Science Can Restore America’s Faith in Democracy

Ariel Procaccia in Wired: “…Like most other countries, individual states in the US employ the antiquated plurality voting system, in which each voter casts a vote for a single candidate, and the person who amasses the largest number of votes is declared the winner. If there is one thing that voting experts unanimously agree on, it is that plurality voting is a bad idea, or at least a badly outdated one….. Maine recently became the first US state to adopt instant-runoff voting; the approach will be used for choosing the governor and members of Congress and the state legislature….

So why aren’t we already using cutting-edge voting systems in national elections? Perhaps because changing election systems usually itself requires an election, where short-term political considerations may trump long-term, scientifically grounded reasoning….Despite these difficulties, in the last few years state-of-the-art voting systems have made the transition from theory to practice, through not-for-profit online platforms that focus on facilitating elections in cities and organizations, or even just on helping a group of friends decide where to go to dinner. For example, the Stanford Crowdsourced Democracy Team has created an online tool whereby residents of a city can vote on how to allocate the city’s budget for public projects such as parks and roads. This tool has been used by New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle to allocate millions of dollars. Building on this success, the Stanford team is experimenting with groundbreaking methods, inspired by computational thinking, to elicit and aggregate the preferences of residents.

The Princeton-based project All Our Ideas asks voters to compare pairs of ideas, and then aggregates these comparisons via statistical methods, ultimately providing a ranking of all the ideas. To date, roughly 14 million votes have been cast using this system, and it has been employed by major cities and organizations. Among its more whimsical use cases is the Washington Post’s 2010 holiday gift guide, where the question was “what gift would you like to receive this holiday season”; the disappointingly uncreative top idea, based on tens of thousands of votes, was “money”.

Finally, the recently launched website RoboVote (which I created with collaborators at Carnegie Mellon and Harvard) offers AI-driven voting methods to help groups of people make smart collective decisions. Applications range from selecting a spot for a family vacation or a class president, to potentially high-stakes choices such as which product prototype to develop or which movie script to produce.

These examples show that centuries of research on voting can, at long last, make a societal impact in the internet age. They demonstrate what science can do for democracy, albeit on a relatively small scale, for now….(More)’