September 29, 2003

Grad Student Explores New Voting Options

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With the 2004 presidential election just over a year away, and the Democratic primaries even nearer, many have begun to recall the controversies of the 2000 presidential campaign. Most of the technological mishaps, including those hanging chads and confusing punchcards have since been replaced with new, more advanced voting technologies. But while voting technologies have changed, the voting system used to elect the President of the United States has not.

Sharad Goel grad, a fifth year Ph.D student in applied math, feels that the system, in which a candidate needs not the majority of votes but only plurality, is in need of a major facelift. “Many people are upset about the 2000 fiasco, because many believe that Gore would have won the election if not for supporters of Nader,” Goel said.

According to Goel, voters should have the opportunity to vote for not only their favorite candidate, but also their second, third and additional choices. This way, if a voter’s favorite candidate only receives a small portion of the vote, he or she can still affect the outcome of the election.

Goel’s website (www.cam.cornell.edu/~sharad/election/index.php) demonstrates two well-known alternative voting schemes, the first of which is “instant runoff voting” (IRV).

According to Goel’s website, in this voting system, “you rank candidates as your first choice, second choice, third choice, etc., ranking as many or as few candidates as you like. After counting all of the first choice votes, if no candidate has a majority of the votes there is an ‘instant runoff’: the candidate that received the least number of first choice votes is eliminated from the election, and those who ranked this eliminated candidate have their votes transferred to their next ranked choice. This process continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes,” ensuring that no candidate would win without this majority.

According to the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), “San Francisco is scheduled to use instant runoff voting in the November 2004 city elections, interest in Vermont continues to grow, and twenty states have IRV legislation [pending].”

In addition, “Senator John McCain, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Congressman Dennis Kucinich are among supporters of IRV and many leading colleges are adopting IRV for student elections.”

IRV is also used to elect Australia’s Parliament and the president of Ireland.

The State of New York is considering two IRV bills at the present time: one dealing with primary elections and the other with local elections.

Goel’s second alternative scheme is “approval voting”, where, according to his website, “voters ‘approve’ as many candidates as they like, each approval counting as one vote for that candidate. The candidate with the most votes, i.e. approvals, wins the election.”

Approval voting is used in many countries throughout the world and is also used in the United Nations to elect the secretary-general.

At this time, Goel’s website only displays George W. Bush and the Democratic candidates as of Sept. 1, 2003. However, he says he plans to update it with new candidates, and begin the tally all over again once the Democratic candidate has been selected and the third-party candidates have been confirmed.

Goel, who also teaches a class on game theory at Ithaca High School, says he “does not exactly know” what he is going to do with the data, but that right now it displays a “biased sample because of the political views of [his] friends.”

He hopes to generate more interest in the website so as to obtain a more credible sample.

Political parties and individuals alike have met proposed alternate voting systems with criticism.

Alex Chan ’05 is “opposed to this [alternate] system because voters will no longer have to make the distinction between voting on principle or voting for who is most likely to be victorious.”

Goel believes that the current voting system could “eventually” be amended. He then added, “people are very upset about the outcome of the 2000 election, causing people to rethink [the current] system of voting. I hope it is [amended].”

Archived article by Eric Finkelstein

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