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Your presidential candidate: Hot or not?

The best way to make American elections fair, according to a new book, is to use a voting method known for ranking drunk sorority girls.
Farhad Manjoo

 In 1948, the economist Kenneth Arrow chanced upon a surprising idea that would later help earn him the Nobel Prize. It concerns the basic difficulty of turning many people's individual votes into a satisfactory choice for the whole society. Arrow proved that when people are selecting a leader out of more than two candidates -- as happens often in presidential elections, if you count all the losers who run in the primaries -- there is no voting system that can arrange the population's preferences in a way that accords with a few basic rules of fairness. His idea -- known as the Arrow Impossibility Theorem -- gets at the unseen importance of the particular procedures we use to tabulate our votes. Elections aren't just a matter of adding up what everyone wants; the way you add it up, and the way you determine what the additions mean, Arrow showed, can be just as important to the outcome as the votes themselves.

A mathematical proof seems a strange protagonist for a book about the length and breadth of American political chicanery. But in "Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It)," William Poundstone gives math a leading place in politics. He uses Arrow's theorem as a launching-off point for a comic and freewheeling, if a bit discursive, look at the ways political professionals have turned the quirks of voting rules into election victories over the course of a couple centuries. By the end of it, you've been pummeled by numbers, the bizarre outcomes of game theory, and the certainty that America votes in a completely bassackward way. Oh, and also this: Probably the best way to reform how we vote, per this book's analysis, would be to adopt the method used on the bod-rating Web site Hot or Not.

by Zwackus on Tue Jun 7th, 2016 at 05:42:52 AM EST
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