, Salem, MA


October 16, 2012

Column: How every vote matters

In 2000, the world held its breath while Florida laboriously judged voter intent for thousands of presidential ballots with “hanging chads.” The U.S. Supreme Court eventually stepped in, and George W. Bush eked out the narrowest of victories over Al Gore — less than 1 percent of 1 percent.

Ignoring the controversy, the basic story was about who got more votes. True, there were — and continue to be — calls for removing the Electoral College, since Gore received more votes than Bush in the country as a whole, but the news then was mainly about Bush vs. Gore.

There is another story, though. If even a few of the voters for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had chosen Gore, he would have easily won. In fact, voters for at least four third-party candidates in Florida could have turned the election by a vote for Gore or Bush.

But in any election, like the upcoming one next month, the rules are clear: You only get one vote, and whoever gets the most wins, right? Not really. There is actually a wide range of ways your vote could be counted, a mathematics of voting, if you will, that goes far beyond the usual “plurality vote.”

Consider, first, that to decide who even gets to run for president, there is an entire first round of primaries. (Vote No. 1.) Similarly, many countries would have a runoff in an election where neither candidate got a strict majority of votes, like in 2000.

Next, various professional societies allow members to vote for as many candidates for leadership as they deem qualified, all votes counting the same. (Vote No. 2.) This is called “approval voting.”

Another possible rule is the so-called “Instant Runoff” vote, where if your candidate is a clear loser, your second (or third or fourth ...) choice is used to help decide the runoff. (Vote No. 3.) Burlington, Vt., for example, used this method‚ and then repealed its use.

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