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The Split-Vote Fallacy

In a letter of October 27 to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, reprinted below, Dartmouth alumnus Robert Downey claims that the proposed constitution for his alma mater would make trustee elections more democratic. Mr. Downey ‘s heart is in the right place, but his assertion is absolutely untenable.

There are presently three €˜petition ’ trustees. One, T.J. Rodgers, won in 2004 with the support of an overwhelming 54.7% of voters. He faced three officially-nominated opponents. The remaining two, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki, won one year later with pluralities—48% and 45%. Together, they faced four opponents.

In both elections, alumni were invited to vote for as many candidates as they desired. This form of voting is called the €œapproval system, € and it guarantees against vote splitting. In the 2005 race, for example, the average number of votes cast per alumnus was 2.3.

Why 2.3? Because alumni could vote for as many candidates as they wanted. And a whole lot decided to vote just for Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki.

There was no vote splitting. That the constitution ‘s backers have been reduced to calling three sitting trustees €œillegitimate € speaks to the proposed constitution ‘s true intent: keeping outsiders out.

Mr. Downey ‘s comments reduce, finally, to the assertion that majority victories are so vital that an otherwise open electoral system ought to be rigged in order to guarantee them. An illiberal suggestion, in my view. And the proposal would rig the system, allowing an undemocratic nominating committee to set the field of candidates however it sees fit.

To support democracy at Dartmouth is indeed to oppose this constitution.

Robert Downey wrote:

I don’t know Peter Robinson, Dartmouth ‘79 and a trustee, but he’s obviously very smart based on his provocative piece in the Oct. 18 editorial page entitled “The Dartmouth fracas.” And we both love the same institution. What I find baffling, however, is his assertion that: “To ensure democracy at the college, vote against the proposed constitution.”

What am I missing here? To me what the Alumni Governance Task Force is seeking to accomplish in trustee elections under the proposed constitution surely promotes democracy. I am not a member of the AGTF nor of the Alumni Council, but I strongly support what they are trying to achieve, which is that trustees be elected by a majority of the votes cast.

The current system requires that the Nominating Committee put up three candidates to fill one vacancy. So they scour the 66,000-plus alumni to find the best, brightest, most accomplished graduates who have demonstrated their love for Dartmouth over the years by their contributions of work, wisdom and possibly, for those that can afford it, financial support. (In other words, they do what virtually all colleges, universities and other nonprofit organizations in America do in attempting to find first-rate trustees.)

A petition candidate with an agenda doesn’t need to have done much for Dartmouth over the years but the candidate must have a strong and often dissident point of view aimed at the disaffected. Any top college will have a large number of disaffected alumni at any given time. An articulate petition candidate can inherit a powerful base on day one, a base that resists supporting those whom they believe merely support the status quo. The predictable result can be devastating for the council-nominated candidates. For example, if those candidates receive cumulatively, say, 70% of the vote but that breaks down to 25%, 23% and 22% per candidate because they are similarly qualified, the petition candidate becomes the clear winner with the remaining 30%.

The proposed constitution is an infinite improvement over the current system for promoting two-person races. How can we continue to ask three of our best, brightest and most devoted Dartmouth alumni to continue to expose themselves to elections where they can be accused of being lackeys and insiders on the one hand, but with little chance of winning on the other since the three of them will cancel each other out in favor of a petition candidate with an agenda. What a recipe for burnout of our finest Dartmouth men and women, our most cherished alumni.

Now when you believe your cause is the right one but you have an unfair advantage such as that provided to petition candidates under the present system, I guess it may be human nature to rationalize that edge and fight to preserve it; what is not acceptable, however, is to accuse those seeking to elect trustees by a majority vote of being undemocratic.

Robert N. Downey
Dartmouth ‘58
New York


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