How mathematics can help you vote this November

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We are just under two months before Election Day. As voters weigh the choices, mathematics offers a clue in how you should cast your vote in November. 

Every decision we make is weighed amongst several criteria. When we opt for the fries over the salad, the satisfying taste of greasy potatoes outweighs the health benefits of greens and fiber. Other days, we pick the apple over the apple pie, for the exact opposite reason. These choices are made with limited thought, often more by impulse rather than with sound reason. 

In computer science and many areas of engineering, decisions are made in the presence of multiple criteria. Ideal solutions are those that satisfy all the criteria in the best possible way. This would be like having a chocolate sundae that has all the health benefits and nutrients of a bowl of broccoli. As a compromise, we settle for something in between, like a bowl of fruit with low-fat whipped cream, which is not as nutritious as the broccoli but far more appetizing, while not as tasty as the sundae but far more nutritious. In mathematics, such solutions are referred to as Pareto optima, which means that the only way to improve one criterion (like adding health benefits) is to sacrifice another criterion (like taste). Pareto optima offer choices with the best compromises. There are typically multiple Pareto optima, so each person has many options among such choices. 

Voters can apply these same principles in how votes are cast this year. With both presidential candidates having flaws, similar to the options we had in 2016, many will cast their vote based on which candidate they find the least objectionable, rather than the one they find most appealing. To balance this unsavory predicament, voters can harness the power of mathematics to cast their votes for candidates from different parties for the legislative branches (House and Senate) and the presidency. By electing a divided government, voters are forcing the hands of the legislative and the executive branches to seek Pareto optima in government decisions and policies.      

Many will argue that Pareto voting will lead to gridlock, resulting in nothing accomplished in Washington, with each party blaming the other for lack of progress. I would counter argue that any legislative or executive actions taken in Washington that are not Pareto optima are also not in our nation’s best interest, since there always exists Pareto optima that would dominate such actions. Partisan fighting has been rampant for the entire lifespan of our nation (just watch the play “Hamilton” for such evidence). Forcing the legislative and executive branches to seek Pareto optima is a step in the direction of compromise, since neither branch should settle for anything except Pareto optima. By design, Pareto optima allow each branch (and party) to tout their victories, in one or more dimensions of the opposition’s compromise.   

When voters are unhappy with government behavior and actions, the best option is to shift the playing field, effectively creating a new set of negotiation rules. Neither party wants a divided government. That is evidence of itself to support its desirability. Divided governments force the legislative and executive branches to find Pareto optima. Without making such compromises, their records of achievement will be small, threatening the goals that they all value the most, namely, reelection and power. 

Many will find this voting strategy distasteful, unwilling to vote for a party’s candidate with whom they have numerous philosophical and practical objections and disagreements. As such, the majority of voters will reject this voting strategy. However, the edges of the electorate in battle ground states and in highly contested states and districts are where elections are won or lost. This means that marginal shifts of votes cast in such places can make the difference between a divided government and one with full authority. Of course, every two years, a new election gives voters the opportunity to realign this balance of power, if the desired results were not achieved.   

Voters have the power to elect Joe Biden into the White House with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, or reelect Donald Trump into the White House with Democrats in control of the House and Senate. In either scenario, the mathematics of Pareto decision making serves to create a more transparent environment for negotiation and expose government dysfunction. It will also serve to restore some of the power in these branches to the people, where it rightly belongs.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk assessment to evaluate and inform problems in public policy and public health. 

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 elections Battleground states Donald Trump down ballot electorate Joe Biden legislative elections presidential candidates presidential elections Voter turnout voters

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