# Who Determines the Winner in an Election?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: DEMOCRACY AND ITS ALTERNATIVES

## At first glance, determining the winner of an election would seem like an easy task: You just count up the votes, and the candidate with the most votes wins! But around the world, there are countless ways to count votes. Different voting systems lead to different outcomes. And each voting system is subject to its own host of pros and cons.

### The Obvious Is Not Always Correct

Joseph Stalin allegedly said: “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”

Sometimes the debate begins with the definition of the word most. Let us understand this with an example. Let’s say there was an election between three candidates: Yellow, Purple, and Violet. And let’s say that there were 100 voters, and that the final tally was as follows:

Yellow got 49 votes, Purple got 48 votes, and Violet got 3.

Well, here’s the question: In that scenario, who wins?

On the one hand, one might say it’s Yellow. Yellow got 49 votes, and that’s more votes than any other candidate. So, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to declare Yellow the winner.

But, if one thinks about it, most of the people didn’t vote for Yellow. In fact, most of the people voted for Purple or for Violet, and combined, Purple and Violet accounted for 51 votes, which is certainly better than Yellow’s 49.

### A Technical Choice, Really

Now, let’s say that, instead of just declaring Yellow the winner, we ran the vote again in the form of a runoff. And in the runoff, it’s now Yellow against Purple. Violet got the fewest votes, and so Violet’s dropped out of the race. Well, in that case, one could easily imagine that the three people who voted for Violet in the first round would now vote for Purple. (Violet and Purple are pretty similar, so if Violet was one’s first choice, then Purple could easily be a close second.)

Well, in that case, Purple would actually win the election! And arguably, Purple would be a better choice, because with 51% of the votes (compared to Yellow’s 49), Purple represents the outcome that this society, taken as a whole, actually prefers.

The winner of an election depends not just on the preferences of the people in society, but on the seemingly technical choice of how you hold the election—whether you simply declare the person with the most votes the winner, or whether you hold a runoff instead.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

First, the way we count the votes really does matter; it really makes a difference for who wins the race! We might like to think of voting as a simple process. It’s just supposed to be a way to figure out what people want—a mechanism for translating societal preferences into a common group decision.

But the example shows that it’s really not that simple at all.

Does society as a whole prefer Yellow (who got more votes than anyone else)? Or does it prefer Purple (who, after all, beats Yellow in a one-on-one contest)?

It’s not that clear. And reasonable people could disagree.

And so, Stalin was even more right than he himself knew: In some ways, it’s not the voters who count, but the way you count the votes. Our leaders are a reflection not just of what people in society want, but also of the seemingly ancillary question of which voting system we use.

### Strategic Voting

Second, this isn’t just a contrived example. Most of us have participated in elections where we had to choose among candidates we didn’t really like. At some point, we’ve all had to vote for our second choice—not our first choice—because the candidate we liked most didn’t have a chance of winning, and we didn’t want to throw away our vote. This is called strategic voting: when we vote not for our sincere favorite among a slate of candidates, but rather in such a way as to prevent the candidate we like least from winning.

Strategic voting is related to something else called the spoiler effect. The spoiler effect is what happens when candidates with similar ideological positions split the vote. Oftentimes, this happens when there’s a minor candidate on the ballot who draws votes away from a major candidate who would otherwise win.

In our example, Violet was a spoiler for Purple (at least in the first round). Unless Violet’s supporters vote strategically, their votes for Violet are ultimately going to lead to Purple’s loss at the hands of Yellow.

Both of these things—strategic voting and the spoiler effect—can be problems, and they’re bigger problems in some voting systems compared to others.

### Different Electoral Systems

A third observation from our example—and maybe the most important—is that electoral systems really do differ around the world. There’s no one way that elections happen.

Every society—certainly every democratic society—chooses how it counts the votes. And the choices we make have huge repercussions for the types of leaders we’re likely to pick, for the magnitude of the spoiler effect, for the tone of election campaigns, and even for our confidence in the democratic system itself.

### Common Questions about Determining the Winner in an Election

Q: What decides the winner of an election?

The winner of an election depends not just on the preferences of the people in society, but on the seemingly technical choice of how you hold the election—whether you simply declare the person with the most votes the winner, or whether you hold a runoff instead.

Q: What is strategic voting?

Strategic voting is when we vote not for our sincere favorite among a slate of candidates, but rather in such a way as to prevent the candidate we like least from winning.

Q: What is spoiler effect?

The spoiler effect is what happens when candidates with similar ideological positions split the vote. Oftentimes, this happens when there’s a minor candidate on the ballot who draws votes away from a major candidate who would otherwise win.