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# Reviews: Math Fix for Unfair Elections

SciAm reviews Math Fix for Unfair Elections and Physics Fix for Uninformed Voters

GAMING THE VOTE: WHY ELECTIONS AREN’T FAIR (AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT)
by William Poundstone. Hill and Wang, 2008

This book will not reassure you: the U.S. has the worst of all possible voting systems. Known as plurality voting, it awards the prize to the candidate who gets the most votes among several contenders. The problem is vote splitting, the phenomenon in which two candidates split the support of like-minded voters and put someone who is not the most popular choice in office. Most of us will flash back to Ralph Nader in 2000. But the author reminds us of other cases—William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, for example, who split the Repub­lican vote in 1912, leaving Democrat Wood­row Wilson to win. By Poundstone’s calculation, in 45 presidential elections since 1828, at least five have been won by the second most popular candidate. “That’s over an 11 percent rate of catastrophic failure,” he writes. “Were the plurality vote a car or an airliner, it would be recognized for what it is—a defective consumer product, unsafe at any speed.”

Often such vote-splitting “spoilers,” the author points out, are financed by those who oppose their politics: in 2004, for example, Republicans paid for Nader signature drives, but it’s a sad bipartisan practice. Poundstone, a writer who is fascinated with how scientific ideas—those of mathematics, in this case—play out in everyday life, recommends something called range voting as the least unfair of all voting methods. In this system, voters assign rankings to candidates, and the one with the most points wins. If the 2000 election had used range voting, for example, instead of having to cast a single vote for Al Gore, George W. Bush or Nader, voters could have rated each candidate on a scale of one to five, and the candidate with the highest ranking would have won.

ELECTRONIC ELECTIONS: THE PERILS AND PROMISES OF DIGITAL DEMOCRACY
by R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall. Princeton University Press, 2008

Will the machine lose your vote?  Will it be hacked? Political scientists Alvarez and Hall provide a rigorous analysis of electronic voting, and they come down heavily in favor of the benefits of the new technologies, arguing that media coverage has emphasized the problems while downplaying the potential for empowering more citizens to vote.

PHYSICS FOR FUTURE PRESIDENTS: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE HEADLINES
by Richard A. Muller. W. W. Norton, 2008

Many public policy decisions today have a high-tech component. Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, believes not only presidents but also the citizens who elect them need to understand the science behind the concerns our nation faces—terrorism, global warming, nuclear threats. He lays it out in lively, nontechnical language:

“A terrorist interest in crop dusters makes sense if you think about the physics. An Air Tractor 502 crop duster airplane is far smaller than a 767, but it is also a flying tanker. It has fertilizer containers that hold roughly 320 gallons of liquid, plus a 130-gallon fuel tank. It flies close the ground, where it cannot be detected by most radar technologies. Fill ’er up with 450 gallons of gasoline, and you are carrying roughly 2.1 to 2.4 tons of fuel—the energy equivalent of 32 to 36 tons of TNT.

“What could a single suicide pilot do with a full crop duster? He could crash into Yankee Stadium during the World Series. Or into the Super Bowl, or into the Olympics opening ceremony. The deaths, including trampling, might exceed those at the World Trade Center, with everything broadcast on international TV. (I virtually held my breath during those events in 2002.)”

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1. 1. svshepherd 01:42 AM 9/9/08

I've got a genuine question. When we realize that terrorism fears are misplaced, and that *BLAH* thing would be much more dangerous than what people legislate about, what do we do? How do we calm the hysteria without unnecessarily pointing out the *really effective* tactics that terrorists could use?

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2. 2. aslagle 10:43 AM 9/9/08

When one remembers that the founding fathers did not have as an objective to provide the most "fair" voting system, but to obtain one that solved various real-world problems such as the tyranny of the majority, it casts the current system in a clearer light.

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3. 3. drafter 11:17 AM 9/9/08

in "Gaming the Vote" the author compares a political system to a mechanical system. I think this is an apple and oranges comparison because the two systems provide two different types of outcomes, and as "aslagle" says the present system prevents tyranny of the majority which I could see occurring with range voting and I'm pretty sure it can be manipulated just as well as the present system and one of the biggest problems of range voting is that nobodies first choice could possibly win.
Lets not forget just because mathmatics may someday convince people of a better method doesn't mean we should let it replace our vote.

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4. 4. warrendsmith in reply to drafter 12:01 PM 9/9/08

"Drafter" says "the present system (plurality voting) prevents tyranny of the majority" whereas he/she "could see that occurring" with range voting (RV). The first claim is false and the second verges on it. With plurality, a candidate top-ranked by a majority always wins, hence a tyrannical majority always gains power. With RV, even if X is top-ranked by a majority, with honest-enough voters X could still lose because Y gets a greater average score. To make this more concrete, consider the "kill the Jews" vote example here:
http://www.rangevoting.org/RangeYieldsCondSumm.html

Second, "drafter" complains that "nobodies first choice could possibly win" by which I assume was meant "nobody's." This second complaint is in direct contradiction with the first complaint, but "drafter" is evidently unbothered by self-contradiction. Anyhow, he/she is correct: it is possible
in principle for RV to elect a candidate Z who is the first choice of nobody, provided enough voters give Z a high-enough (even though not top) score. However, especially in elections where voting for yourself is allowed, I expect the sun will grow cold before any winner of a large RV election will truly have zero top-rank votes. The fact that range voting can elect somebody who does not have the most top-rank votes, i.e. the fact range voting is not the same thing as plurality voting, is not a "big problem" for range voting, it is a "great advantage."

To make that claim more concrete, consider, e.g, this specific
election example:
http://www.rangevoting.org/LoseAll.html

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5. 5. warrendsmith in reply to aslagle 12:12 PM 9/9/08

"Aslagle" says "the founding fathers did not have as an objective to provide the most 'fair' voting system, but to obtain one that solved various real-world problems such as the tyranny of the majority." I presume he is speaking of the USA's founding fathers, i.e. those who wrote the Constitution.

In that case, "aslagle" is wrong, because the constitution DOES NOT SPECIFY our voting system. Top authors of the constitution, such as Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Franklin, were AWARE of the existence of other voting systems such as Condorcet and Borda
and approval voting (e.g. Jefferson owned Condorcet's book and annotated one copy and sent copies to other founding fathers; Adams wrote a book in which he described the Venetian voting system as, essentially, approval voting). These founding fathers were therefore aware that there was controversy about what voting system was superior and that it was a difficult issue. They INTENTIONALLY CHOSE *NOT* TO SAY in the constitution what voting system the USA should use. Even though the word "vote" is mentioned many times, the constitution nowhere specifies the method of voting - EXCEPT that the system initially employed by the USA's electoral college to elect the president (as as a side-effect the vice-president) was NOT plurality voting, but rather a system more closely related to approval voting. So Aslagle, if he thinks the founding fathers chose plurality voting for some reason or another, is exactly wrong.

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6. 6. drafter in reply to warrendsmith 03:22 PM 9/9/08

I am not bothered by the self contradictions in my statement, because I'm fully aware that many possibilites for faulty outcomes can come about from range voting as there are from the present system. I have read the "Kill the Jews" vote example and been to rangevoting .org and I still stand by comments, I don't see a need to replace a problem system with another problematic. Nor do I want to give up my vote to a statistic or other mathmatical system. By the way my spelling is terrible but my math is great.

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7. 7. krabcat 03:25 PM 9/9/08

i agree that the voting system could be atleast tweaked because the current system was put in place when people could not voice their individual opinions as clearly as individuals, i am not hover going for a pure popular vote(exept in the case of a tie such as the bush V. Gore election)

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8. 8. jh443 08:42 PM 9/9/08

There's just one problem with the assertion that "split votes" would all be given to one candidate. Who's to say these "third candidate" votes wouldn't mirror the voting habits of every other voter? By this, I mean that if 80 people vote for candidate A, 70 people vote for candidate B, and 60 people vote for candidate C.... can it be proven that if candidate C didn't run that these "float votes" wouldn't have been cast 32 for A and 28 for B - reflecting the 8/7 ratio these two have demonstrated with everyone else?

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9. 9. eoleen 11:27 PM 9/9/08

You don't even need a crop duster: any small plane could do the job. Simply rip out the seats (they come out easily) and put in a bladder to hold the fuel. They are readily available, I believe, for use for storing - guess what - fuel...

There are lots of nasty things you could do... For instance: mix up a BIG batch of LSD, and then use it to "salt" an oil drum (or other similar container). (Bulk food stuffs for restaurants come in large plastic containers and shouldn't be too hard to get ahold of.) Then place the container(s) where they will be found draining into a water-supply facility. Such as one of the reservoirs that feed NYC or some other large metropolitan area.

You may want to make an anonymous call to the press to alert them to the "dump site".

The resulting public panic should be good for at least a few deaths. Once the three little letters "LSD" or whatever hit the airwaves no amount of denial by the authorities will stop the panic.

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10. 10. earlkillian 03:02 AM 9/12/08

I've read Physics For Future Presidents, and I find it is highly selective in the information it presents to the reader, to the point that distortion, exaggeration, and cherry-picking are the words that come to mind. There really is no physics in the book, just selected facts and nonfacts (yes, some of the data is simply wrong). The book attempts to entertain by taking on things people know that aren't true. Unfortunately, in the process it tells you a few things that aren't so itself, or goes too far. For example, the author believes that Future Presidents should know that terrorist nukes aren't likely to destroy whole cities. To make his point he says that a 1-kiloton bomb has a blast radius of only 450 feet. Is that the only thing you would want a Future President to know about a terrorist nuke? The radius for other effects range however range up to 3900 feet, an area 77 times larger. Would you want a Future President to know the distance at which buildings are destroyed, or the radius at which people are hurt?

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11. 11. Larry Alton 02:28 PM 9/12/08

While Richard Muller convinces me that a crop duster would make a formidable terrorist weapon, he inadvertently exaggerates its destructive potential. 450 gallons of gasoline will weigh a little over 1-1/3 tons, not the 2,1 to 2.4 tons he calculates.

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