Democracies make decisions through popular votes. However, it’s possible for different voting methods to impact the outcome! Encourage your students to investigate and evaluate the pros and cons of these different methods, and to model elections.
In the United States, most political units are divided into single member/first-past-the-post (plurality) districts. This means that the candidate to get the most votes gets to represent that district — winner takes all. It doesn’t have to be more than 50% of the vote (a majority). Other countries have adopted a different method: proportional representation. In a proportional representation system, the political unit is not divided into districts. Instead, people vote for parties, and the seats in the council or legislature are awarded to a party based on the percentage of the vote they received. (Refer to WorldView Software’s U.S. Government Chapter 6 Overview for more information on these two methods.)
The U.S. voting method rules encourage the development of two main parties, rather than lots of different parties, because voters don’t want to “waste” their votes. This is known in political science as Duverger’s Law, after Maurice Duverger, the French scholar who did a great deal of empirical research on the evolution of political systems. As Chuck McCutcheon writes, this has had a profound effect on presidential politics in the U.S.:
The only exception was billionaire H. Ross Perot in 1992, who challenged President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton on a populist platform of slashing the budget deficit and letting voters decide big issues by referendum. Perot got 19 percent of the vote – but didn’t receive a plurality of voters in any states, giving him no electoral votes.
And that’s only two ways to vote — have your students investigate everything from eeny-meeny-miney-moe to Borda Counts. The latter method is named after another French scholar, mathematician Jean-Charles de Borda, who developed the ranked preference voting system in the 18th century.
In a Borda Count, voter’s preferences are given an ordinal measure: Each voter ranks all the options on the ballot in terms of what they would most like. Each candidate (or alternative, if you’re not voting for people) gets 1 point for each last place vote received, 2 points for each next-to-last-place vote, and so on up to N votes for the first place, where N is the number of candidates or alternatives. The option with the most points wins.
While this may seem terribly complicated, the truth is you may already be familiar with examples: a Borda count is used
- by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to pick MVP major league baseball players
- by the Heisman Trust to select the Heisman Trophy winner in college football
There are also variations on this basic concept. For more on the subject of voting methods, check out this online book from the University of Alabama’s math department.
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