Science Cafe Concord: One person, one vote – but why for just one candidate?

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Monitor staff
Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Science Cafe New Hampshire in Concord discusses alternative voting methods. Four panelists, knowledgeable about various types of voting such as instant-runoff and approval voting, will answer questions from the audience. The free gathering is open to all.

Where: The Draft Sports Bar, 67 S. Main St., Concord.

When: Tuesday, March 20, from 6 to 8-ish p.m.

For more information: Sciencecafenh.org.

If there are more than two people running for an office, why can’t we voters do something more interesting than put a check mark next to one, and only one, of the names?

What if we could do something else, such as choose more than one name, or rank all the candidates by our preference from top to bottom? Would this better reflect the wishes of the electorate, and how do we know?

This is a surprisingly geeky question, one that contributed to a Nobel prize in economics.

We are so used to “first past the post” voting, in which whoever gets the most ballots wins even if they didn’t get a majority, that we regard it as the natural, correct way to do an election. But that’s not necessarily true.

A number of different methods have been developed over the years, including one called instant-runoff that will probably be used in statewide elections in Maine this year following a contentious legal dispute.

Each method has its adherents and detractors, but none can claim absolute superiority due to something called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which helped Kenneth Arrow win that economics Nobel mentioned above.

Arrow showed that no method of balloting is guaranteed to avoid all paradoxes, such as the case in which voting for candidate X actually reduces candidate X’s chances. In other words, it has been mathematically proven that no voting system is best, which is why analyzing them is so complicated and interesting.

And that, in turn, is why we’ll discuss it at Science Cafe New Hampshire Tuesday night. We love complicated and interesting things!

Several panelists with knowledge of different voting systems will be there to answer your questions.

As always, the gathering is free and open to all, upstairs at The Draft Sports Bar, 67 S. Main St., starting at 6 p.m. Bring your questions and your appetite.

Science Cafe New Hampshire has been running for seven years – we started in March 2011 and now run in both Nashua and Concord since 2016, meaning this will be the 84th SCNH – but this event will be a particular challenge to our core motto: “No politics, no PowerPoint.”

The PowerPoint jibe is there to emphasize that Science Cafe NH is a conversation driven entirely by questions from whoever shows up, rather than a lecture or a class from the proverbial “sage on a stage.”

The politics-free provision is there because there’s a political side to many of the topics we have discussed – climate change, vaccinations and the mathematics of polling, to name a few – but we’re interested in contemplating science and technology aspects of issues, without the distraction of the finger-pointing of politics.

Can we discuss an issue as inherently political as methods of voting without getting into politics? As moderator, I’ll do my best! Why not show up and see how I do?

Before we go, a personal note: I’m celebrating an anniversary Tuesday.

Forty years ago, on March 20, 1978, my name first appeared in print next to that magic phrase “staff writer,” after I was hired as a reporter by a small Virginia daily paper. They offered $140 a week and all the typewriter ribbons I needed, so I jumped at it.

Looking back, I have to say that being hired as a newspaper reporter, a job for which I had no qualifications whatsoever, remains one of the most exciting events of my life – rivaled only by falling in love, raising children, and that time I scored a three-pointer in a pickup basketball game.

Four daily newspapers in three states later, I’m still at it, spewing out my share of daily news stories and columns.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that during this period, well over 4 million words have been stamped onto sheets of pressed wood pulp beneath my byline. Not bad, and I plan on making it to 5 million words, and maybe even 6 million, before either I or the print-newspaper industry shuffles off this mortal coil.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)