Would you decide the election if you could?

One mental experiment I am fond of asking people (usually before elections) is this:

Suppose that just a minute before the votes are counted you can change the outcome of the election (say, the identity of the winner, or even the entire distribution of ballots) according to your own preferences. Let’s assume that this act will be completely secret. Nobody else will ever know it.

Will you do it?

You can answer in this poll: 

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12 Responses to Would you decide the election if you could?

  1. Duckrabbit says:

    I think it really depends on whether I’d be changing the outcome by breaking a tie or by changing other people’s votes. I’d do it in the first case, but not the second.

  2. swing voter says:

    No morals here. In a normal election, I wouldn’t swing a vote because I don’t trust any of the candidates. But if I get to meet with the candidate, know him for a while, etc, and if I really believe he’s what the country needs, then I would swing the vote.

    People don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Wisdom of the masses DOES NOT WORK. I wouldn’t like another person to swing a vote. But I would, if I am confident that’s what the country needs.

    Question: Would you swing the vote for Bush in 2000 or 2004?
    Answer: Of course.

    (hmmm,, almost broke Goodwin’s law there)

    That would actually be another good question: If you knew then what you know now, would you swing the vote for Bush in 2000/2004?

  3. John Sidles says:

    Gil, that is a fine question that (IMHO) has a definite practical point associated with it!

    My physics colleague Lowell Brown once posed a related question at lunch: “Have you ever wondered what the world would be like, if everyone were just like you?”

    The point being that in Lowell Brown’s world, there would be no need to change the result of the vote, because everyone would already have voted your way.

    What would this world be like? Well one major difference might be that a world in which voters, businesspeople, and regulators were universally conversant with informatics and stochastic processes might not be experiencing today’s financial meltdown … for reasons that were set forth decades ago, with extraordinary mathematical clarity, by Norbert Wiener:

    The intimate way in which the commodity market is both theoretically and practically subject to random fluctuations arising from the very contemplation of its own irregularities is something much wilder and much deeper than has been supposed, and the usual continuous approximations to the dynamics of the market must be applied with much more caution than has usually been the case, or not at all.

    Of course, Wiener’s conservativism was born of his personal difficulties during the Great Depression of the 1930s; an experience that—with foresight and luck, and most of all, sharing of ideas—today’s generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers will not repeat.

    To summarize: there is no need to imagine vote-changing; it is something that each of us can do every day.

  4. Erel Avineri says:

    Paraphrasing Voltaire: I might disapprove of what you vote for, but I will defend your right to vote (and will not attempt to change it).

  5. John Sidles says:

    Hi Gil! This is a plain-vanilla comment to help identify what html tags are compatible with your WordPress host … are comments that include “blockquote” (for example) allowed?

  6. Gil says:

    Thanks all for the comments. I cannot figure out, John, the blog’s host filtering policy; but I will unfilter whatever I can.

  7. John Sidles says:

    Thank *you*, Gil … perhaps you and I will figure these WordPress filters together, as I too am thinking of starting a weblog … even though there is (obviously) no shortage of them.

    After all, when poetry magazines hold contests, the editors regularly receive submissions from many more authors than they have subscribers to their magazine.

    Hmmmm …. so is it moral for the poetry editors to host contests? And is it moral for the non-subscribing readers to submit poems?

    And we can wonder—without expecting a serious answer—which of these four sets has the largest cardinality: the set of “good” poems, the set of “good” proofs, the set of readers of good poems, or the set of readers of good proofs?

    Just to state my own view, it *is* morally necessary for people to try to write both good poems and good proofs, and it *is* morally necessary that the poems to be edited and the proofs to be peer-reviewed … even when, or *especially* when, the number of published poems and proofs threatens to outstrip the number of readers.

    Because when you think about it, we are all very lucky to live in a universe in which the cardinality of the set of good poems and proofs is very large …

    … because it means there is lots to blog about! 🙂

  8. John Sidles says:

    Just to give a direct answer, I voted “no” (do not change the result of the election).

    On the following pragmatic grounds: (1) To change just one election is pointless, given that thousands of elections are held. (2) To change every election would be to assert a moral and intellectual superiority that no mortal possesses. (3) Every mathematician, scientists, engineer, essayist, poet, politician, parent … every single person in the world … already possesses the election-changing power, albeit in a shared and diluted form.

    As with all magical powers for “good”, the power of election-changing serves the good only in the hands of those who care passionately about exercising it, and who are willing to study, practice, work, cooperate, and compromise, in order to augment that power.

    Voting “yes” amounts to eliminating these moral checks and balances. Hence “no” is the appropriate vote.

  9. Gal Cohen (aka a voice from the past) says:

    Well, it is not a hypothetical question:
    We all know that in the Israeli elections of 1996, Peres outvoted Bibi, but then Rabi Kaduri miraculously changed thousands of notes inside the sealed envelopes and flipped the outcome of the elections.

  10. Gil Kalai says:

    Ahalan Gal; long time…

  11. Gil Kalai says:

    The results of the Poll were: Altogether 198 participants. 125 said they would determine the outcome of the elections (63%). 73 said they wouldn’t (37%). (I also voted with the minority that I wouldn’t.)

  12. Pingback: Election Day | Combinatorics and more

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