Making the Right Choices
Many commentators, analysts, and political junkies love following the gamesmanship and strategy of elections. The process to decide our elected officials is, after all, full of exciting ploys and clever tactics. But the games surrounding the process have too often succeeded in making the entire electoral and policymaking process an empty charade in which tricks and strategies are more important than voter choice. To renew our democracy, the methods in which our elections are held must be changed to more properly reflect voters’ preferences.
For centuries, our elections have suffered from a flawed, plurality voting system. Our system produces outcomes in which the winning candidate often does not represent the policy preferences of the majority of voters. In the presidential election of 1844, when slave-owner James Polk defeated widely-respected abolitionist Henry Clay, Polk’s fellow abolitionist James Birney accounted for the narrow difference in many states that Clay lost, and probably cost abolitionists the presidency decades before the Civil War. In 1912, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eugene Debs created a jumbled electoral confusion and allowed Woodrow Wilson to waltz to the presidency despite the fact that Taft and Roosevelt combined had won far more votes for a more conservative agenda.
In the modern era, the 2000 election was the most notable example of a case in which voters’ preferences were not properly represented. Through our plurality voting system, a right-of-center candidate took office despite the fact that a clear majority of the public voted for liberal policies in the form of former Vice President Al Gore ’69 and consumer rights activist Ralph Nader. By 2004, Republicans were funding Nader’s campaign for office, and the gaming of the system reached new levels in congressional elections, with major candidates strategically funding fringe opponents in the hope of siphoning votes from their opponents. Elections that should focus on policy preferences instead have come to depend on the ability to manipulate a deeply flawed system.
When confronted with this reality, political analysts and commentators often exclaim helplessness at the outcome, citing Kenneth Arrow’s “impossibility theorem” as a justification for using a flawed voting system. Arrow, a Stanford economist, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his theorem explaining that no voting system could perfectly represent the preferences of a group of voters. According to the theorem, a perfectly representative voting system would create an outcome where the ranking of winners would align with voter preferences, unanimity would be respected, there would be no dictators, and irrelevant choices would not affect the final result.
As William Poundstone observes in his book “Gaming the Vote,” it is important to realize that the existence of the impossibility theorem certainly does not rule out the prospect of improving our electoral system. Rather, the theorem sets an important foundation for a discussion of the efficiency and representative nature of voting systems, and should encourage the discussion of electoral improvements in local, state, and federal governments.
There are a variety of voting systems that should be examined as alternatives to our currently flawed system, but there is a specific one, instant-runoff voting, that holds the most potential for the future. Already endorsed by President Obama and Arizona Senator John McCain, instant-runoff, used by Australia and Canada, allows voters to rank candidates preferentially. When all the votes are received, if no candidate receives over 50 percent of the first-rank preferences, the candidate with the fewest number of first-preference votes is eliminated and the ballots that ranked the eliminated candidate first transfer their first-preference vote to their second-ranked candidate. This process goes on until one candidate wins over 50 percent of the first-preference vote. The system represents voter preferences more accurately than our current framework, because it allows voters for third-party candidates to signal accurately their policy preferences in the event that their candidate is not victorious.
The system is by no means mathematically perfect, and, like any other system, it can still be manipulated. The system does, however, provide solutions to a variety of problems with our current electoral system. It could prevent low turnout primaries from determining the general election slate of candidates while also not allowing every candidate who files for election a place on the ballot for November elections. If America had instant-runoff, a majority of abolitionists might have elected an abolitionist president in 1844, and a majority of liberals might have elected a liberal president in 2000. The winning candidate of every election could proclaim the support of a majority of the electorate, and elections would be about policy preferences instead of gamesmanship. A strong democracy requires a strong electoral foundation, and decades of history and analysis of voting systems prove that we must change our voting system to preserve the legitimacy of our democracy.
Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.