The insanity of our electoral system


‘Insanity’ may be too harsh a word for most voters, who simply haven’t thought about why our electoral system is the way it is. But a voter would be insane to approve of that system once educated about it.

Most of those running our political processes, however, are likely aware of how terribly it serves voters, but they aren’t insane to employ it. It is the way it is because it serves them.

Let’s start with some basics: which voting system is best? We use almost exclusively the plurality voting system, which voting theorists have considered the worst voting system for satisfying voters. It is notorious for leading to a choice between “the lesser of two evils,” and eliminating good candidates who are widely thought aren’t able to win.

There are many other voting systems, but I’ll mention only a few. Instant-runoff voting is probably the alternative enjoying the most support, but it tends to degenerate such that voters adopt strategies that run counter to their real interests. Condorcet voting is almost universally considered the best system, but its complexity makes it very unpopular. It works by setting up head-to-head contests between each pair of candidates for an office, then applying a set of rules to determine which candidate best satisfies the most voters.

I’m a fan of range voting, which has voters rate candidates according to a numerical scale. It’s like the common method of rating things “from 1 to 10.” Many theorists favor ranges that run from 0 to 9 or 99. A voter can vote 0 if she feels uninformed about the candidate, and that vote has no effect on final tallies. Voters need to mark each ballot entry with something — often just an X — so that the ballot won’t be considered “spoiled.” I’ve recommended that when an entry is partially illegible it should be counted according to simple conventions: a 9*, where the * is an illegible digit, would be counted as 95, and a *9 would be counted as a 9. In range voting the ballot scores for each candidate are added up, and the candidate with the highest total wins. As you can probably see, this method is very good at capturing the popularity of each candidate.

So why don’t we use a voting system like range voting that really works to satisfy voters about as well as possible? It’s not like officials deciding on which system to use can’t learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each one. No, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that plurality voting is used in order to limit voter choices to those approved by politicians (and the monied interests that keep them in office). So right off the bat we can conclude that voting isn’t meant to serve voters.

Next, let’s look at the now-ubiquitous use of electronic voting machines, usually ones that don’t record votes on paper to provide the means to audit the election if need be. You enter your votes, and can only trust they’ll be accurately and impartially counted. Given the premise that those running elections aren’t interested in treating voters fairly, a voter who understands the situation would be nuts to approve of it (unless she supports the “powers that be”).

Evidence has shown that election fraud is rampant even with paper ballots. Boxes of ballots go missing, or appear from nowhere. Often the seals on ballot boxes that are meant to secure votes from tampering are designed to be easily removed and replaced, or are simply broken — not a problem for officials if honest witnesses aren’t present.

In political circles, prior to the take-over of electronic voting, there has been a standing joke. People will bet on what time the computer failure will occur that causes a hiatus in vote counting. They’d also bet on which candidates will have their votes swapped (often evident from the change in TV reportage) when the system comes back up.

Today, with electronic voting, officials don’t need to stop the counting in order to do their dirty work. This is best shown by way of illustration. The following charts come from this web page:

First we’ll look at how a normal election goes. Vote percentages for each candidate swing a bit as early votes affect candidate averages strongly. Later, they smooth out to become quite steady.


Next, let’s look at what can happen with a little judicious adjustment in the way votes are tabulated electronically. For many candidates, their percentages progress normally. But something strange has happened with the two top candidates. It looks like the votes for the second-place candidate are suddenly counted for the leader. The leader’s percentage takes off and the challenger’s drops in such a way that it looks as though no more votes are being counted for the challenger while those votes are going instead to the leader.


The anomaly is supremely suspicious. So, who is going to investigate it? Politicians? Right. The media? I’m afraid it looks like, at the network level anyway, they are in on the fix. Routinely now they will call a winner with the percentage of votes tallied in single digits, claiming some foolproof algorithm allows them to make accurate projections with such little data. Not only that, but the networks appear to be using the same numbers. It turns out they all get those numbers from an outfit called National Election Pool, which uses exit polling reports from consultants Edison/Mitofsky (see Wikipedia).

It’s hard not to conclude that the only way election fraud is likely to be beaten is if the alternative media (mostly online) raises such a stink that the issue actually penetrates to a sufficiently large proportion of voters to make political stonewalling untenable.

That’s not about to happen soon. But it should help if people who are aware of the problem work diligently at spreading the word. This is my little contribution.

~ by supplementally on June 14, 2012.

One Response to “The insanity of our electoral system”

  1. I forgot to mention the little slogan I created years ago: “Don’t Count Your Votes Before They Are Stolen!” I made a cute little logo to put on products at the online store
    Vote Burglar

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