Report by Blue and Gray about Maskin Lecture 17 Jan 2008

This was published in the Georgetown University Newspaper Blue and Gray on 28 January 2008. You can also read our criticisms/corrections of this article and Maskin.

Nobel Prize Winner Talks Voting Theory

Eric Maskin Takes Look at 'Undemocratic Nature' of Systems

As the next American presidential election draws near, Americans are pondering who to elect. But something just as important to ponder is how their votes will be recorded and counted, says Eric Maskin, winner of the 2007 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

“I don’t think I need to motivate the topic of discussion this morning in Washington, D.C. in an election year,” quipped Maskin, an expert on voting theory.

Despite a wintry mix of snow, sleet and rain, a Georgetown audience nearly filled Gaston Hall on Jan. 17 to hear him speak during a lecture titled, “How Should We Elect Presidents?”

During the talk, sponsored by the economics department, Maskin examined existing voting systems in the United States and France and what he calls the “undemocratic nature” of electing “minority” presidents – those elected with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

For example, Bill Clinton won the 1992 election with about 43 percent of the vote and 49 percent in the 1996 election. In 2000 George W. Bush won the presidency with 47 percent compared to Vice President Al Gore, who drew 48 percent. Even though Gore received a higher percentage of the popular vote, Bush wound up receiving a higher number of electoral votes after a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Similarly, French President Jacques Chirac’s 2002 election caused some controversy after a tight first-round race surprisingly eliminated his chief opponent, leaving voters to choose between a less-favored far-right candidate and Chirac, who won with 82 percent of the vote. Maskin says data leads many to believe the eliminated candidate may have beat Chirac in a head-to-head race.

“The idea of a democracy is that it’s the will of the people,” said Maskin. “If you have a candidate elected when there’s some other candidate whom a majority prefer, that seems, on the face of it, undemocratic.”

In a series of comparisons, Maskin illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of various voting systems, including rank order voting and true majority rule, when measured by five standard principles: consensus – if everyone agrees candidate A is better than B, B will not be elected; anonymity – all voters should count equally, regardless of who you are or what state you live in; neutrality – electoral rules should also treat all candidates equally; transitivity –a system should be independent of irrelevant or fringe candidates; and decisiveness – the idea that there should always be a winner.

While no voting system satisfies all five principles, Maskin reasons that the most superior voting system is true majority rule, in which voters submit rankings for all candidates and the winner is the candidate who beats all the other candidates in head-to-head competitions based on these rankings.

Citing the Dasgupta-Maskin majority domination theory – developed from his own work with British economist Partha Dasgupta, Maskin says if a voting method works well for a particular class of rankings, then true majority rule must also work.

Also, voting systems can find some other class of rankings in which true majority rule works well and the other voting method does not.

“That means that true majority rule dominates the other method,” says Maskin. “It works well more often than any other method, because whenever another method works well, true majority rule does, also. Furthermore, true majority rule will work in some circumstances where the other voting method does not.”

Maskin admits no method is perfect, however, he believes true majority rule best avoids the flaws created by other voting methods and in theory would be easy to implement throughout the world. One huge obstacle to implementing such a system in the United States, he says, would be changing the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. Maskin, who answered student questions about the implementation of a majority-rule voting system in the United States, Peru and Australia, says eliminating the Electoral College process is an unlikely possibility.

Arik Levinson, associate professor in the economics department, required his students to attend the lecture. “It’s nice to see a Nobel laureate, someone who is at the top of his field, explain what he’s doing to students,” he says.

Maskin, a professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is one of three professors to share the 2007 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The other professors are Leonid Hurwicz of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and Roger B. Myerson of the University of Chicago.

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