Gaming the Vote

Book reviews

gaming the vote

Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It) (2008)

“Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It)” is an entertaining primer on the craziness of our usual method of running elections in this country and the various alternative methods proposed to replace it. Long on anecdotes and short on in-depth analysis, it whets the desire for electoral reform without making a definitive case for “What We Can Do About It.”

Our current electoral system is bedeviled by the “spoiler” effect, which can (and often does) result in a candidate winning even though a majority of voters are opposed to that candidate. The 2000 Presidential election is often presented as a spoiler election. (I would disagree, but it makes for a familiar illustration). George W. Bush won with a minority of the votes, even though a combined majority of voters for Ralph Nader and Al Gore were opposed to Bush.

There are plenty of other examples if you look for them, and the author, William Poundstone, is deft at picking the most colorful ones to make his point. The most literally colorful is the case of “the Blue Man,” whose skin turned blue from drinking what he believed to be a “natural” antibiotic. His hopeless 2006 campaign for U.S. Senator in Montana (he got 2.55% of the total vote) resulted in the Republican loss of a majority in the Senate.

Poundstone describes the shady maneuvering of politicians and their consultants to exploit this electoral flaw, but probably no reasonably intelligent observer needs to be convinced that something is wrong with our electoral system. The first section of the book describing the problem is thus overkill. It is the second part, on the proposed alternative electoral systems, that is the meat of the book.

He runs through the most prominent alternatives, doing a good job of making it clear how they differ and keeping the reader’s interest with stories of the history of electoral reform debates. He raises problems with each of them, lending weight to Professor Kenneth Arrow’s famous dictum that there is no perfect democratic electoral system. The consensus of academic voting theorists is that the system we now have may well be the worst of the lot. But what should we replace it with?

What the alternatives offer is the opportunity for voters to give more detailed information about their desires. One set of proposals allows voters to rank candidates according to each voter’s preferences. This set includes ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff), as well as the Condorcet and Borda voting methods. They are all subject to a flaw known as cycling, which in particular (hopefully rare) circumstances can produce results that defy our notions of fairness. Professor Arrow’s dictum was based on studying these systems, and resulted in what is known as the “Impossibility Theorem.”

The second set of proposals, however, takes a different tack. This set is based on voters rating each candidate, and includes both approval voting and range voting. Approval voting lets a voter give a straight thumbs up-or-down for each candidate, and has been subject to intense debate regarding perceived flaws. Range voting lets you rank each candidate on a scale, such as from zero to ten. Poundstone says that it may escape the Impossibility Theorem, and its proponents claim that it is the best of all the systems generally proposed.

The primary evidence for its superiority is a computer simulation of all of the leading voting system alternatives that found that voters would have the least reason to regret the outcomes of range voting. I am not persuaded. All of the assessments of the various voting systems that Poundstone reviews have been based on the work of voting theorists, who assume that the job of a voting system is to convert voters’ preferences into an outcome in which those preferences would be maximized.

To me it is unrealistic to assume that voters’ preferences are not affected by the conditions created by a particular electoral system. Voting systems affect the style of candidate campaigning and the type of vote choice that voters are presented with, both of which can have an effect on the voters’ preferences. In light of this, one could say that an essential job of a voting system is to produce better informed, more reflective voters.

I also take issue with the idea that maximizing voter preferences is the only goal worth considering. One only has to look to the founding fathers of the United States to challenge this, as they would say the goal is to produce a competent government. The reason for giving the vote to the masses, who the founders regarded as ill-informed, was to give the masses a tool to protect themselves from tyranny. Voting theory can give us useful insights, but it is based on a questionable theory of democracy (utilitarianism). Treating it as capable of producing a definitive answer to the question of the “best” voting system goes too far.

On a practical level I find ranked choice voting the more attractive alternative. Ranked choice voting is better known, it has political support, and it has been tested in the real world. (It’s been instituted in many locales in the United States and has been used in other parts of the world for many decades.)

“Gaming the Vote” makes a good case for changing our electoral system, but it also inadvertently makes the case that theoretical debates about the best system may go on for a long, long time. We don’t have to wait that long to make things better. There is another dictum that applies here. It’s the old adage, “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

–Alan F. Zundel

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