What's in a Vote

April 23 2008

With the Pennsylvania Primary behind us (congratulations Mrs. Clinton), it seems like a great opportunity to share my views on the election process. Let's first make it clear that, I do not affiliate myself with any political party and as such did not participate in yesterday's election.

I asked my mom this morning whether or not she voted. She had, but she made up her mind on whose button to push just before stepping inside the booth. It's a tough decision, especially when you think politicians are inherently crooked, but nevertheless she voted for a candidate which she saw as the lesser of two evils.

I asked her why she even bothered to vote, if she couldn't side with one candidate more than the other, and her response was that "as long as the GOP doesn't get in, I'm cool."

It's disappointing that, much of the U.S. shares the same kind of view. So, what's in a vote?

The idea of democracy is that we elect leaders who we agree with and side with to make informed decisions about the laws, policies, taxes and occupancy of foreign countries—yet we've come up with this "rule of the lesser evil", to combat the idea that no candidate will do what "I would do if I were in office." While this might be an acceptable position to take, it really doesn't fix the problem of getting candidates in office that actually represent what it is that we feel need to be represented. In other words, why are we so easily coerced into voting for someone who we side with in 60% of issues? The answer, is that we're not coerced into voting for someone who we necessarily agree with, but instead the candidate (on our side) who annoys us least.

Riding home on the bus yesterday, I overheard a conversation between two woman about the automated messages they were receiving from the campaigns of Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. They both seemed very irritated and I could side with them, but when one mentioned that she voted for Obama on the pure basis of receiving less calls from his campaign, my jaw dropped.

How many other people are voting for candidates based on appearances and not upon the issues at hand? In other words, how many people are voting that really shouldn't be voting, and how is this democracy?

It seems to me that we can solve the uninformed voter problem by changing the way voting works. Don't cast a ballot; instead fill out a survey which ranks importance of the issues at hand, and build a fingerprint of your ideal candidate. Each candidate also fills out this survey and we create clusters of people with similar ideas as the candidates.

Let me explain an example of a Computer Vision problem, in which the goal is segment the image from millions of colors into, say 3 for the purposes of creating Pop Art. The idea is simple. Each pixel is composed of three values a red, a green and a blue. When each of these values is plotted in 3 dimensions, we get a cloud of pixels, and the pixels which are closely related in color, are also related spatially in the cloud.

If we want to turn millions of colors into 3, we plot the 3 colors we want to use and assign every other pixel to the closest target color. If our target colors are pure red, pure yellow and pure blue, then all of the shades of blue turn into the pure blue, all of the shades of red get changed to pure red, yellows become pure yellow and the colors in between, like the purples, could be either mapped to pure red or pure blue. It all depends on how close they are in the cloud to the target colors.

The same model can be used to elect members to the electoral college, only now we're using N dimensional space, where N is the number of survey questions to be answered to cast your "vote". Each candidate's responses become the "target colors," so to speak, and instead of assigning new colors, we assign membership to the candidate's cluster. To elect a candidate, all we have to do is count the number of people in each of the "clusters."

Unfortunately, there's a slight problem with this. Mathematically, it's possible for a "vote" to be centered directly between all N candidates. Fortunately, the solution to this is exactly the same as what people really do when they go to the polls and almost exactly the same as what my mother did when she voted yesterday, you just flip a coin, or roll an N sided die.