Monday, March 01, 2004


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It strikes me that Condorcet voting schemes have an implicit assumption that there will be no strategic voting or strategic candidates and the possibility of an "illegitimate" outcome in a Condorcet system rests on people attempting such 'strategery." Most attempts to devise new electoral systems try to make it impossible to "game the system."

I would argue that the most important thing that a voting scheme must do is confer legitimacy on the eventual winner in a way that is understandable by a vast majority of the people. However ingenious a method may be, it fails to be an authentic way of selectng leaders if it lacks a broad consensus that the means are legitimate. Most theorists seem to operate on an "if we build it, they will come" level in the same way that some philosophers construct impossible utopias. (Plato, I am looking directly at your ugly mug.) I think that greatly changing the American political system will be as difficult as changing the NFL or NCAA basketball away from single-elimination playoffs, even if other systems are fairer. On the other hand, major league baseball's realignment and addition of wild cards shows that cosmetic or relatively minor changes are possible.

One part of conferring legitimacy involves election according to the democratic principle that all votes are equal. Another part of legitimacy is that there should be a clear winner. A first-past-the-post system feels horribly inauthentic if the winner has a plurality of 23% in a filled field. (A hidden strength of the Electoral College is that it makes races seem less close, conferring a feeling that there has been a decisive winner.) Cumulative voting feels bizarre to a more simple-minded person who belives in "one man, one vote." Condorcet voting will probably have an equal difficulty in swaying the "common man."

As someone whose interest is more in American public opinion, I approach this problem from what people can be talked into accepting. No voting system will ever be perfect and I feel that many proposed methods out there are a) a theoretical improvement on the current system b) not horribly different in the amount of unavoidable error c) less capable of popular support the more they deviate from familiar forms.

There have been military and popular overthrows of democratically elected leaders in many countries. I would argue that the success of a voting system relies on maximizing the willingness of the losers to accept losing.
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