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What (if Anything) Should Be Done About Improving the System of Electing a President? (Part three)

10/17/2008 11:00 AM Bartos theater
Arnold Barnett, PhD '73, George Eastman Professor of Management Science, MIT Sloan; Dr. Alexander S. Belenky, Visiting Scholar, MIT Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals; David C. King, Lecturer in Public Policy, JFKennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Alan Natapoff, Research Scientist, MIT

Description: As David King puts it, "The Constitution has an on the one hand, on the other quality," and the Electoral College seems a focal point for contrariness and ambivalence. King ticks off areas where the EC can be viewed alternatively: for instance, does it encourage healthy, broad"based campaigning and widespread voting, or promote targeted campaigning, and widespread voter fraud? Well acquainted with congressmen, King worries about the tension between short"term concerns (getting re"elected), and long"term interests. He believes that with the Electoral College, "you at least tip toward caring about winning multiple statesand the more states you try to win, the more candidates for office look to the long term and national best interest."

Arnold Barnett offers a "pragmatic compromise" between a popular vote and the current Electoral College system, a potential cure for the current "funhouse mirror" of election politics based on weighted averages. Hold elections in individual states, and determine each candidate's percentage. Says Barnett: "Each candidate's national vote share would be a weighted average of vote shares in individual states. The weight of each state would be proportional to its share of electoral votes (i.e., the number of members of Congress)." The candidate with the highest weighted vote share would become president. Advantages of this system, says Barnett, include increasing the power of small states, and making currently irrelevant big states like New York relevant again. It would eliminate the worst consequences of winner take all ("Poster child: Florida 2000"); and there would be no danger of an election heading for the House of Representatives "where the president would be chosen under Strange Rules."

Under the current system, not everyone has a say in presidential elections, Alexander Belenky believes, because a candidate with a very small percentage of the popular vote can actually become president. The Founding Fathers came up with a compromise to resolve problems in their day, and they "might be surprised to learn we still have this system." Belenky suggests considering a national popular vote of some kind -- "it's probably better for mathematicians to analyze schemes" to minimize manipulation. Give a candidate her share of such a vote, "then put the rest of electoral votes in play between the candidates." In this case, the EC serves as a backup system to help decide the final outcome.

Alan Natapoff reaches for analogies from baseball and poker to describe voting systems, and ultimately relies on mathematics to shape his variation on the current EC system. Natapoff's concept: Winner takes all by state, but rather than a fixed number of votes, states instead have the number of votes equal to the number of votes cast plus the proportional equivalent of the two electoral votes they have now. Winner takes all "magnifies the power of individual voters," and works better than a simple national vote, unless the election is exquisitely close (with a margin less than 1 standard deviation). Concludes Natapoff: "We needn't apologize for this systemit's the ideal of a voting systemand it works." alt lang from Belenky Under the current system, the nation as a whole doesn't have a say in presidential elections, Alexander Belenky believes, because a candidate with a very small percentage of the popular vote can actually become president. The Founding Fathers came up with a compromise to resolve problems in their day, and they "might be surprised to learn we still have this system." Belenky suggests considering the will of the nation as a whole and the will of the states and DC as equal members of the Union as two decisive factors in determining the election outcome while retaining the Electoral College as a backup. Belenky suggests that the "winner"take"all" is the lesser evil compared to the proportional and the district (Maine"like) schemes of awarding state electoral votes and that its simple modification can make every state vote count, even under the Electoral College.

About the Speaker(s): Arnold Barnett is one of the nation's foremost authorities on aviation security. He uses statistical techniques to probe social and organizational issues. Barnett heads an FAA research team to investigate antiterrorist measures. He has also written at length about crime and punishment, war casualties, and the misuse of statistics in the media.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences honored him with the 1996 President's Award for outstanding contributions to the betterment of society. In 2002, he received the President's Citation from the Flight Safety Foundation for "truly outstanding contributions on behalf of safety."

Barnett holds a B.A. in Physics from Columbia College and a Mathematics from MIT.

Alexander S. Belenky is the author of books and scientific articles in the fields of optimization and game theory and their applications in transportation, industry, agriculture, environmental protection, advertising, brokerage, auctioning, and U.S. presidential elections.

He is the author of Operations Research in Transportation Systems: Ideas and Schemes of Optimization Methods for Strategic Planning and Operations Management(2004). He is also the author of the books How America Chooses Its Presidents (2007) Extreme Outcomes of U.S. Presidential Elections (2003) and Winning the U.S. Presidency: Rules of the Game and Playing by the Rules (2004). He was an invited guest on radio and TV talk shows throughout the country in the course of the 2004 election campaign. His co"authored opinion pieces about voting systems have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times.

Belenky holds a Ph.D. in systems analysis and mathematics and D.Sc. in applications of mathematical methods.

Alan Natapoff studied physics at Cornell, and as a graduate student in particle physics at Berkeley. He came to MIT as a postdoctoral fellow in biology and brain sciences and, since 1969, has been a research scientist at MIT's Center for Space Research in the Man"Vehicle Laboratory.

For several decades, Natapoff has been interested in the problems of voting power and was technical advisor to Harvard Medical School's faculty in the design of its voting system. In 1977 he was invited to testify on the design of the Electoral College before the Senate Judiciary's subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. In 1996, his views on the Electoral College appeared in Public Choice under the title, "A mathematical one"man one"vote rationale for Madisonian presidential voting based on maximum individual voting power."

David C. King lectures on the U.S.Congress, political parties, and election reform. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1992. In the wake of the 2000 presidential elections, King directed the Task Force on Election Administration for the National Commission on Election Reform. That effort culminated in landmark voting rights legislation signed by President Bush in late 2002. He later oversaw an evaluation and new management structure for the Boston Election Department. David King is the faculty director of Harvard's program for Newly Elected Members of the U.S. Congress. He has run similar programs for the State Duma of the Russian Federation, and he has advised on legislative design issues in several countries, including South Korea, Nicaragua, Chile, and Bolivia.

King is co"author of The Generation of Trust: Public Confidence in the U.S. Military Since Vietnam, (2003), author of Turf Wars: How Congressional Committees Claim Jurisdiction (1997), and co"editor of Why People Don't Trust Government (1997).

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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