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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Alumni debate possible change in voting method

Since the Alumni Governance Task Force proposed a change in alumni voting for College trustees in September, alumni with political stakes in election outcomes have vehemently taken sides on whether to scrap the current system of approval voting for instant-runoff voting.

Emeritus mathematics professor Robert Norman, an expert on election theory, will soon join the debate in a meeting with the AGTF during which he will discuss his analysis of the two voting methods under consideration.

In that meeting, Norman will outline for the committee why he believes that approval voting is far superior to instant-runoff voting, he said.

Approval voting asks voters to designate all the candidates they would approve of. The candidate with the most approvals wins.

The form of instant-runoff voting proposed by the committee asks voters to designate first- and second-choice candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the votes for the last-place candidate would be redistributed according to the second-place votes specified on the ballots. This process would continue until some candidate had a majority of votes.

College Trustee T.J. Rodgers '70 wrote that such a process would result in "weakening or emasculating the trustee petition process" in a September letter to the AGTF that was recently obtained by The Dartmouth. Rodgers won his alumni trustee seat after a petition campaign.

Proponents of instant-runoff voting claim that the system elects the candidate preferred by the majority, but Norman said this is not necessarily the case. Instant-runoff voting only guarantees that the majority of voters prefers the winner of the election to the candidate who was eliminated last. The majority does not always prefer the winner to candidates eliminated earlier, he said.

Norman refers to the proposed form of instant-runoff voting as partial-preference voting because voters only indicate their top two preferences, instead of ranking all of the candidates.

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Norman presented examples of how PPV can produce an undesirable result in which a candidate who is preferred by the voting body to every other candidate individually can lose under the system.

Such an outcome "casts a spell of doubt onto what this great majority really is," Norman said.

The professor also showed that a candidate who would otherwise have won the election can hurt his chances by increasing the number of first-place votes he receives.

"I think any system that does that isn't very good," he said.

Approval voting has its flaws too, Norman said, as voters have no way of indicating their preferences among the candidates for whom they vote and among the candidates for whom they do not.

Still, Norman believes approval voting is subject to more genuine and less strategic voting than PPV. Under approval voting, it is always in a voter's best interest to vote for his first-choice candidate, while no form of instant-runoff voting makes that guarantee.

Voters in PPV sometimes benefit from treating their votes like a game instead of a genuine indication of preferences. Norman said voters could help their causes by prioritizing candidates who are not their first choices.

Proponents of PPV concede that such a situation can exist, but that it is very rare, a claim Norman contests. The professor said that up to 10 percent of elections can be sufficiently close for such a situation to arise.

"There will always be some sort of strategic play possible in any system," Norman said. "What you want to do is keep it down to a dull roar."

The professor said that, despite approval voting's flaws, the system provides for the candidate supported by the bulk of the population to gain power.

"I think approval voting is more likely to choose a candidate who will be a uniter rather than a divider in a polarized society and will choose the candidate who most people would like to support," he said.