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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Math: The path to fair elections

If the Ketchum City Council really wants to ensure fair elections, it will need to look further than its less-than-edifying debate to date.

The " ‘Yes it’s fair. No, it isn’t.’ " debate that has spanned more than a year has done little to educate anyone about problems inherent in the election system.

If the council’s primary concern is really fair elections, it needs to get beyond the seesaw.

It needs to crack the books and get some help with election math. Math is where it will find fairness.

It will also need to change the state’s archaic election laws and voting machines.

The debate is older than Ketchum itself. In 1785, the Marquis de Condorcet, the founder of voting theory, suggested that the winner of an election should be the candidate who defeats all the others in a head-to-head match-up.

Fair enough. Yet, how to accomplish that has been debated ever since.

In 1950, Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow proved that there is no perfect system. He won a Nobel Prize for his work.

Nonetheless, some systems are better than others.

Voting theorists like Donald Saari of the University of California at Irvine and Steven Brams of New York University point out that the nation’s voting system is not a system in which the majority rules. Instead, candidates for office may win with a simple plurality if they grab more votes than anyone else, but no candidate draws more than 50 percent.

Saari says the plurality-based system is the only procedure that will elect someone who’s despised by almost two-thirds of voters.

Researchers also agree that systems in which voters may cast multiple votes for multiple candidates can be manipulated with "bullet votes." In Ketchum’s system, bullet voting occurs when a voter casts only one vote and withholds the second.

Confused? Join the crowd. This is not simple arithmetic. This is math.

Last year, the Ketchum Council suspected that smart voters and organizers had figured out how to manipulate the system with bullet voting.

Whether it was consciously manipulated or not remains a matter of conjecture. What became clear is that voters who cast one vote instead of two can have a powerful effect on the outcome of an election with such a system.

The council decided to force candidates to run for a single seat and to face a runoff if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.

This fixed the bullet vote problem, but the plurality problem remained.

The city is revisiting the issue, because last year’s council put the new system in place hastily without widespread voter understanding of why a change is necessary.

With a year elapsed since the beginning of the debate, it’s become clear that there are better systems than Ketchum’s old system in which two candidates who receive the most votes in a wide open field of candidates win two seats on the council.

The newly constituted Ketchum Council wants to back off from the runoff election even though it vastly improved the fairness of the system. Runoffs suffer from low voter turnout and greater expense to candidates and the city.

What to do? Look further than the next election.

The folks at The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C., have worked on the problem for a long time. The center is a non-profit, non-partisan group that works to ensure fair elections nationwide.

Of many alternative systems it has examined and tested, it recommends one called IRV, or Instant Runoff Voting.

The system sounds complex at first, but it produces a fair election.

With IRV, voters rank candidates as their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. If a candidate wins a majority, they win. If not, the last place candidate is defeated and the ballots are counted again, but this time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the next choice candidate listed on the ballot. This process continues until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.

The system discourages negative campaigning and encourages coalition building because all candidates must be concerned about all voters—especially in a close race.

This isn’t some crackpot fringe theory. Cambridge, Mass., uses a modified IRV system. Both Oakland and San Leandro, Calif., have approved IRV. San Francisco will vote on a move to IRV in March. Legislation is also pending in at least a dozen states.

Idaho election law currently does not allow IRV, but that’s probably because the technology that makes it possible—optical scanners and specialized software—wasn’t available when the law was written.

It’s available now and it’s relatively inexpensive.

The Ketchum Council should stick fast to its quest to bring fairness to elections. It should take the lead in pushing for legislation and state approval of the equipment to implement a fair election system.

More information on election systems may be found on the following web sites:





The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.