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Barry Bonds, Blast-offs and Ballots: What the Fate of a Baseball Teaches Us about Voting

by Paul Fidalgo // Published September 20, 2007
As you may have heard by now, fashion designer Marc Ecko has purchased the baseball hit by Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron"s home run record for a mere $750,000. Given the controversial nature of Bonds" achievement (a fray into which FairVote will not be jumping), Mr. Ecko"s stated purpose in buying the famous sphere was to "democratize" its fate. He is holding an online election asking interested parties to choose from one of three options:

1. "Bestow it" - Give the ball to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown as-is
2. "Brand it" - Burn an asterisk into the ball as a footnote to its unsettled status before delivering it to Cooperstown
3. "Banish it" - Literally have the ball launched into space

Now, far be it for us to get wonky over a bit of pop culture, but we are, after all, an election reform organization, and Mr. Ecko is holding an election! So here we go.

Spoiler teams - Since there are three options, it"s likely that whichever choice succeeds will be a plurality winner, meaning that the winner will be whichever of the three options winds up with more than the other two, even if it does not receive a majority of the vote ("fifty percent plus one").

Why might that matter? Imagine, if you will, that Option 3, "Banish it," were to receive the most votes with something like 37 percent. For example"s sake, we"ll also say that Option 1, "Bestow it," garners 35 percent and Option 2, "Brand it," receives 28 percent. Under plurality rule, "Banish it" would clearly be the winner in this hypothetical. Prepare for liftoff!

But stop the countdown! If we combine the votes of Options 1 and 2, we find that 63 percent of voters, a landslide majority (larger than any won by a presidential candidate in history), wanted the ball delivered to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. They may have differed as to what it would look like once it got there, but a clear majority wanted the ball to remain on Earth.

Voting this way, we have no way of knowing what those who opted for "Brand it" might have wanted had they known they would come in last place. Perhaps if they had some inkling that they were in the minority, they might have voted for it to remain terrestrial, or perhaps they would have split their vote. The point is that long before we can figure it out, that baseball could be headed past the moon without a glove on the other side.

The way to win - Unless, of course, Mr. Ecko had decided to use a voting method known as instant runoff voting (IRV). With IRV, participants would have been able to rank their choices in order of preference. When one voter"s first choice turns out to be a loser, their second choice is counted instead.

In our little imaginary baseball vote, "Brand it" loses with only 28 percent of the vote. Let"s say that when we"ve checked the numbers, "Brand it" voters went about 3 to 1 for "Bestow it" as their second choice. After "Brand it" is out of the running, we wind up with 56 percent for bestowing and 44 percent for launching into space. More people wanted to keep the ball for posterity than wanted to share it with Martians. With IRV, we could decipher the true intentions of baseball fans without depending on hindsight or the Hubble Telescope to discern nuances.

The presidential context - Raising the stakes, it"s easy to see that if it"s important to have majority consensus on the destiny of a piece of sports memorabilia, it must be crucial for choosing a chief executive. In fact, of the 28 freest presidential democracies, 21 require a majority of votes to win. Two more require their presidents be elected with relatively high minimum pluralities. Only five allow pure plurality winners. One of them actually permits the winner of the popular vote to lose the election through an Electoral College system. Any idea which one that is?

With IRV, voters can indicate who they"d like to see take office if their first choice has no chance. Think of Nader voters in 2000 and Perot voters in 1992 and 1996. Independent candidates can fully participate in the democratic process, infuse new debate topics and draw in more supporters without becoming spoilers, and their supporters are not left in the dust when it comes time to choose the eventual winner. The same logic also applies to primary elections. With big fields in both sides, expect low-plurality winners come January in key states - that"s how Pat Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary with 26 percent in 1996 despite an absolute majority almost certainly preferring Bob Dole or Lamar Alexander that year.

Back in right field (or left field, because we"re nonpartisan), we wait with great anticipation as to the fate of Mr. Bonds" home run ball. Just keep in mind that when the results are announced, the winning option might not be the one favored by most baseball fans. A piece of the American Pastime might be needlessly sent into orbit, and nobody wants that.

Or do they? We"ll probably never know.

If you"d like to learn more about instant runoff voting, visit www.fairvote.org/irv. Previous editions of FairVote"s Innovative Analysis can be found here.