Why Does Voting Get so Complicated? A Review of Theories for Analyzing Democratic Participation

Author(s): Jeff Gill and Jason Gainous

The purpose of this article is to present a sample from the panoply of formal theories on voting and elections to Statistical Science readers who have had limited exposure to such work. These abstract ideas provide a framework f or understandingt he context of the empiricala rticlest hat follow in this volume. The primary focus of this theoretical literature is on the use of mathematical formalism to describe electoral systems and outcomes by modeling both voting rules and human behavior. As with empirical models, these constructs are never perfect descriptors of reality, but instead form the basis for understanding fundamental characteristics of the studied system. Our focus is on providing a general, but not overly simplified, review of these theories with practical examples. We end the article with a thought experiment that applies different vote aggregation schemes to the 2000 presidential election count in Florida, and we find that alternative methods provide different results.
Key words and phrases: Voting rules, elections, participation, rational choice, spatial models, cost-benefit models, Florida 2000 election.

On a very superficial level, voting seems incredibly simple: count the votes and declare the winner. However, we know from the 2000 presidential election in the United States that even the counting part is not always so straightforwardF. urthermoret, here are actually many means by which votes can be organized and counted. Yet from a very early age, citizens of the United States are indoctrinated with the idea that plurality rule, the single person/proposal that receives the most votes wins the election, is the only truly fair and therefore democratic way to organize elections. This system is the norm from grade school elections for class president to congressional elections. However, not only is this merely one of many possible "democratic" procedures, it is also not the only system currently used in political life in the United States and around the world.
The founding fathers (James Madison in particular; see Federalist 10) worried about the "tyranny of the majority" and the notion of "mob rule," and accordingly wrote several deliberately antimajoritarian schemes into our constitution such as the Senate (two members per state regardless of size), the electoral college for presidential elections and specific qualifications for participation that are no longer law. Today, some local municipalities in the United States set up elections in more complicated ways to assure minority participationo n school boardsa nd county commissions. In many other countriesp arliamentarys eats are allocated to political parties according to vote totals for that party, regardless of the success of individual candida tes.These schemes are indications that there exist other criteria of importance besides straight majoritar...............