A Look at the Trustee Voting System
By Robert Z. Norman, Guest columnist and professor emeritus in the math and social sciences program
Published on Tuesday, March 27, 2007
This spring, Dartmouth alumni will have the opportunity to nominate a new trustee to the Board of Trustees, replacing retiring Trustee Nancy Jeton '76. The election process will run from April 1 to May 15.
Voters will be electing one of four candidates. In this election, alumni may cast votes for as many candidates among the four as they believe will prove to be an effective addition to the Board of Trustees.
In contrast, the method of voting used in most elections in the United States, called plurality voting, would allow each alum to vote for only one of the four candidates. Such a vote often fails to express completely voters' true opinions about the candidates, because a plurality vote implies that one candidate is good, while the rest are treated as equally inferior.
Even though it has been proven that no voting system can satisfy all of the attributes one might wish for, the method used in the election for the Board of Trustees is beneficial because it allows alumni to vote for as many candidates as they want to support.
Here are some examples of how it would work given the four candidates are named Austin, Brown, Carver, and Davis.
Let's begin by supposing that you think Austin and Davis would be great trustees. Their views are essentially in accord with yours. You like Davis a little better than Austin, but you think either one of them would represent your ideals for a trustee significantly better than Brown or Carver would.
Thus you feel it is more important to help either Davis or Austin win than it would be to choose between them.
In this case, you would vote for both Davis and Austin. Under plurality voting, you would be limited to voting just for one of them. Voting to support both candidates better represents your preferences among the candidates.
Suppose you think Brown is the best candidate, and that you are relatively indifferent about the others. Then you would vote just for Brown, deeming him the only candidate you want to support.
On the other hand, if you think Carver's views are at odds with yours on the issues of greatest importance to you, and that the differences among the other candidates are minor by comparison, you can vote for Austin, Brown, and Davis, giving all of them your support.
This would provide you the best opportunity to reduce Carter's chances of winning.
However, maybe things are not that simple for you. As in the first example, suppose you like Austin and Davis, while maybe slightly preferring Davis. You feel that Brown would be a quite acceptable choice, but Carver would not.
You then have a problem. Should you vote for just Austin and Davis, or should you vote for Brown, too?
That is a question you have to resolve, based on the relative importance to you of keeping Carver from winning and of giving Austin and Davis their best chance to win.
These examples illustrate why Dartmouth alumni are fortunate to have a more nuanced voting system than simple plurality voting for the election this spring.
It is a voting system that allows them to weigh their preferences and to support each of the candidates that they think will best represent their views as members of the Board of Trustees.
I would like to thank Arielle Ring '07 and Michelle Schwartz '07 for their collaboration in writing this piece.