Balinski proposes alternative voting system

In 27 days, voters will cast their ballots and set the democratic process in motion. With the crisis on Wall Street setting off economic turmoil, many individuals will look to Election Day with great anticipation – others, however, with skepticism and with the belief that the election process will somehow miscalculate and misrepresent the opinion of the people.
Professor Michel Balinski ’54 believes that he has found an answer to such a problem.

“The voting method hasn’t worked, and it’s time to do something. There’s something in the air internationally that maybe we’re not electing the people we want – maybe there’s something wrong with the system,” said Balinski in his speech Monday night regarding election reform in the U.S.

In his lecture entitled “The Failure of the United States Electoral System,” Balinski, a Williams alum as well as the director of Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, addressed the weaknesses and failures of the current electoral system and proposed a newer system called Majority Judgment which he hopes the government will one day implement.

Monday night marked Balinski’s first visit to the College since he graduated 54 years ago. After an introduction from Professor Cesar Silva of the mathematics department, Balinski began the night with a reflection on his years after graduation that eventually inspired him to both create and promote his theory.

“I always wanted to make a difference in the world outside of mathematics, so I focused on equity, particularly in the electoral system. There are real failures particularly in the U.S. system,” Balinski said.

Balinski believes that the U.S. government exists in a “sorry state of representation” where a minority of voters both can – and has – elected a president. By focusing on the mechanisms by which one represents and one is elected, he builds his case on the sophisticated form that gerrymandering that has taken on throughout the country, such as computer programs that can redistrict entire states with a simple click, and on historical instances in the past where the electoral college has caused controversies, such as in the 1876 presidential election when despite winning the popular vote, Samuel J. Tilden lost to Rutherford Hayes because of one electoral vote.

“But the 2000 [U.S. presidential] election is interesting,” he said. “In Florida, Bush got all the electoral votes. It is reasonable to believe that had Ralph Nader not run Al Gore would have won. The presence of a candidate – Ralph Nader – having no hope to be a winner changed the outcome.”

At the root of the problem, he felt, is the idea that asking a voter to pick one candidate over another fully represents his or her stance on which candidate should be elected. “You are limited in the message you can send,” he said. “I do have a proposal [however] of how to get out of this.”

Majority Judgment is an electoral system where voters evaluate all candidates using the words “excellent,” “very good,” “good” and “acceptable.” The presence of an even number of choices prevents individuals from being neutral towards a candidate thereby making no decision. “[In this system] voters do not vote; they evaluate candidates with a language of grades,” Balinski said. “More is asked of a voter; every candidate is to be judged.”

The candidate that has the best majority grade and ranking is the winner of the election. By establishing such a system, voters evaluate candidates as they would regardless if the candidate would have dropped out of the election or was not running – representing more fully the opinion of the voter. The premise that all voters have one definite candidate in mind is wrong, he said, because in an experiment he conducted in Orsay, France, at least one third of voters did not single out one favorite candidate. The experiment elicited a popular response from the French participants – many of whom participated in voting for the first time because of it.

The Majority Judgment system is versatile in that it can be applied to wine-tasting and gymnastics competitions. Balinski said he hopes that one day, it can be applied as the principal electoral system in the U.S. and perhaps improve the level of political activity throughout the country.

Balinski concluded his lecture by expressing his concerns about the dangers of the current state of the election system – as well as his hope that the youth will take an active role in changing the system. “Students, there’s a lot to be done here,” he said. “Fight for it because in the end, the political system is for us the voters not the politicians.”