When majority votes can’t solve the problem.

Three people come together to try to make a decision — perhaps something as simple as what to have for dinner. The first suggestion made is spaghetti, but it turns out that two of them would rather have pizza. Then one person suggests lasagna would be better than pizza, and is quickly seconded.

But, adds the second, they would rather simply have spaghetti than lasagna. The third agrees. The first person groans in frustration and picks up a Chinese takeout menu. …

A brief introduction

In a nutshell, voting theory, also known as social choice theory, is the theory of how to go from a set of individual desires to a common social outcome. Each one of these methods is known as a voting system or voting rule. For example, most jurisdictions within the United States use either plurality voting or a plurality with majority runoff. Maine has adopted a system known as ranked choice voting (previously known as instant runoff voting).

Three books I unequivocally recommend on the topic of voting theory. Read from left to right. Poundstone’s book is a good lay introduction to what the field is about without going into technical detail; Hodge & Klima’s book is an excellent technical introduction; Saari’s book is useful for deeper understanding.

This area is closely related to decision theory and game theory. Voting theory is mathematical, relying on breaking down different voting systems logically…

Why the physical short is bad.

The recent Gamestop short squeeze highlighted short selling. As I’ve explained here at slightly greater length, a short sale is basically selling an IOU note denominated in stock. After completing the short sale, the short seller holds some amount of cash and has the obligation to deliver a share of stock to another person at a particular point in time.

Standard explanation of a short. Emphasis added showing how the short seller has the same obligation whether or not the short is “naked.” Image remixed from 1 and 2. Original images by user Grochim on Wikimedia.

This is true both for “naked” short selling (theoretically illegal) and “covered” short selling (entirely legal). The difference with a “covered” short is that there is a small fee involved. This is sometimes known more precisely as a “physical short,”…

The simplest explanation of shorts you’ll read today.

At its most basic essence, selling short is selling an IOU note. There are several variations on how a “short sale” works, but at the end of the transaction, here’s the situation:

  • The short seller has cash.
  • The short seller owes someone else one or more shares of a specific stock.

That’s it. From the perspective of the short seller, they have effectively sold an IOU (“I owe you”) note denominated in shares of a specific stock. This is true for both “naked” shorts and “covered” shorts. …

Even when the electoral count was exciting, it was peaceful.

The Senate chamber. Front and center is noted Trumpist Jake Angeli, who is not a senator.

On January 6th, 2021, an armed force of Trumpists stormed the United States Capitol Building. Congress was interrupted in the middle of an American ritual that had been completed every four years since 1789: Counting the electoral votes. This has never been interrupted before.

The counting of the electoral votes has been marked by both small and large controversies over the course of American history. Lesser controversies included technical irregularities with Vermont’s electoral votes in 1796 and Georgia’s electoral votes in 1800. Both sets of votes were counted without lasting controversy.

For Democrats And Republicans Alike

Colored maps showing the results of the 2020 elections for Congress and the President.
Colored maps showing the results of the 2020 elections for Congress and the President.
2020 election results. (Own work.)

Demographics is not destiny. Moderate politicians are more electable. The Electoral College system is fragile and should be replaced. Each one of these lessons was illuminated clearly in the 2020 elections.

The fragility of the Electoral College is obvious

Trump filed a raft of lawsuits challenging results in individual states and attempted to convince state legislatures to throw the election results out. If Biden dies at any time before electors vote, everything would go haywire. A national popular vote, on the other hand, would be in no danger of reversal and could not be litigated, contested, or easily thrown out.

Moderates are more electable

Democrats went through a large and very public…

Elections matter.

Image remixed from Creative Commons images (1, 2) and COVID-19 data from here.

The fifty states with their different laws and governments are natural laboratories of democracy. This year, those laboratories of democracy have held an epidemiological experiment. Preliminary results from that experiment are in: Elections are a matter of life and death.

For an American in the year 2020, the risk of death from COVID-19 has varied quite significantly from state by state. Part of the pattern is geographic; population density accounts for a majority of the variation in risk thus far. Part of the pattern can be seen in when governors are elected.

For good or ill, it is governors that…

There are holes in our democratic process of succession

Presidents William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and James Garfield on their respective deathbeds. (Remixed from Creative Commons images 1, 2, 3.)

America has seen the death of presidential candidates; America has seen the death of presidents. Thus far, those two events have happened separately, and America has avoided a major crisis in the presidential succession process. Even after the passage of the 25th Amendment, however, the presidential election system is vulnerable to badly-timed deaths.

Presently, President Donald Trump is in ill health, may have infected rival candidate Joe Biden, and a presidential election is already underway. If he, Biden, or both were to die any time between now and December 14th, it could lead to a major electoral crisis.

The open window in the Electoral College

Ordinary American…

“A good compromise leaves everybody mad.” — Bill Watterson

The Electoral College was a compromise. Most of us know this. As far as I can tell, none of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought that the final version of the Electoral College system was the best possible method for electing the president —it was just the compromise that they were willing to agree to.

I will begin by saying what the Electoral College was not.

  • It was not intended to protect the interests of small states.
  • It was not intended to protect the interests of rural voters.
  • It was…

The Electoral College system is vulnerable to political attack

This article was originally written in the lead-up to the 2020 election. For those of you reading it after Election day but before electors meet and vote, see the section about retroactive rules changes.

“Consensus” election forecast (from 270toWin) highlighting battleground states with Republican state legislatures in yellow.

Reportedly, Trump is exploring plans to appeal directly to state legislators in order to win the appointment of electors in key battleground states. The unfortunate reality is that this line of attack is constitutional. Not only that, this strategy has been employed in the past. State legislatures can and have stolen elections out from under the noses of voters.

There are three different ways in which…

Tomas McIntee

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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