The basis for the coverage is Poundstone’s new book Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It)
From the MotherJones interview:
It’s heartening to know, as primary season begins, that ours may be the worst of all the voting systems in common use. That’s the takeaway from Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It), the latest of eleven books by William Poundstone, a professional skeptic who studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before he began pumping out nonfiction in 1982.
Poundstone became interested in voting theory after reading about Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, a 59-year-old paradox wherein economist Kenneth Arrow, now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, identified what he perceived as a fundamental flaw in our democracy: Put simply, he argued that devising a perfectly fair voting system is mathematically impossible.
Mother Jones: Is there a way around Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem?
William Poundstone: For decades, there was almost a kind of despair among voting theorists of getting any better system than we had. What’s interesting, though, is that the impossibility theorem doesn’t apply to systems where you score the candidates rather than rank them. With scoring, you’re essentially filling out a report card—if you think there are two candidates who deserve four stars you can give them both four stars—whereas with ranking you have to artificially give one a number one and one a number two. That turns out to be crucial.
MJ: And yet plurality voting—where a person can vote for only one candidate for a particular office—is the most common system in use. What’s wrong with it?
WP: Whenever you have two candidates whose support overlaps, that’s bad for both of those candidates, the obvious example being Nader and Gore in 2000. So a candidate can be a spoiler and cause the second most popular candidate to win. This is something that’s been appreciated at least going back to the 18th century, and people have tried to devise different ways of dealing with it, but for a very long time this was one of those unsolvable problems.
And some more:
MJ: You seem to favor the emerging system of range voting.
WP: Range voting is the newest in the sense of people being aware of it and promoting it: If you’re rating a video on YouTube you give it one to five stars, and they take that information and show you the average score of all the people who bother to rate it. We use it with a report card. The valedictorian of a school is the winner of a range vote by the teachers for each of their classes. In the Olympics, they hold up those cards to rate someone’s performance—that’s another example. People are pretty familiar with the idea. Nobody has given a convincing argument that there’s anything seriously wrong with it—the one thing you sometimes hear is it’s complicated, but that’s about it.
I’ve been following Range Voting for a few years and I find the statement that “Nobody has given a convincing argument that there’s anything seriously wrong with it” to be remarkable and false. I say this as a supporter of range voting. The main argument that I hear against Range Voting is that is that it encourages people to partially abstain by not voting max-score or min-score for every candidate. I actually agree with this criticism in that I think that voting instructions ought to be clear that any vote that is not cast as a max-score or min-score is effectively a partial abstention. With appropriate voting instructions Range Voting could be considered Approval voting that allows for partial abstentions.
Although I could support Range Voting, I think that Approval Voting is a more practical reform that we should aim to achieve first. It is extraordinarily simple and a very good improvement over plurality and instant-runoff-voting.