William Poundstone, Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It) (Hill & Wang, February 2008)
In December 1947, Alfred Gödel, a German logician who had fled Nazi Germany for Princeton, New Jersey at the outbreak of World War II, sat down to take his U.S. citizenship exam, accompanied by his good friend and official witness, Albert Einstein. After the judge complimented Gödel on escaping Germany and its “evil dictator,” he asked the famous logician whether he thought a similar dictatorship could ever arise in the U.S. “I know how that can happen!” remarked Gödel excitedly. Then, much to Einstein’s chagrin, Gödel leapt into an explanation of how the American voting system is deeply, integrally flawed.
Though he is just one of many characters in William Poundstone’s Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It), Gödel’s claim forms the crux of the book, a spirited history of voting in America. In concise, uncluttered prose, Poundstone explains why the “spoiler effect” has caused at least five American presidential elections to be won by the second most popular candidate. The “spoiler” is a minor candidate who draws enough votes away from the favored contender to turn the election, thereby splitting the votes that candidate might have received. We can thank a man named Ralph for making this concept all too understandable for the contemporary reader.
The spoiler effect, or vote splitting—described cannily by Poundstone as “an invisible hand misguiding the whole electoral process”—is not merely a hitch in the current system. Rather, it is indicative of a problem central to all democracies. Introduced in 1951 by Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow as the “impossibility theorem,” the problem is that a perfectly fair voting system is mathematically impossible to devise. Glitches like the spoiler effect will always crop up. To make matters worse, says Poundstone, the impossibility theorem has become an entry point for election strategists hoping to tip the election one way or another. Think of Republicans bankrolling Nader signature drives in 2004 or Democrats helping Ron Paul raise a hefty $5 million in third quarter fundraising for his 2008 campaign.
So what can we do about it? Poundstone proposes an alternate method called “range voting,” a system you might not know by name but in which you have almost certainly participated. Grade point averages, Zagat guides, and star ratings on YouTube and Amazon all amount to range voting, a system in which voters give each candidate a score on a given scale. The average scores of each candidate determine the results. According to Poundstone, out of all possible voting systems, range voting leaves the smallest margin for either faux pas or foul play.
If it is hard to imagine Americans calling for such large-scale structural change in the electoral system, it becomes easier with each ensuing election. After reading Poundstone’s thoroughly accessible exposé of the flaws of the American electoral system and the comedy of errors it tends to resemble, I for one, am open to suggestion.
Wilder is a writer for The New York Times.