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.)”