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Originally published Friday, March 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Gaming the Vote": Why elections aren't fair

"Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It)" by William Poundstone is about the problem of an election system that selects Candidate B when a majority would have preferred Candidate A.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It)"

by William Poundstone

Hill and Wang, 338 pp., $25

Ralph Nader's entrance last month into the presidential race is a smirking reminder of the spoiler effect: Eight years ago, Nader lured away enough lefties — almost 100,000 of them in Florida — so that right-leaning Republican George W. Bush captured that state, and the presidency, by some 500 votes.

"Gaming the Vote" is about the problem of an election system that selects Candidate B when a majority would have preferred Candidate A. The book's author, William Poundstone, is not a political guy. He is a science writer. He writes not with a partisan's bile but with a technician's delight in explaining all the ways our democracy can give us what we don't want.

The book is not about the Electoral College, which applies to the presidency only — and would have given the presidency to Democrat Al Gore had the method of voting in Florida been more scientific. The book is not interested in vote fraud or sloppy counting. It is about plurality voting: the system of one person, one vote, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

It works well with two candidates. With more than that, a minority may make a momentous decision. In 1860, a little more than 39 percent of voters chose Abraham Lincoln — the candidate least acceptable to the South. In Chile in 1970, just 36 percent of voters chose Salvador Allende, who beat two nonsocialist candidates and started building a Marxist state.

Poundstone reckons that at least five U.S. presidential elections were tipped by spoilers, amounting to "an 11 percent rate of catastrophic failure." In 2006, the U.S. Senate was tipped to the Democrats because a Libertarian in Montana siphoned a few thousand votes away from the incumbent Republican.

Plurality voting, he says, is "a defective consumer product."

What would work better? In the last half of the book, Poundstone tells the story of several plans, all of which, in theory, work better. Pierce County has adopted Instant Runoff Voting, which requires voters to rank candidates: 1, 2, 3, etc. So do Borda voting and Condorcet voting — systems named after the French mathematicians who invented them. Approval voting allows you to cast single votes for more than one candidate — you could vote for Ralph Nader and Al Gore (which would not be unfair). Range voting — which Amazon.com uses to evaluate books — allows you to vote, say, one to five "stars" for each candidate.

It would have been easy for the author to wander into a maze of complexity, but he does not. In the first half of the book, about the problems of plurality voting, he tells the story of modern election gamers such as Lee Atwater, and the election-tipping effects of third parties such as the Libertarians and the Greens. In the second half, he lightens the account of various election systems with the histories of the people who invented them — those French mathematicians and also Lewis Carroll, author of "Alice in Wonderland."

There are some local references: Pierce County. Sen. Maria Cantwell. Former state Rep. Toby Nixon. All have been involved with, or touched by, the issues in this book.

The author takes an occasional stylish turn. At one point he says that Nader's endorsement of instant runoff voting is "something like a spirochete endorsing penicillin." But the prose is notable mainly for its clarity, not its spice. This is a book that goes down easily. The reader who likes puzzles, math and politics will especially enjoy it, but there are no equations. Poundstone is not a social scientist showing off but a storyteller.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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