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The Mathematics of Social Choice:
Is Democracy Mathematically Unsound?
Jose Maria P. Balmaceda
Professor
Institute of Mathematics
University of the Philippines Diliman
joey@math.upd.edu.ph
Science, Technology and Society
Prelude
Order and Mathematics
2
Order in Mathematics
Q Concept of order appears everywhere
in mathematics
Q Order theory studies various binary
relations that capture the intuitive
notion of mathematical ordering
Examples:
Q Usual order, ≤, on natural numbers
Q Lexicographic ordering of words
Pictorial Representation of
Order (Lattices)
Example: Subsets of
a set {a,b}
{a,b}
{a} {b}

Example:
Subsets of a 4-element
set
3
Ordering the divisors of an integer:
“x ≤ y” , if x is a divisor of y
6 is the LCM of
2 and 3
5 is the GCD of
20 and 15
Example: divisors of 60
3 Diagrams of the Lattice of
Subsets of a 4-Element Set
4
Lattices are studied in many areas
of math and computer science
+ Crystallography
+ Number theory
+ Cryptography
+ Coding theory
+ Sphere packing
Order and Society
• Social Choice and Voting
• Paradoxes of Democracy
• Ideal Voting Systems and Arrow’s
Theorem
5
Social Choice Theory and
Voting Systems
Q Social Choice Theory:
deals with process by
which varied and
conflicting choices are
consolidated into a
single choice of the
group (or society)
Q Voting: vehicle by
which decisions are
made in a democratic
society
Q Underlying
principle is that of
ordering or
ranking
(of preferences
or choices)
S
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2
Voting Systems
Q Voting system: a way for a group to select one
(winner) from among several candidates
Q If there are only two alternatives, choosing is easy:
the one preferred by the majority wins
Q If there is only one person doing the choosing, things
are again easy (but this option is probably
undesirable)
Q When several people choose from among three or
more alternatives, the process is trickier
6
Some assumptions on our voting
system:
Q Individual preferences are assumed to be
transitive: if a voter prefers X to Y and Y to Z,
it is reasonable to assume that the voter
prefers X to Z
Q Relative preferences are not altered by the
elimination of one or more candidates
Q These are so-called “fairness” assumptions.
Later, we shall impose other fairness
principles on our voting system

Non-transitivity can cause problems

Situation: Choosing a Suitor
• 3 suitors: ALEX , BUDDY , CALOY

• Girl ranks the 3 men according to : intelligence, physical
attractiveness, income

Intelligence Physical Income
Rank 1 A B C
Rank 2 B C A
Rank 3 C A B

!Taken in pairs, she prefers: A to B
B to C
C to A

7
Situation : Choosing a Candidate

• 3 candidates: A, B, C, ranked by all voter s

1/3 of
voters
1/3 of
voters
1/3 of
voters
Rank 1

A B C
Rank 2

B C A
Rank 3

C A B

!Taken in pairs: 2/3 prefer A to B
2/3 prefer B to C
2/3 prefer C to A
Choosing a fastfood place
Choose first between McDo and Wendy’s
Q McDo vs Wendy’s → Wendy’s
Q Then, Wendy’s vs Jollibee → Jollibee (winner)
Q But Vic is unhappy. ®
McDo Jollibee Wendy’s 3
rd
Choice
Wendy’s McDo Jollibee 2
nd
Choice
Jollibee Wendy’s McDo 1
st
Choice
Joey Vic Tito
8
Insincere or Strategic Voting
Q Suppose Vic is insincere. He votes for McDo
(instead of his real 1
st
choice, Wendy’s).
McDo Jollibee Wendy’s 3
rd
Choice
Wendy’s McDo Jollibee 2
nd
Choice
Jollibee Wendy’s McDo 1
st
Choice
Joey Vic Tito
Insincere or Strategic Voting
Q Suppose Vic is insincere. He votes for McDo
(instead of his real 1
st
choice, Wendy’s).
Q McDo vs Wendy’s → McDo
Q McDo vs Jollibee → McDo
Q Vic is satisfied (he gets his 2
nd
McDo Jollibee Wendy’s 3
rd
Choice
Wendy’s Wendy’s Jollibee 2
nd
Choice
Jollibee McDo McDo 1
st
Choice
Joey Vic Tito
9
Voting Methods
Q The most popular method of voting is
plurality voting.
Q A candidate with the most number of
votes, or most 1
st
Q This seems like a very reasonable
method, right? Yes, but…
Example: Plurality isn’t always the
best method

• 100 residents elect their barangay leader.
• The candidates are R, H, C, O, and S.

• The results (given by a preference schedule):

No. of voters 49 48 3

1
st
choice R H C
2
nd
choice H S H
3
rd
choice C O S
4
th
choice O C O
5
th
choice S R R

• Using plurality, the choice is R, despite being the last
choice of a majority (51).

10
Consider H :
• H is the first choice of 48 (only 1
less than R) and also has 52 second

• Under any reasonable interpretation,
H is more representat ive of the
town’s choice than R, but plurality
method fails to choose H.

Number of vot ers:

49 48 3

1
st
R H C
2
nd
H S H
3
rd
C O S
4
th
O C O
5
th
S R R

Consider H :
• H is the first choice of 48 (only 1
less than R) and also has 52 second

• Under any reasonable interpretation,
H is more representat ive of the
town’s choice than R, but plurality
method fails to choose H.

Number of vot ers:

49 48 3

1
st
R H C
2
nd
H S H
3
rd
C O S
4
th
O C O
5
th
S R R
In a one-to-one comparison H would always get a majority of

• Compare H and R: H would get 51 votes (48 from the
second column and 3 from the third) versus 49 for R.

• Comparing H and C would result in 97 votes for H and only
3 for C.

• Finally H is preferred to both O and S by all 100 voters.

11
Fairness Criteria
Q In the language of voting theory, we say
that the plurality method fails to satisfy
a basic principle of fairness called the
Condorcet criterion.
Condorcet’s Criterion:
Marquis de Condorcet, 1743-1794
E If there is a
candidate who wins
in a one-to-one
comparison with
any other
alternative, then
that candidate
should be the
winner of the
election.
12
E We shall examine several voting
methods and discuss other fairness
criteria.
Common Voting Methods
(preferential voting)

The STS Club Election

There are four candidate s for the position of President:

Alice (A) Ben (B) Cris (C) Dina (D)

37 members of the club each submit a ballot indicating his or h er
1
st
, 2
nd
, 3
rd
, 4
th
choices.

No. of voters 14 10 8 4 1

1
st
choice A C D B C
2
nd
choice B B C D D
3
rd
choice C D B C B
4
th
choice D A A A A

We shall use several voting methods to pick the winner.

13
Plurality Method: candidate with most
1
st
A : 14 first-place votes C : 11 first-place votes
B : 4 first-place votes D : 8 first-place votes
` A (Alice) wins using plurality.
STSC election results:
No. of voters 14 10 8 4 1
1st A C D B C
2nd B B C D D
3rd C D B C B
4th D A A A A
Borda Count Method :
weighted voting method
Jean-Charles de Borda, 1733 -1799

No. of voters 14 10 8 4 1

1
st
choice A C D B C
2
nd
choice B B C D D
3
rd
choice C D B C B
4
th
choice D A A A A

• Each place on a ballot is assi gned points . In there are
N candidates, give N points for first place, N -1 points for
second, and so on, until the last place, to be given 1
point.

• The points are tallied for each candidate, and the
candidate with the highest total wins.

14

Borda count for the STS Club election:

Rank \ # Vote 14 10 8 4 1
1
st
: 4 pts A: 56 C: 40 D: 32 B: 16 C: 4
2
nd
: 3 pts B: 42 B: 30 C: 24 D: 12 D: 3
3
rd
: 2 pts C: 28 D:20 B: 16 C: 8 B: 2
4
th
: 1 pt D: 14 A: 10 A: 8 A: 4 A: 1

A gets 56 + 10 + 8 + 4 + 1 = 79 points
B gets 42 + 30 + 16 + 16 + 2 = 106 points
C gets 28 + 40 + 24 + 8 + 4 = 104 points
D gets 14 + 20 + 32 + 12 + 3 = 81 points
The winner is Ben (B) !
Method of Pairwise Comparisons :

• Every candidate is matched on a one -to-one basis with
every other candidate.

• Each of these one -to-one pairings is called a pairwise
comparison .

• When pairing two candidates (say X or Y) one on one ,
each vote is assigned to either X or Y by the order of
preference indicated by the voter. (X gets the votes of
all voters ranking X higher than Y.)

• Who will win the STS Club election using this method?

15

No. of voters 14 10 8 4 1
1
st
choice A C D B C
2
nd
choice B B C D D
3
rd
choice C D B C B
4
th
choice D A A A A

1. Compare A versus B
• A is preferred by 14 over B
• B is preferred by 23 ove r A ! B gets 1 point.

2. Compare all other p airs
A vs C (14 to 23) ! C gets 1 pt
A vs D (14 to 23) ! D gets 1 pt
B vs C (18 to 19) ! C gets 1 pt
B vs D (28 to 9) ! B gets 1 pt
C vs D (25 to 12) ! C gets 1 pt

!C has the most (3 pts), so Cris is the winner!

Plurality-with-Elimination
Method:
• a sophisticated version of plurality met hod and is carried out
in round s

• eliminate candidates with fewest number of 1
st
one at a time, until a candidate with a majority of 1
st
place

Example: Math Lovers Club election

# of voters 14 10 8 4 1
1
st
choice A C D B C A has 14 first places
2
nd
choice B B C D D B has 4 first places
3
rd
choice C D B C B C has 11 first places
4
th
choice D A A A A D has 8 first places

Round 1: Eliminate B

16
Plurality with elimination, round 2:

In round 1, B got fewest 1
st
place votes and was eliminated.

# 14 10 8 4 1 Round 2
1
st
A C D B C # 14 10 8 4 1
2
nd
B B C D D ! 1
st
A C D D C
3
rd
C D B C B 2
nd
C D C C D
4
th
D A A A A 3
rd
D A A A A

A: 14 first places
C: 11 first places
D: 12 first places
Therefore, eliminate C

Round 3: 14 23 A: 14 first places
1
st
A D D: 23 first places
2
nd
D A

Therefore Dave (D) wins, using plurality with
elimination!
Round 2
# 14 11 12
1
st
A C D
2
nd
C D C
3
rd
D A A

Summary: STS Club Election
Voting Method Winner
Plurality Alice
Borda count Ben
Pairwise comparison Cris
Plurality with elimination Dave
Q 4 methods, 4 different winners!
Q Which method is best?
17
Problems with the Different Voting
Methods
Q Earlier, we saw that the plurality
method violates the Condorcet
criterion
Q Are the other voting methods better?
Problems with the Borda method:
4 candidates, 11 voters
B gets 32 pts
C gets 30 pts
D gets 19 pts
B wins under the Borda method, even if A has the
majority of first place votes (6 of 11).
This violates the Majority Criterion.
A A D 4
th
: 1 pt
B D C 3
rd
: 2 pts
D C B 2
nd
: 3 pts
C B A 1
st
: 4 pts
3 2 6 # voters
A gets 29 pts
(4x6 + 1x2 + 1x3)
18
Majority Criterion:
E If there is a candidate that is the first
choice of the majority of the voters,
then that candidate should be the
winner.
Problems with Plurality with Elimination method:

Example: 3 candidates : A, B, C

# of votes 7 8 10 4
1
st
choice A B C A
2
nd
choice B C A C B has fewest 1
st
places.
3
rd
choice C A B B Therefore, eliminate B.

# of votes 11 18
1
st
choice A C C has majority of 1
st
place
2
nd
choice C A Therefore, C wins.

19
Problems with Plurality with Elimination method:

Example: 3 candidates : A, B, C

# of votes 7 8 10 4
1
st
choice A B C A
2
nd
choice B C A C B has fewest 1
st
places.
3
rd
choice C A B B Therefore, eliminate B.

# of votes 11 18
1
st
choice A C C has majority of 1
st
place
2
nd
choice C A Therefore, C wins.

Suppose the election was declared null and void (due to
irregularities).
A second election is held. The 4 voters (in the last column) change
their vote and switch their 1
st
and 2
nd
choice s (between A and C)

Since C won the first election, and the new votes only
increased C’s votes, we expect C to win again.

New election:

# of votes 7 8 10 4 Voters in last column
1
st
choice A B C C switch A and C.
2
nd
choice B C A A
3
rd
choice C A B B

Since A has fewest first places (7) eliminate A.

20
New election:

# of votes 7 8 10 4 Voters in last column
1
st
choice A B C C switch A and C.
2
nd
choice B C A A
3
rd
choice C A B B

Since A has fewest first places (7) , eliminate A.

# of votes 15 14
1
st
choice B C
2
nd
choice C B B wins this time!

This violates another fairness principle called the
Monotonicity Criterion .
Monotonicity Criterion
E If a candidate X is the winner of an
election, and in a re-election, all
voters who change their preferences
do so in a way that is favorable only
to X, then X should still be the
winner.
21
Problems with Method of Pairwise
Comparison
D E A B E E 5
th
C A E A C D 4
th
A B B D B C 3
rd
E C C E D B 2
nd
B D D C A A 1
st
4 2 3 5 3 5 #
A vs B: 13 to 9, A wins
A vs C: 12 to 10, A wins
A vs D: 12 to 10, A wins
A vs E: 10 to 12, E wins
Since A has 3 pts, B has 2 pts, C and D have 2 pts, E has 1 pt,
the winner using this method is A.
B vs C: B wins
B vs D: D wins
B vs E: B wins
C vs D: C wins
C vs E: C wins
D vs E: D wins
Now, suppose, that for some reason, the votes have to be
recounted. But before they are, candidates B, C, D become
discouraged and drop out.
E A E E 5
th
A E A 4
th
A 3
rd
E E 2
nd
A A 1
st
4 2 3 5 3 5 #
Eliminating B,C,D
gives:
The winner is now E ! Originally, the winner was A, but
when some candidates dropped out, and no re-vote was
made, the winner became E. This violates still another
criterion.
A E 2
nd
E A 1
st
12 10 #
22
Independence of Irrelevant
Alternatives Criterion:
E If a candidate X is the winner of an
election, and one or more candidates
are removed and votes are recounted,
then X should still be the winner.
Other fairness criteria:
E Unanimity : if every individual prefers
a certain option to another, then so
must the resulting societal choice
E Non-dictatorship : the social choice
function should not simply follow the
preference order of a single individual
while ignoring all others
23
Summary: STS Club Election
Voting Method Winner
Plurality Alice
Borda count Ben
Pairwise comparison Cris
Plurality with elimination Dave
Q 4 methods, 4 different winners!
Q Each method fails to satisfy some fairness
criterion!
- More precisely, it is possible that in a
particular election, a particular outcome of
votes will violate some fairness criterion.
Which is the best voting method?
There is no ideal voting method!
CHAOTIC ELECTIONS!
A Mathematician Looks at
Voting,
by Donald Saari, 2001
American Math. Soc.
24
Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem
Q There is no consistent method by which a
democratic society can make a choice that
is always fair when that choice must be
made from among several (three or more)
alternatives.
Kenneth Arrow, in 1952 essay “A Difficulty in the Concept of
Social Welfare” and PhD dissertation “Social Choice and
Individual Values”
Kenneth J. Arrow, b. 1921
1972 Nobel Prize, Economics
® Arrow proved that it is
impossible to design a set of
rules for social decision that
would simultaneously obey
all of the fairness criteria
below:
• Transitivity
• Monotonicity
• Independence of irrelevant
alternatives
• Unanimity
• Non-dictatorship
25
An Implication of Arrow’s Theorem:
® The only social choice function
that respects, transitivity,
unanimity, monotonicity, and
independence of irrelevant
alternatives is a dictatorship!
Arrow’s mathematical proof uses
concepts of order theory.
Remarks
Q Arrow’s theorem applies only to
ranked or preferential voting systems
Q It doesn’t prescribe a “best” method;
certainly doesn’t say dictatorship is
better
Q It does prove that no voting method
can satisfy at the same time all
reasonable fairness criteria (for all
possible outcomes of votes)
26
Are there alternative methods?

• Non-preferential methods - voters are not asked to rank
candidates according to p reference

• Best known method is the Approval Method – given a set of
candidates, voters can give their approval to as many (or as few)
of the choices. No ranking is made.

Features of Approval Voting (according to advocates ):

1. Easy to understand and simple to implement
2. Gives voters flexible options and increases voter turnout
3. Helps elect the strongest candidates
4. Unaffected by the number of candidates
5. Will reduce ne gative campaigning
6. Will give minority candidates their proper due

Conclusion
Q The concept of order is ubiquitous and important in
mathematics
Q Lattice theory and order theory formalize and systematize the
study of order; lattices are important structures for both theory
and application
Q Order is also critical in society, especially in decision-making
Q Mathematics allows us to analyze voting systems and other
social issues, but mathematics does not provide all answers
Q Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem shows that there can be no
perfect voting system; and that fairness and democracy are
inherently incompatible
27
End Notes
.The Math Lovers Election example is from P.
Tannembaum and R. Arnold’s book, Excursions
in Modern Mathematics, Prenctice Hall, 1995.
±There are various websites on the mathematics
of voting theory and Arrow’s Theorem (easy to