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Math Trek

Spoil-Proofing Elections

By
10:28pm, March 12, 2008

When Ralph Nader recently announced he was entering the 2008 presidential race, many Democrats groaned. It was his fault, they say, that George Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000. But Nader retorted that the Democratic Party has only itself to blame for the loss in 2000.

Mathematicians offer a different perspective. The problem, they say, doesn't lie with Nader or with the Democrats. It lies with our voting system.

Complaints about the obscure Electoral College system are common, but the mathematicians' objection is even more basic. Presidential elections in the United States are decided using a variation of a method known as plurality voting: each person votes for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Seems like the obvious approach—but obvious doesn't always mean effective. "The plurality vote is pretty much the worst voting system there is," says Donald Saari, a mathematician at the University of California, Irvine.

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