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It's Greek to Us
A parable of what happens when you put the wrong people in charge of elections
21 April 2019
Long ago in Ancient Greece, in the nascent days of democracy, the oft-warring city-states of Athens and Sparta agreed to institute a collective Senate, to legislate matters of importance. A delegation of elders from each city met in Delphi to work out the details of the election process.
They quickly decided the Senate should have 10 seats. As per tradition at that time, each city was to nominate 10 of their leading men and women as candidates. Voting was to be conducted in a two-hour voting block on a Monday evening, with each citizen being permitted to vote as often as they wished (because, even then, the elders couldn't resist artificially inflating the vote totals to make other nations, like Troy and Rome, jealous as all get-out.)
The first few Senatorial elections produced unsatisfactory results. Cute young men with fair features had a clear and significant advantage, particularly if they played the lyre and had a Peloponnesian accent. After a while, the elders met again in Delphi to discuss what could be done to improve matters.
After months of bickering and market research, with various strategies proposed and summarily rejected, they decided to go with a proposal by Aristotle of Stagira, who was four years old at the time. Little Ari's plan was to limit each citizen to up to 10 votes per candidate per method – stone tablets, papyrus, messengers who ran 26 miles to the polling place and then promptly dropped dead, that sort of stuff.
The elders returned home and announced the new strategy simultaneously to their people, who agreed that, if nothing else, it was better than the stupid old method of unlimited voting. Heck, they laughed amongst themselves, even a four-year-old could come up with a better plan that that! The elders bit their lips.
Alas, the new strategy had its own fatal flaw. You see, there were about 20% more Athenians than Spartans in those days. Humans are pack animals at heart, and although most voters felt that he or she was casting his ballot with purely altruistic motives, the fact remained that Athenians tended to vote for fellow Athenians, and Spartans for Spartans. The result was that, time and time again, the Senate wound up composed of ten representatives from Athens and, ahem, none from Sparta.
"There must be a better way," said the elders, and before long they ended up in Delphi once more. They hoped for a deux ex machina from the Gods, or for a prophecy from the Oracle, or for maybe just another precocious preschooler to wander by. No luck. They agreed upon a less direct approach: seven Senators elected by the current voting strategy, and the final three appointed by the Elder Council.
The next election saw seven Athenians gain the most votes, as usual. The elders quickly chose three Spartans to fill out the Senate, then patted themselves on the back and went out for a nectar. But, this ultimately failed too, for it was custom in those days for the electorate to reduce each year's Senate over time from ten people to eight, and later to six. Two of the three Spartans were invariably removed from office at the first cut-down, and the third was whacked during the subsequent pruning. (We hear that one year, the final Spartan was named Alyssianna of Orlando, which translates to "She's Toast Next Week" in English.)
Anyway, the populace roared its disapproval, and yet again the embarrassed Elders met in Delphi. In desperation, they tossed about ancient ideas like an Elders' Save (which worked abysmally in its first incarnation in Phoenecia.) Finally, one of them stood up and intoned, "I fear there is no way humankind can ever solve this problem."
Suddenly, the ground shook and lightning filled the skies. From the top of Mt. Olympus, Athena, goddess of wisdom and mathematics, could not hold back any longer. She let out a scream that echoed across the Greek hills, one that was half-agonized and half-exasperated: "You idiots have freaking got to be kidding me!!" Then, blinded by fury, she unleashed the seven ancient plagues on the elders – blood, frogs, locusts, pestilence, swaybots, Katy Perry critiques, and Twitter roastings – before she crushed all of them under a 16-ton weight she borrowed from a Monty Python skit.
Most of the folks in Athens and Sparta never noticed that their city elders didn't return. They were busy binge-watching Netflix by then, anyway.
To the producers of American Idol: You are probably getting crucified on social media right now after tonight's pair of eliminations. And, you deserve it. Pretty much the same thing happened last year. It happened this year. And if you keep clinging to this ridiculous voting system, it's going to happen next year as well. Surely you are familiar with Einstein's famous (if apocryphal) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. You do realize he meant it as a joke, not a suggestion, right?
By allowing each voter to vote up to ten times per contestant, you're essentially implementing the same twisted voting strategy we spent the first 11 paragraphs of this editorial mocking. Say the electorate comprises 1000 voters in Athens and 500 in Sparta. Meanwhile, the ten candidates for eight Senate seats comprise eight Athenians and two Spartans. Do you seriously not see that, at the end of the night, the eight Athenian candidates are each going to have 10,000 votes, and the two Spartans just 5,000 apiece? And the two Spartans are going home every single damned time? Because you are, in effect, giving every person in Athens 80 votes each, and every voter in Sparta just 20? Sheesh!
If you want to stop this lunacy, give every voter 100 votes to apportion any way they see fit, period, end of story. Not "up to ten per contestant", which leads to what might be turned "cultural disenfranchisement", or at least its singing competition equivalent. If each city then votes only for its own townspeople, the eight Athenians will then divide a total of 100,000 votes (average: 12,500 each) and the two Spartans will split 50,000 votes (average: 25,000 each.)
Whether or not tonight's eliminations were justified or not (and we'd lean pretty strongly towards the latter), the optics are godawful for the franchise. And, the solution is obvious. This is not rocket science. Geez, where did we put those locusts?.....
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