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.