Math: The path to
Ketchum City Council really wants to ensure fair elections, it will need
to look further than its less-than-edifying debate to date.
‘Yes it’s fair. No, it isn’t.’ " debate that has spanned more
than a year has done little to educate anyone about problems inherent in
the election system.
council’s primary concern is really fair elections, it needs to get
beyond the seesaw.
It needs to
crack the books and get some help with election math. Math is where it
will find fairness.
also need to change the state’s archaic election laws and voting
is older than Ketchum itself. In 1785, the Marquis de Condorcet, the
founder of voting theory, suggested that the winner of an election should
be the candidate who defeats all the others in a head-to-head match-up.
enough. Yet, how to accomplish that has been debated ever since.
Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow proved that there is no perfect system.
He won a Nobel Prize for his work.
some systems are better than others.
theorists like Donald Saari of the University of California at Irvine and
Steven Brams of New York University point out that the nation’s voting
system is not a system in which the majority rules. Instead, candidates
for office may win with a simple plurality if they grab more votes than
anyone else, but no candidate draws more than 50 percent.
the plurality-based system is the only procedure that will elect someone
who’s despised by almost two-thirds of voters.
also agree that systems in which voters may cast multiple votes for
multiple candidates can be manipulated with "bullet votes." In
Ketchum’s system, bullet voting occurs when a voter casts only one vote
and withholds the second.
Join the crowd. This is not simple arithmetic. This is math.
the Ketchum Council suspected that smart voters and organizers had figured
out how to manipulate the system with bullet voting.
was consciously manipulated or not remains a matter of conjecture. What
became clear is that voters who cast one vote instead of two can have a
powerful effect on the outcome of an election with such a system.
decided to force candidates to run for a single seat and to face a runoff
if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.
the bullet vote problem, but the plurality problem remained.
The city is
revisiting the issue, because last year’s council put the new system in
place hastily without widespread voter understanding of why a change is
With a year
elapsed since the beginning of the debate, it’s become clear that there
are better systems than Ketchum’s old system in which two candidates who
receive the most votes in a wide open field of candidates win two seats on
constituted Ketchum Council wants to back off from the runoff election
even though it vastly improved the fairness of the system. Runoffs suffer
from low voter turnout and greater expense to candidates and the city.
What to do?
Look further than the next election.
at The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C., have worked on
the problem for a long time. The center is a non-profit, non-partisan
group that works to ensure fair elections nationwide.
alternative systems it has examined and tested, it recommends one called
IRV, or Instant Runoff Voting.
sounds complex at first, but it produces a fair election.
voters rank candidates as their first choice, second choice, third choice,
and so on. If a candidate wins a majority, they win. If not, the last
place candidate is defeated and the ballots are counted again, but this
time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the next
choice candidate listed on the ballot. This process continues until one
candidate gets a majority of the vote.
discourages negative campaigning and encourages coalition building because
all candidates must be concerned about all voters—especially in a close
some crackpot fringe theory. Cambridge, Mass., uses a modified IRV system.
Both Oakland and San Leandro, Calif., have approved IRV. San Francisco
will vote on a move to IRV in March. Legislation is also pending in at
least a dozen states.
election law currently does not allow IRV, but that’s probably because
the technology that makes it possible—optical scanners and specialized
software—wasn’t available when the law was written.
available now and it’s relatively inexpensive.
Council should stick fast to its quest to bring fairness to elections. It
should take the lead in pushing for legislation and state approval of the
equipment to implement a fair election system.
information on election systems may be found on the following web sites: