May
07
2010

Democracy: what a swindle!

One man, one vote.: But how those votes are counted can lead to some surprisingly complex mathematics.
One man, one vote.: But how those votes are counted can lead to some surprisingly complex mathematics.Courtesy Theresa Thompson

Winston Churchill once quipped, "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Though said tongue-in-cheek, a recent article in New Scientist shows that, mathematically at least, Winnie was on to something.

Every election has winners and losers. Different countries have different systems for determining the winners, and dealing with the losers. And, it turns out, each of those systems has mathematical quirks which prevent the results from perfectly matching the will of the people.

  • The "winner-take-all" system used in America is certainly very simple and straight-forward. The problem is, the thousands--or even millions--of people who voted for the losing candidate end up with no elected official representing their views. (In the recent British elections, the Liberal Democratic party won 23% of all individual votes cast, but ended up with less than 9% of the seats in Parliament.) And in a race with three or more candidates, you can get a winner who carries less than 50% of the vote.
  • Some countries get around this by using "proportional representation:" they count votes cast for each political party, rather than for individual candidates, and divvy up the legislature that way. The voters' voice is fairly represented. But if one party controls more than half the seats, it can effectively shut the minor parties out. And if no party has a majority, they end up sharing power in ways that do not reflect their numbers. (Again, the British elections are a good example. The leading Conservative Party won 37% of the vote and 47% of the seats--not quite enough for a majority. They may form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties would share power 50%-50%--quite a boon for the LibDems, who control only 9% of the seats!)
  • A few countries have tried "ordered voting," in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference, and then conducting run-offs until someone gets 50% of the vote. But this can lead to a strange situation where nobody wins!
  • And dividing the electorate into districts can shift power in unexpected ways. (We had a Buzz exhibit last year explaining how the Electoral College redistributes power.)

In 1963, American economist Kenneth Arrow considered all these quirks and tried to describe the perfect voting system. He then proved that it was mathematically impossible. (Of course, this assumes the system he described really is perfect--I'm not so sure.)

It seems to me, though, that the problem isn't with democracy, but rather with representative democracy. The people of Minnesota elect only one governor, only one senator (at a time). And there's no way one person is going to perfectly reflect public opinion--be 53% in favor of issue A and 61% opposed to issue B. And even if they were, they still have to make a series of yes-or-no decisions, and be either 100% for 100% against any given bill.

The only way to have a perfect democracy is to have everybody vote on every issue, a system that would be far too cumbersome to work. Churchill was right: democracy is messy, but it's the best thing we've got.

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Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

do's picture
do says:

The state of Israel has taken the idea of proportional representation to what can be considered an extreme. They have a national proportional system with 120 seats in their parliament and no minimum percentage to win. Thus a party can win a seat with 1% of the vote. They also vote for party lists rather than individuals so if you are not towards the top of the list but reasonably popular you will likely not be elected. (Unless you form your own party and get 1% of the vote!), REsult is lots and lots of parties.

posted on Fri, 05/14/2010 - 3:17pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Everyone should vote - it is the cornerstone of our great county and certainly a privelege vs a right.

posted on Sun, 06/13/2010 - 12:40pm

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