16 NOV 2000
Florida flails its way toward an electoral decision, the American voting
system is under the microscope like never before. Were the ballots comprehensible?
Do people count punch-card ballots better than machines?
Should we deep-six the Electoral College and select the winner from the
popular vote? Were
the "chads" pregnant, for heaven's sake?
Unspoken, but critical
in an election that probably was decided by Ralph Nader's third-party
candidacy, is the question of dealing fairly with all candidates when
more than two people are seriously running. (Remember Clinton, Bush senior and Ross Perot in 1992?)
alter the electoral calculations of candidates and voters alike. If you're
Al Gore, do you run toward Ralph Nader or toward George W. Bush? If you,
as a voter, love Nader and tolerate Gore, should you vote for Nader, and
hope the guy you really dislike -- W. -- still loses? Or should you put
a clothespin on your shnozz and vote for Gore -- thus diminishing Nader's
meets lesser evil
With third-party candidacies becoming more common, today's "plurality
system" of voting forces voters to choose between "throwing away a vote"
on a desirable but unelectable candidate and selecting the "lesser of
But plurality voting
is not the only way to run an election.
So let the media
moan and the politicians pontificate about the seemingly trivial problem
of counting votes accurately. We're wondering -- if more than two candidates
are running -- whether alternative voting systems would be fairer or more
accurate than plurality voting .
early, vote often
And cast your ballot for this lineup of alternative voting techniques.
voting: Devised by an 18th century French mathematician named Marquis
de Condorcet, this system asks voters to rank their preferences from
top to bottom: say Bush over Nader over Gore. The results are used to
compare candidates in pairs: this voter would prefer Bush to Nader,
Bush to Gore, and Nader to Gore. If, as seems likely, Florida's Nader
voters were closer to Gore than to Bush, Condorcet voting would have
elected Gore. (The French may have had a remedy for voting woes - Condorcet
lost his head in the revolution.)
What would happen
in a polarized election where the three candidates were polling more
equally? Say Mr. Lefty and Ms. Righty each pulled 40 percent of the
vote, and Ms. Centrist got 20 percent. Under today's plurality system,
the election would tilt on a (don't say it!) recount of the
votes for Lefty and Righty (Centrist would have no more chance than
Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County). But with Condorcet,
if Centrist was the number-two choice of partisans for Lefty and
Righty, she would win.
count: Named for a rival French
mathematician (hey -- was Florida ever a French colony?)
this system is similar but gives more weight to a person's preferred
candidates, and less to the rest of the pack. Both methods can record
subtler voter preferences than the plurality system.
Borda can be
manipulated, however: Say a voter preferred Gore over Nader over Bush.
If that voter thought Nader was more threatening to Gore, he or she
might select Gore over Bush over Nader. By ranking the most serious
rival to the preferred candidate last, this "strategic" vote sabotages
Borda's purpose: identifying the candidate with the most support.
voting: Each voter can distribute a certain number of votes among the
candidates in any fashion. If the 2000 election allocated five votes
per voter, a Gore-Nader straddler might devote three to Gore and two
to Nader, while a Bush partisan could give all five to Bush. Cumulative
voting benefits minorities, who can direct all their support to certain
candidates, and it's been used to increase minority representation in
Peoria, Ill., and Alamogordo, N.M. Like the Borda count, it can be manipulated
by strategic voting.
voting: Instead of ranking candidates, you "accept" however many you'd
like, and the most accepted candidate wins. The system would allow the
Gore-Nader straddler to approve of both candidates, without fretting
about "throwing away a vote." While approval voting tends to reject
minority candidates who might win a three-way plurality contest, minority
candidates would at least benefit from a more accurate gauge of their
Given the potential
advantages of alternative methods, is the United States stuck with plurality
voting? Curiously, the U.S. Constitution
has tons of detail about the Electoral College and four amendments on
voting rights, but does not seem to specify the type of election. Apparently
that remains a state decision.
fly in the ointment
Before you get too hot and bothered about these candidate voting systems,
we've gotta discuss a bit of math, and a rivalry dating back more than
200 years -- when Condorcet shot holes in the Borda method by proving
it could fail. Condorcet thought his method was better -- but
realized that it could likewise fail!
In 1952, mathematician-economist
Kenneth Arrow examined voting systems that would meet some simple, logical
all voters prefer candidate Bland to candidate Boring, then Bland beats
choice between Bland and Boring should not be affected (as it was in
Florida) by other candidates, and
the overall preference is Bland over Boring over Insipid, then Bland
is preferred over Insipid.
The math is, well, a bit complicated for us simple voters at The Why
Files, but since Arrow won a vote of the Nobel
Prize Committee in 1972, we figure Arrow must have hit the bullseye.
His conclusion? The only voting system that satisfies all of
these reasonable criteria is dictatorship! (Where is Fidel when
we need him?)
University of Wisconsin-Madison mathematician Terrence Millar figures
likewise. "In 1952, Kenneth Arrow showed that there can be no perfect
voting system," says Millar. In fact, he says, more recent work by researchers
such as H. Reiju Mihara prove that the theoretical problems with voting
methods are even greater than Arrow understood at the time.
Yet despite the fact that any system can be subverted, misinterpreted
or give mistaken results, Millar says, the Florida morass shows why "plurality
voting is not necessarily the best way to assess voter preferences."
Had Florida voters been able to express more subtle choices, the outcome
could have been quite different.
-- David Tenenbaum