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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Systemic Reason Trump Won the Nomination -- Which Can Be Fixed (For the Future)

I am getting increasingly frustrated with all the postmortems that analyze, lament, and otherwise discuss Trump's triumph without addressing the basic problem that made it possible.

That problem: a voting system woefully inadequate, indeed counterproductive, for elections with multiple candidates. When voters may only cast a single vote, similar candidates end up splitting the vote. If what makes them similar also makes them more popular, this vote splitting ends up electing a less popular candidate.

My husband, Paul Hager, aka the Hoosier Gadfly, has written about this problem (not on his blog, but when he ran for Secretary of State):

"Let's imagine God and Satan have decided to run for Governor of Indiana. It being Indiana, God is at 60% in the polls and Satan at 40%. [Note: I believe God would do substantially better.] God will win. But wait. In Christian theology, God exists in multiple persons. What happens if God the Father is running and God the Son decides to run also? What if the whole Trinity runs? Satan wins, right? The anti-Satan vote gets split.

"Something is terribly wrong when voting for God gives you a Hell on Earth."

We see the same problem, though in (for most of us) a less crucial setting, in the Academy Awards when two actors in the same movie are nominated for Best Actor and split the vote of academy members who admired the movie.

In the case of the GOP primary, the candidates -- a group that included quite a few smart, up-and-coming public servants -- may be said to have split the vote in any or all of the following categories:
--experienced in government
--knowledgeable about foreign policy
--knowledgeable about political processes
--reasonably polite and mature

I'm not saying Trump doesn't have an affirmative appeal for many voters, based in part on how little he resembles politicians in general. But if any of several alternative voting systems had been in place, I seriously doubt he would have gained enough initial traction to prevail.

What alternative systems?

One, probably the simplest, is called "approval voting." With approval voting, voters vote for every candidate they find acceptable. The candidate deemed acceptable by the most voters would have the highest vote total and would be the winner. In Paul's example, most Hoosiers would vote for one or more persons of the Trinity. (Jewish Hoosiers would probably stick to God the Father, given our tribe's uncompromising version of monotheism.) Whoever won, it wouldn't be Satan.

The U.N. General Assembly uses a form of approval voting to select the Secretary General. Various organizations and professional associations also use approval voting, including (if my sources are accurate) the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and several others. Of particular note, perhaps: the Public Choice Society, "a society dedicated, in part, to the analysis of politics with the tools of economics and mathematics."

For a detailed write-up of the advantages of approval voting, see Paul's 2001 article (based on a talk he gave at an electoral forum).

Approval voting is easy to implement, because it involves nothing more complicated than tallying votes. There are just more votes to be tallied.

Various more sophisticated systems involve "ranked" voting, where the voters list candidates in order of preference. In this era of computers, the necessary tabulations are perfectly feasible. Paul, who has studied these systems extensively, states that the Condorcet voting system best determines which candidate would beat all the others in head-to-head matches. (Another ranked system, Instant Runoff Voting or IRV, has gained quite a few proponents lately, but it has some mathematical deficiencies, and it discards a fair amount of information about voter preferences.)

Any state could adopt one of these systems by legislative action. National party organizations could urge such action and make suggested statutory language available. Once the transition is over, that state would have a much more rational method of determining which candidate its citizens truly prefer.

There may be no such critter as "another Trump." But if there is, a change in the voting system might well prevent him from becoming president.


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