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Electoral Knowledge

Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do about It)Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do about It) by William Poundstone

Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy

While most Americans would characterize our electoral process as "one person, one vote," the route to the White House is considerably byzantine. For example, think of the system of primaries currently happening. I defy the average voter who lives outside of a caucusing state to describe accurately how that process works. As candidates begin to drop out of the race, many voters in states that have yet to hold primaries have lost the chance to vote for these candidates. Why do so-called "super-delegates" exist? Why exactly do we still utilize an archaic institution like the Electoral College?

Election issues get further complicated when you consider that despite protestations to the contrary, America is essentially a two-party state, and attempts by third parties to be elected to pubic office on the national level often lead to failure. More detrimental to the third parties are their effect as spoilers on election. Most recently, Ralph Nader's presence on the presidential ballot in 2000 was viewed by many to have cost Democrat Al Gore the election.

Because of this election, third party candidacies have become not merely marginalized but severely stigmatized. How did this happen? Is it because of the enormous sums of cash that the two major parties are able to generate? Is the system broken in such a way that the majority of voters are convinced that a third party vote is a wasted vote? Or, could it be that the system of how votes are cast and tabulated in this country is inherently flawed? To William Poundstone, the author of Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It), it is the electoral system itself that is to blame for everything from the marginalization of third parties to situations where a candidate can win the popular vote but still lose the election in the Electoral Collage. In this lucid and well-thought-out book, Poundstone deftly illustrates how the current system is rigged for failure if more than two candidates are running for any one office. Utilizing John von Neumann's and Oskar Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economics as a starting point, Poundstone traces how this theory of strategies and second-guessing began to be applied to elections, and how it could be used to defy conventional wisdom. What begins to emerge is a paradox of how the most popular candidate may not win the election.

This defies a certain intuition. It stands to reason that if candidate X gets the most votes, X should be the winner. However, one of Poundstone's contentions is that if an election is populated with more than just two choices, and voters rank their preference of candidates, rather than picking a single choice for winner, that elections would be more democratic. In other words, voters who wanted Nader to be president could have expressed a preference that Nader was their first choice, but if he did not win then they would like their vote to go to Gore, and so on down the line.

In Gaming the Vote, Poundstone explores several possibilities for election reform. All straddle the borderline between complex and confusing. This is not to say that they aren't rooted in a rigorous logic, and Poundstone takes great care to demystify these theories in an approach that is similar to what Steven Levitt used in Freakonomics. The result is that while I often had to reread some of the concepts to keep them straight, the examples presented were lucid and accessible.

If there is a drawback to Gaming the Vote, it is that the author presents readers with several different options for replacing the current system, yet offers no concrete suggestions for implementation. I am trying not to let this bother me, but he did subtitle the book What WE Can Do About It (emphasis mine). After pages of meticulously detailed ideas, Poundstone's call to action amounts to platitudes such as "A real-world trial is overdue" and "Surely there are a few American communities willing to volunteer?" This is a bit of a cop-out, and reveals what I believe to be the major flaw of the book. Just because a community, where change is more easily implemented, is able to switch to Instant-Runoff Voting and get a Green candidate elected to a school board post, that does not mean this would translate to national change.

Those in power, both Democrats and Republicans, have the most to lose in a broader distribution of votes. It's easy to argue that Instant-Runoff Voting could have gotten Al Gore elected president. However, I firmly believe that the major political parties are more interested in continuing their hegemony in American politics by marginalizing viable third party candidates. Poundstone actually illustrates this by writing of attempts (by both parties) to spoil the vote by making campaign contributions to third parties, such as the Greens, in an effort to siphon votes away from their rivals.

To be fair, Poundstone does mention the difficulty Bill Clinton had nominating voting-reform minded Lani Guinier to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. However, unless these parties, on a national level, create and pass bipartisan legislation that reforms the current voting system (or reforms campaign finance), perhaps the best we can hope for is electing a Green to a state assembly or a Communist as dogcatcher.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Gaming the Vote: Why Elections...
    Used Hardcover $4.95
  2. Theory of Games & Economic Behavior:... New Trade Paper $67.25
  3. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist...
    Used Hardcover $8.50

One Response to "Electoral Knowledge"

    John Eklund February 10th, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Great review! The final reference to a communist being elected dog-catcher reminded me of Ben Davis, one of the few American communists ever elected to any office. And he won a New York City council seat because of proportional representation! In the spirit of Black History month, his story should really be better known. Wiki details below:

    Benjamin J. "Ben" Davis (September 8, 1903 - August 22, 1964), was an African-American communist who was elected to the city council of New York City, representing Harlem, in 1943. He faced increasing opposition from outside Harlem after the end of World War II, and in 1951, he was convicted of violating the Smith Act and sentenced to five years in prison.

    Davis lived in Dawson, Georgia as a young man[1], attended the high school program of Morehouse College in Atlanta[2], then pursued higher education at Amherst College, where he secured his B.A. degree. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1930 and worked briefly as a journalist[3] before starting a law practice in Atlanta.[4]

    Davis became radicalized while representing Angelo Herndon, a 19 year old black communist who had been charged with violating a Georgia law against "attempting to incite insurrection" (Davis says that he had been trying to organize a farm workers' union). During the trial, Davis faced angry, racist opposition from the judge and public, and became impressed with the rhetoric and bravery of Herndon and his colleagues. Upon concluding arguments, he joined the communist party himself.[5] Herndon was convicted and sentenced to 18-20 years in jail, though he was soon freed when Georgia's insurrection law was declared unconstitutional.

    Benjamin Davis moved to Harlem in 1935, where he worked as editor of the Negro Liberator, and later of the Communist Party's newspaper, the Daily Worker. In 1943, he was elected under the then-used system of proportional representation to fill a city council seat being vacated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was leaving the council in order to run for congress.

    Davis was reelected twice to his city council seat but, in 1949, he was expelled from the council upon being convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to overthrow the federal government. His eviction from the council was required under state law; his former colleagues then passed a resolution celebrating his ouster.[6] He appealed the conviction for two years, without success.

    After three years and four months in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Davis was freed.[7] In the subsequent years, Davis engaged in a speaking tour of college campuses and remained politically active, promoting an agenda of civil rights and economic populism. He was close to communist party chairman William Z. Foster, and a staunch supporter of Stalin, publicly defending the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.[7]

    Davis was charged with violating the Internal Security Act in 1962.[7] He died before the case came to trial. Davis was running for State Senate on the Peoples Party ticket at the time of his death from lung cancer in 1964.[8]
    “ I am proud to be an American, proud to be a Negro, and proud to be a Communist! And there is no contradiction between the three. I am proud to be an American because I have an abiding confidence in the creative capacity of the American people to set our country right in all respects and keep it so, and to move it to higher levels of happiness and peace.

    - Benjamin Davis, 1962

    While in prison, Davis had written notes for a memoir. These were confiscated by prison authorities and not released until after his death. The notes were compiled into a quasi-autobiography under the title Communist Councilman From Harlem.[9]

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