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Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It) [Hardcover]

by William Poundstone
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 5, 2008 0809048930 978-0809048939 1st
Our Electoral System is Fundamentally Flawed, But There's a Simple and Fair Solution
At least five U.S. presidential elections have been won by the second most popular candidate. The reason was a "spoiler"--a minor candidate who takes enough votes away from the most popular candidate to tip the election to someone else. The spoiler effect is more than a glitch. It is a consequence of one of the most surprising intellectual discoveries of the twentieth century: the "impossibility theorem" of Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow. The impossibility theorem asserts that voting is fundamentally unfair--a finding that has not been lost on today's political consultants. Armed with polls, focus groups, and smear campaigns, political strategists are exploiting the mathematical faults of the simple majority vote. In recent election cycles, this has led to such unlikely tactics as Republicans funding ballot drives for Green spoilers and Democrats paying for right-wing candidates' radio ads. Gaming the Vote shows that there is a solution to the spoiler problem that will satisfy both right and left. A system
called range voting, already widely used on the Internet, is the fairest voting method of all, according to computer studies. Despite these findings, range voting remains controversial, and Gaming the Vote assesses the obstacles confronting any attempt to change the American electoral system. The latest of several books by William Poundstone on the theme of how important scientific ideas have affected the real world, Gaming the Vote is a wry exposé of how the political system really works, and a call to action.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Behind the standard one man-one vote formula lies a labyrinth of bizarre dysfunction, according to this engaging study of the science of voting. America's system is the least sensible way to vote, argues Poundstone (Fortune's Formula), prone to vote-splitting fiascoes like the 2000 election. Unfortunately, according to the author, a famous impossibility theorem states that no voting procedure can accurately gauge the will of the people without failures and paradoxes. (More optimistically, Poundstone contends that important problems are solved by range voting, in which voters score each candidate independently on a 1–10 scale.) Poundstone provides a lucid survey of electoral systems and their eccentric proponents (Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, loved voting novelties), studded with colorful stories of election skullduggery by campaign consultants, whom he likens to terrorists... exploiting the mathematical vulnerabilities of voting itself. His lively, accessible mix of high theory and low politics merits a thumbs-up. Illus. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“Mr. Poundstone is a clear, entertaining explicator of election science. He easily bridges the gaps between theoretical and popular thinking, between passionate political debate and cool mathematical certainty.” —The New York Times
“A handy compendium of alternatives to plurality voting. … Poundstone gives math a leading place in politics.”—
Gaming the Vote entertainingly probes the combative history of voting over the past few centuries.”—Mother Jones
“Poundstone’s book raises a big question: how mad do the rest of us have to get before we change a system that just isn’t working?” —Newsweek
“Poundstone has a lively style and a penchant for anecdote that make his more difficult passages of analysis accessible and at times even dramatic.” —The Wall Street Journal
Poundstone “writes not with a partisan’s bile but with a technician’s delight in explaining all the ways our democracy can give us what we don’t want.” —The Seattle Times
“Poundstone always writes with the premise that thinking can be entertaining. His latest book, Gaming the Vote, clearly reasoned, well-researched, and often amusing, deals with the crucially important question: How best does a government ‘by the people’ decide what to do?  He does not find a definitive answer, but he shows why it is so difficult and prepares the citizen to face the question responsibly.” —Rush Holt, U.S. House of Representatives (NJ-12)
“In 1948 economist Kenneth Arrow dropped a bombshell on political scientists. He proved that no voting system can be perfect. Poundstone’s eleventh book is a superb attempt to demystify Arrow’s amazing achievement, and to defend ‘range voting’ as the best voting system yet devised. His account is interwoven with a colorful history of American elections, from the corrupt politics of Louisiana to Ralph Nader as the ‘spoiler’ whose splitting of the Democratic votes helped elect George W. Bush. A chapter covers Lewis Carroll’s little-known valiant efforts to solve the voting problem. A raft of amusing political cartoons enliven Poundstone’s prose. There is no better introduction to the inescapable flaws and paradoxes of all voting systems than this eye-opening, timely volume.”—Martin Gardner, author of Are Universes Thicker than Blackberries? and more than 60 other titles
Gaming the Vote is a witty, irreverent tour d’horizon of voting theories, voting theorists, and their quarrels. Unlike many academic brouhahas, the stakes here are high. Both citizens and politicians will delight in the tales Poundstone tells, but it won’t always be easy to tell who’s right. Nevertheless, Poundstone cuts through a lot of the obfuscation and takes sides, which won’t please everybody.” —Steven J. Brams, Department of Poltics, New York University, and author of Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures

Gaming the Vote is a must-read for anyone interested in the process and outcomes of voting.  Poundstone gives a clear and remarkably accurate account of the rich theoretical literature. At the same time, his examples of voting anomalies in real elections are both lively and revealing.” —Kenneth J. Arrow, professor of economics (emeritus) at Stanford University and winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economic Science

"In this masterful presentation William Poundstone sketches the history of voting systems, elucidates ideas such as Borda counts, Condorcet winners, and range voting, and shows how changing our system could make it less likely to yield paradoxical and unfair results. Ranging easily over material as disparate as Arrow's impossibility theorem and recent presidential elections, he makes it clear just how unclear is the question, "Who won?" The book has my vote." —John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences and the forthcoming Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for Religion Just Don't Add Up

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809048930
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809048939
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,433,316 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Poundstone is the author of two previous Hill and Wang books: Fortune's Formula and Gaming the Vote.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best in Class! May 22, 2008
Most books that attempt to propose new ways of carrying out elections are nothing more than sour grapes: "Since *my* guy didn't win the last election, the system is obviously flawed and should be overhauled." Therefore, most of these sort of books are a waste of time.

This one, however, is simply brilliant.

Instead of approaching the subject through party results, Poundstone instead takes a historical walk through many different voting schemes in terms of the mathematical theory behind them. Don't be scared by the word "mathematical", by the way...Poundstone not only steers clear of intense mathematics but also provides a simple glossary to help you remember something you may have forgotten from earlier pages. While I think I can determine his political leanings from a couple of different allusions, he makes such a good argument and has such an engaging style of writing that it doesn't matter. There were several times when I noticed a flaw in the argumentation and Poundstone responds to the particular question on the VERY NEXT page. Any author that can read the mind of an informed reader is doing a good job indeed. :)

In conclusion, anyone who's interested in the process of voting should read this one because it's the best of its kind.
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84 of 101 people found the following review helpful
The book is extremely well-written, and a joy to read. It would be highly recommended, except for two fatal flaws discussed below.

Poundstone's latest book deals with an issue that is fundamental to democracy, yet almost totally ignored in the U.S. While many books focus on the role of money in elections, or voter registration, or voting machine integrity, relatively few popularly written books have tackled the more fundamental question of how votes get translated into representation. This is not a question of voting machine technology, but of logic. Most Americans are remarkably unaware of the variety of voting methods available, nor of the fact that the plurality voting method that predominates in the U.S. is not the norm among modern democracies, and, in fact, is probably the most problematic of all voting methods.

Americans generally accept as inevitable that if more than two candidates are in a race, vote splitting may cause a candidate that the majority oppose to be declared elected. Poundstone points out that it doesn't have to be that way. For hundreds of years thoughtful individuals have proposed alternative means of finding majority winners, that avoid this problem. Voting methods that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, for example, were first proposed over 150 years ago and have been used for government elections around the world for generations. He discusses the history of methods such as the borda count, condorcet pairwise comparisons, approval voting, and instant runoff voting.

Poundstone approaches the subject by telling stories about the key people involved (both historic and contemporary), making the history and theory of voting into a fascinating and compelling tale.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Revolutionary ideas that are worth pondering February 20, 2008
I don't know about you but I sure am frustrated by the choices we have been presented with during the current Presidential election cycle. Over the years I have observed that regardless of political philosophy the first candidates to be eliminated during the primary season are the ones with ideas. In addition, the frequent appearance of so-called "spoiler" candidates in the both primaries and general elections very often frustrate the will of the people. Voters are frequently heard to mumble "there must be a better way." Well maybe, just maybe, there is. In "Gaming The Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About it) author William Poundstone considers these issues and presents for your consideration at least a half dozen possible alternatives to our current system of plurality voting. Some methods are clearly better than others but the ideas offered in "Gaming The Vote" will definitely get you thinking about the problems voters face in selecting their leaders.

The overwhelming majority of elections conducted in this nation utilize the method known as plurality voting. Plurality voting is not very complicated and works very well when there are only two candidates. For all intents and purposes, whoever gets the most votes wins. That is fine and dandy until a third or a fourth candidate enters the race. That is when a phenomenon known as "vote splitting" occurs. The end result can be what we all saw in Florida in the 2000 Presidential election. Independent candidate Ralph Nader siphoned off just enough votes from Al Gore to cost him a victory in Florida and denied him the Presidency. So just what are the alternatives? Is there really any method of voting out there that is fair and fool-proof?
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In one word: Compelling March 20, 2009
Received for the holidays, and quickly devoured, William Poundstone's Gaming the Vote. I absolutely loved this book, as its layout mirrored my own exploration of the issue of fair voting, and was filled with the sorts of great examples that grab and focus attention, written in a way that brings out the very human characters that underlie what seems, on the surface, to be a dryly academic topic. Basically, it's the book I would love to write, if I had Poundstone's experience, training, and writing ability.

Starting with an anectdote about Kurt Godel (one of my other favorite books is Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach), it lays out all the problems with our current voting system, with examples scatterd across American history, from Lincoln (and his 39.8% popular-vote win) all the way up to 2006's midterm elections. Once the problem is laid out, Poundstone starts searching for solutions, again giving us great real-life examples full of all-too-human characters, including Kenneth Arrow (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics), Lewis Carrol (author of Alice in Wonderland), and Lee Atwater (Nixon's expert slime-man.) Along the way, he points out all the downsides of IRV, Condorcet's method, Approval voting, and even his favorite horse, Range voting. Most compelling is his diagram of Baysian Regret of various voting methods (basically, the sum total of how upset people are about an election's result), which strongly suggest that he's right: Range voting scores best.

The book ends by calling me out; asking if any municipality would be willing to step up to the plate and put Range voting into law. Well Mr. Poundstone, I accept your challenge.

(crossposted from "The Least of all Evils" voting-reform blog, "leastevil" on blogspot)
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Pop Culture Breakdown
The Good: I think this book did a good job exposing some of the flaws in today's voting system and how both major parties attempt to use these flaws to their advantage in order to... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Jennifer Sicurella
4.0 out of 5 stars A tidy little book on voting methods
I've been interested in election systems/voting methods for some time. The disadvantages of our current system are pretty easy to explain (but not here). Read more
Published 15 months ago by Jeff MacDonald
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Information
About how all voting systems have problems, but "range" voting is the best, though now I'm not sure how it's different than IRV, which is only better than the present "plurality... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Dan Robinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Into to Voting Theory
This gives a remarkably engaging history of voting theory and some prescriptions for improving democracy. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Jonathan Andreas
5.0 out of 5 stars How to rate this book?
This book takes two approaches to the problem of choosing a voting system for single office elections. (That is, elections to choose a single candidate from a field of candidates). Read more
Published on January 31, 2012 by Jerry Schwarz
4.0 out of 5 stars What does my vote mean?
Kenneth Arrow's Impossibility Theorem (1948) states that no voting system can exist which satisfies the four minimal conditions of transitivity, unanimity, non-dictatorship, and... Read more
Published on April 13, 2011 by Caleb Hanson
4.0 out of 5 stars WOW! A REAL EYE-OPENER
A fascinating book. A bit tough to get through but it makes you think about voting and the "American Way". Read more
Published on April 7, 2011 by NYdirector
4.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but still very good
Like at least one other reviewer, I was irked by the author's advocacy of one particular system, range voting, without fully acknowledging that, thanks to Arrow's theorem, it's as... Read more
Published on November 20, 2010 by S. Penrice
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
The book was in a very good condition and came in on time. I am very pleased with the way the entire transaction was handled.
Published on October 18, 2010 by Dasaradh Mallampati
5.0 out of 5 stars Great. Yes! Right?
"Gaming the Vote" is such compelling reading, I raced through it in three days' spare time. It summarizes some of the oddities of US electoral history (with enthralling tales of... Read more
Published on October 6, 2010 by Andrew Charig
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great book, up till he advocates range voting
R. Brown is a little confused about the details here, and has unfortunately made some brief "talking point" style claims, which require quite a lengthy response to adequately address. I'll try my best to be succinct.

Range Voting uses scores, like 0-10 or 1-5. The simplest version of... Read more
Jan 26, 2008 by clay shentrup |  See all 4 posts
Re Terrill G. Bouricius's comment Be the first to reply
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