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U.S. electoral system would work in Iraq, physicist says

Winning the World Series has something in common with winning a presidential election, and the same method of selecting a winner will also work for Iraq, according to an MIT physicist.

Alan Natapoff cares passionately about democracy, believes strongly in the power of fair voting, and has proved a mathematical theorem to show that individuals have more voting power with the Electoral College than without it.

"Raw voting foils the intention of democracy in the large," said Natapoff, a research scientist in MIT's Center for Space Research who studies brain performance in space. "The president should represent not merely the majority, but the whole electorate."

In the present system, candidates are forced to remain moderate enough to please most voters, or at least are punished if they make mortal enemies of some voting segments. Without the electoral system, the United States could easily divide into warring factions, he said, a situation that must be avoided in Iraq.

Presidential candidates win by gaining the majority of electoral votes. A raw-vote election, like the one being considered for Iraq, would elect a leader by a majority vote across the country, leaving minority groups--ethnic, religious and economic--without true representation.

Natapoff believes the same would happen in the United States without the Electoral College, which was used by the founding fathers to level the playing field for large and small states.

"It's an accident that individual voters have so much power. Our voting system wasn't designed to do that, but since individual voters do have power now, we should preserve it," said Natapoff. With a few tweaks, we could have a nearly perfect voting system, he added.

Baseball shows us what's good about our electoral system, he said, and poker suggests an improvement.

The World Series is won by the team that wins the most out of seven games--not the team that gets the most runs collectively in those games. "This allows small bits of play to turn the outcome and it maximizes competition. A single home run or error can change the outcome of the series," said Natapoff.

He compared winning the most games to winning the most states in a presidential election. The candidate who wins the most electoral votes, which are awarded at the state level, wins the presidential election--not the candidate with the greatest number of raw popular votes.

Natapoff's suggested tweak: keep the state-based determination of electoral votes, but change the way they're apportioned. Give the winner in each state the total number of popular votes actually cast in the state that day, plus one-quarter of the number of votes cast in the average state, to replace the two senatorial electoral votes per state awarded under our present system.

In Natapoff's proposed system, a voter also could choose to cast a blank ballot, which would not be counted for the winner. "This would let the supporters of the underdog punish a leading candidate who is hostile to them," he said.

A registered voter casting a blank ballot in an election is analagous to a poker player with weak cards folding in a game, according to Natapoff's scheme. He believes that just as a poker player may choose to fold rather than enrich the winner's pot, a voter should be able to cast a blank ballot rather than enrich (i.e., help elect) a candidate she dislikes.

Natapoff also insisted that determining a state's electoral votes by the number of votes actually cast would encourage eligible voters to come out on election day, because every vote cast would make a difference in the national count. Under the current system, states are assigned electoral votes based on population, not by the number of actual voters. And voters can't change that on election day.

"Outvoted supporters of the underdog may despise the dominant candidate, but they will be counted for him whatever they do, even if they are dead on election day," said Natapoff. "They have not consented to his presidency, but nothing they can do will keep their vote from counting for him under the present rules. This undermines the theory that the president has the consent of all those he governs."

Natapoff believes a similar electoral college with closely contested districts could help establish a democracy in Iraq. It's the U.S. Electoral College that forces candidates to consider the wishes of all voters, not just those of the majority. This makes all the difference in a world where minorities and majorities have a history of slaughtering one another, he said. And it helps explain why the Electoral College has been essential to sustaining a robust democracy in the United States over two centuries.

"No major democratic republic based on raw voting has ever succeeded for long," said Natapoff.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 3, 2004.

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