May 04, 2011

How Lewis Carroll Would Vote Tomorrow

I've mentioned in a previous post that I love Lewis Carroll. He combines two of my favourite things: books and maths (Lewis Carroll is the pen name of mathematician Charles Dodgson. Please keep up!)

Dodgson became involved in college elections in the early 1870s at Oxford university where he was a professor. He became interested in the theory of voting, of the accuracy and fairness of different voting systems.

First Past The Post

Dodgson was not a fan of this voting system. He claimed "the extraordinary injustice of this Method may be very easily demonstrated". He then gives an example to show how stupid it is:

Suppose there are 11 electors and 4 candidates a, b, c and d. Each elector ranks the four candidates in order of preference. The 11 columns here show their choices:

a
a
a
b
b
b
b
c
c
c
d
c
c
c
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
d
d
d
c
c
c
c
d
d
d
c
b
b
b
d
d
d
d
b
b
b
b

It's easy to see that a is considered best by three of the electors and second best by the rest. But in actual fact, it is b who ends up winning, even though he/she was considered the worst by seven voters.

I don't think Dodgson looked at "Alternative Vote", alothough he did write about lots of other systems.

The Method of Elimination

In this method, each voter chooses their favourite, and then the one who gets the fewest votes is eliminated, and the process is repeated (a bit like Big Brother? The TV show, not the Orwellian thing). This method at first seems pretty flawless. However, consider the following situation:

b
b
b
c
c
c
d
d
d
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
a
b
c
d
c
d
b
b
b
c
c
b
d
d
c
d
c
d
d
d
b
b
c
c
b

Notice that a is everybody's first or second choice, and hence appears to be the best candidate. However, he/she will be eliminated first. c will be elected instead.

The Method of Marks

In this method, each voter is given a specified number of marks that they can divide between the candidates. Then the candidate who gets the most marks wins. Dodgson said that this method would be perfect as long as the voters divided their marks fairly: giving most to their favourite but some to the candidates that they wouldn't mind electing. But Dodgson commented that "since we are not sufficiently unselfish and would assign all our votes to our favourite candidate, the method is liable in practice to conicide with that of the simple majority [first past the post] which has already been shown to be unsound".


So how would Lewis Carroll vote tomorrow? I think he would vote no to AV. Because I think he'd think that AV is better than the current system, but still not good enough. If we vote in AV, we'll have no chance of getting Single Transferable Vote, because we'd have to spend a few decades getting used to AV before referendumming again, and I think he'd think STV was a far superior system.


Emma x x x

All quotes are from Robin Wilson's "Lewis Carroll in Numberland", a book I highly recommend.



- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Lydia Clarke

    I love how politics can look so mathsy

    04 May 2011, 20:50

  2. Emma,
    You are a fount of mathematical knowledge and never cease to amaze me – and make me feel incompetent (my problem, not yours!) Congratulations on your successful observation this week – well deserved.
    By the way, just thought I must mention that I’m not sure that your referencing was quite up to Harvard standard!
    L

    07 May 2011, 00:02


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