the Sad Puppy “List” and denied it was more than “recommendations”, but still explicitly pitched it as a counterweight to fan votes that “skew toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) … [and] skew ideological” based on a “popularity contest”.
- This year, the nominally-within-the-lines Sad Puppies were joined by the outright-trolling Rabid Puppies, led by troll incarnate Vox Day. Day expanded the list to ensure it had 5 things in most categories (so that it would push out all non-puppy works), adding himself and works he published in many cases. He explicitly called for slate voting from his followers, and asked them to vote whether or not they were science fiction fans at all.
- The puppies were successful in taking over most of the nominations, including all finalists in 7 categories, though this later dropped to 5 when some of their unwitting nominees withdrew upon realizing how they’d won.
- However, it was always clear that the puppies were a minority. Indeed, when winners were announced, the only winner on the Puppy slate was Guardians of the Galaxy (which had received more than enough non-puppy nominations that it would have easily been a finalist even without any puppy support). In order to deny the puppies any wins, voters gave “No Award” in 5 categories, using that option as many times in one year as they had in over half a century of history.
- Fans rallied against such minority takeover tactics. A group including yours truly developed a proportional voting system proposal called E Pluribus Hugo over the course of over four thousand comments on Making Light (and let me say that SF nerds rock; it may have been my idea but it would have gone nowhere without the sophistication, skills, and energy of the community at that blog). At WorldCon, after a grueling business meeting stretching 11 hours over 4 days, the proposal passed by a 3:1 margin; if it passes again next year in Kansas City, the system will be first used for the Helsinki 2017 Worldcon. Also, the controversy meant that there were more Hugo voters than ever; almost 6000 of them. The flagship Best Novel award went to a translated work for the first time: The Three Body Problem.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of these events (aside from getting to meet some of my favorite writers, fictional characters, and even a Dalek) was the dynamics of the Puppies; specifically, the love-hate symbiosis between the halfheartedly-trolling Sads and the fullthroated Rabids.
In order to understand this, it’s important to see that the Sads actually did have the germ of a valid grievance: in past years, many Hugo nominators have been from a pretty small and insular group of authors, editors, and hardcore fans, who often know each other personally and whose vote is probably influenced to some extent by factors extraneous to the work itself. Writings from authors who are personally well-liked, or whose overall body of work is stronger than the individual writing, probably have had a bit of an unfair advantage in getting nominated.
Of course, that’s not to endorse the Sad Puppy point of view. Of their three complaints — that the Hugos have been too artsy-fartsy, that they have been too political, and that they have involved logrolling — the first two are sour grapes, the second two are hypocritical, and the relationship between the three exists only in their heads. Only the third could be even slightly legitimate as cause for organized action; but certainly not for the action they took, which was basically to vandalize the awards as a whole, without any hope of actually accomplishing their objectives.
Still, next to the Rabids, the Sads look positively reasonable. And that set up exactly the kind of environment where trolls thrive: one where they could shift at will from “debaters” to provocateurs to hate-hydrants. So, even though there were initially more Sads than Rabids — my analsis of the numbers suggests that in the nominations there were about 100 party-line Sad Puppies and only about 40 party-line Rabid Puppies, with those numbers inflated 30%-100% by partial sympathizers depending on the candidate — the Rabids quickly managed to spread their poison over that entire side of the debate, and probably picked up to over 500-strong by the time of the second round voting.
The obvious analogy, of course, is with the Republican presidential candidates, with Trump making his rabid pronouncements, and the rest of them watching sadly.
And that brings me to what you knew was coming: voting systems. Because with both the Hugos and the Republican primaries, flawed voting systems end up feeding the trolls. The non-proportional Hugo nomination system enabled a minority with less than 15% in certain categories to take over those categories entirely. And similarly, the vote-for-one primaries enable Trump to be a clear and enduring frontrunner with just 30% of the Republican voters on his side, and higher negatives than any other candidate.
Better voting systems are, of course, available. In the case of the Hugos, it was E Pluribus Hugo. This system gives 1 point to each nominator, so if you nominated 5 works, they would each get 1/5 of a point from you. The points are totalled, and the two works with the lowest points go up for elimination. Of those two, the one nominated by the fewest people is eliminated. This means that in comparing the two, your nominations count at full strength, and a “bullet voting” strategy of nominating only your favorite work could not help it at that point. Then, points are redistributed (so that if one of your 5 nominations had been eliminated, the remaining 4 would now be getting 1/4 of a point each from you), and the process is repeated until only 5 works remain. The result is that slate works end up eliminating each other until just 1 or 2 remain, while non-slate nominators points naturally concentrate onto the strongest works.
At the convention, I was handing out “E Pluribus Hugo” ribbons every time I made that spiel, so I can say with certainty that I made it to over 250 people. When I initially offered the ribbons, the biggest source of skepticism was that the proposal was too complicated. But once I’d explained, people shifted to merely worrying that it might be too complicated for other people. As you can imagine, it felt pretty good to see that when the chips were down, those “other people” turned out to make up less than 25% of the people who cared to vote on the proposal.
Under a voting system like EPH which doesn’t give an outsized voice to minorities, I don’t think that the rabids’ outright trolling would have gotten the same traction. And I’m not the only one who feels that way; in the final debate over E Pluribus Hugo in the Worldcon business meeting, one of the speakers in support was a Sad Puppy who liked how EPH would have prevented the Rabid Puppy takeover. Remember, according to my best analysis, there were about 100 committed Sads and about 40 committed Rabids, yet because the sad slate had fewer than 5 candidates in many categories, there were a number of rabid-but-not-sad finalists, giving an exaggerated impression of Rabid strength. Under EPH, the Rabid ballots would have spent their strength nominating cross-listed candidates, and probably no Rabid-only candidates would have made the cut. Furthermore, when it came to the vote on whether to adopt EPH itself, the rabid puppies’ trollishness was actually the best ally of proposal supporters like me. In such a simple up-or-down vote, any voting system is fair and majoritarian, the depth of bile that their hateful rhetoric inspired was clearly no match for the breadth of the backlash.
In the case of presidential primaries, too, there is a way of voting that wouldn’t “feed the trolls”, and where outright hate would tend to backfire. I’m talking about approval voting, where each voter could approve as many candidates as they wanted. Instead of throwing away ballots voting for more than one, we could just count them normally. Anti-Trump voters could approve the candidates they consider more serious, and Trump, with majority disapproval, would probably be well down the list of frontrunners. While he would still have made a splash, his racist rhetoric would lack some of its triumphant appeal. Any way of avoiding fanning those flames is a good thing.
Epilogue: I wrote some of this on the train home. It turns out that about a dozen fans decided to extend the convention onto the train, calling it “TrainCon”; though I missed it on the way in, I was with them on the way back. One night, they had a sing-along in the snack car, and they invited me to give a quick lecture on E Pluribus Hugo beforehand. At the beginning of the sing-along, two singers from the group Sassafrass sang several songs, including one beautiful piece that expressed their patient, clear-eyed optimism about the long term prospects for space flight. To me, the prospect of better democracy through reforms such as E Pluribus Hugo fills me with that same kind of optimism; though I know that the way forward is not short or easy, it gives me a reason to believe tomorrow can be better. Listening to their beautiful singing, and remembering the inspiring success of the proposal, is an experience I will always remember with pride and hope.