Why the United States’s pluralistic voting system doesn’t always pick the “right” winner—and, more importantly, what could be done to make it better.
Vote splitting, the phenomenon in which two candidates of similar political persuasion “split” the support of like-minded voters and put the least-popular candidate in office, is common in the United States, argues Poundstone (Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, 2005, etc.). Under the current one-person-one-vote, plurality-based system in place, it’s also virtually inevitable. By his calculation, in the 45 presidential elections since 1828, at least five (11 percent) have been won by the second most popular candidate because of a “spoiler.” Is it possible to come up with a fairer voting method? He explores an array of alternatives that might be bewildering in less capable hands: Borda voting (ranking all candidates from most to least preferred); Condorcet voting (holding a succession of two-way votes between every possible pair of candidates); instant-runoff voting (a series in which the least popular candidates are successively eliminated); and proportional representation (an offshoot of instant-runoff that attempts to reproduce the diversity of the electorate on the smaller scale of the legislature). Poundstone concludes that the only system that can’t be manipulated so that the “wrong” candidate wins is one called “range voting,” in which voters assign rankings to candidates and the one with the most “points” wins. According to Poundstone, computer simulations have shown that range voting produces a higher level of voter satisfaction: the feeling that, regardless of an election’s outcome, they would not change their vote. The dilemma, he acknowledges, is that our current, “unfair” system is supported by a wide variety of candidates, strategists and party hacks with a strong interest in retaining a two-party, winner-take-all system. This makes adopting, or even discussing, a new system a formidable challenge.
Convincing, entertaining and authoritative overview of voting systems and their pitfalls.