Nobel Prize Laureate Eric S. Maskin Lectures on the Ethics of Voting Systems at Rehm Library

Nathan Howard ’25

News Editor

On Feb. 17, 2022, the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture hosted Nobel Prize Laureate Eric S. Maskin to lecture his expertise on the ethics of electoral methods at the College of the Holy Cross’s Rehm Library. Eric Maskin is currently an Adams University Professor as well as a professor of both economics and mathematics at Harvard University. Other institutions where Maskin became involved during his career include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and University of Cambridge. In 2007, Maskin received the Nobel Memorial Prize for his contributions to economic theory, including a foundation for the mechanism design theory. When introducing Eric Maskin, Holy Cross’ President Vincent Rougeau referred to him as a “close friend” and asked the audience to contemplate the following question throughout Maskin’s lecture: “What is our obligation to people and citizens” in the selection of political officeholders?

Maskin began his lecture by introducing the current system used by the United States to select the President: plurality rule—where voters only vote once, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate has a minority share of votes. He used the 2016 Republican primary as an example throughout his lecture. As a candidate, Donald Trump did not have over 50% of the vote in early caucuses and primary elections. He did have a plurality of votes, however. If the support among every other major candidate in the race was totaled, they would easily beat Trump. Similarly, Donald Trump would lose the nomination in a one-on-one race against any of the other candidates. Maskin supported this assertion with evidence from poll numbers provided by ABC News and “The Washington Post.” Because plurality rule is an obviously flawed representation of Americans’ choice, Maskin structured his conversation around finding a more representative alternative in deciding elections. 

In determining this alternative, Maskin presented five principles that must be satisfied in order to have an uncompromisable, fair system of voting. This includes the consensus principle, or the clear belief that voters prefer one candidate over the other, the equal treatment principle, in which all votes matter equally, the neutrality principle, in which all candidates are treated equally (incumbents are not favored), the no vote splitting principle, where all candidates are represented on the ballot, regardless of popularity, and the decisiveness principle, which always guarantees a clear cut winner in an election. Maskin explained that “There is currently no system of voting that satisfies every one of these principles.” However, Maskin introduced two forms of voting that are inherently more fair than plurality rule and satisfy four out of five principles.

The two voting systems Maskin introduced are ranked choice voting and majority rule. In ranked choice voting, voters will rank candidates based on preference. The candidate with the fewest “first-place votes” is eliminated. Ranked choice voting satisfies all of the aforementioned principles except for the no vote splitting principle. Majority rule is a voting method in which voters rank their choice, but the ​​candidate who would win in a one-on-one race against all other candidates is the winner. Majority rule satisfies all of the principles except for, on occasion, the decisiveness principle. Because it is a rarity that this would be violated, Maskin argues that majority rule is ultimately the best voting system that could currently be used in the United States as well as throughout the world. He does believe, however, that ranked choice voting would still definitely be “moving towards the right direction.” 

At the end of his lecture, Eric Maskin thanked all of the students, staff, and faculty who attended and was open to taking any questions from the audience.

Categories: News

Tagged as: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s