The Washington Post this morning had a story about the political discontentment in Russia over the outcome of the 2014 Eurovision competition. Given that a few days ago, I outright said I’d personally emigrate were I living in Russia, this confluence of events is particularly timely. I’m going to use it as an excuse to talk about something known as Borda count systems, which I think more than a few of you will find interesting. I’ve been meaning to write a post about this alternative voting system for years given its relevance to economic models and voting laws but never got around to it.
First, some background. For those of you who don’t know much about it, Eurovision is one of the the largest events on the planet and throughout all of human history, with viewership ranging between 100,000,000 and 600,000,000 people depending on the year and the measurement method. It began in 1956 is one of the longest running broadcasts, having gone on for 58 years. It is now watched all over the world thanks to the Internet.
The countries that are members of the European Broadcasting Union each have their own nationwide competitions or selection methods to pick a performer or group to send to the main event. The national represenative(s) then compete against each other until a winner is crowned. It’s like the Olympics, the World Congress, and American Idol combined. In Civilization V speak, winning is a major cultural victory and instantly makes the person who brought home the title a household name for significant percentage of the global population. It gives bragging rights to the home country and elevates the status of their national heritage as it is beamed into countless living rooms, thousands of miles apart, in multiple languages.
The Borda Count System Lets People Rank Candidates So That More Voters Are Happy with the Outcome
One of the things that makes Eurovision interesting is that it uses a voting system that some economists and academics want to implement for our own elections here in the United States. It’s known as the Borda count. It’s based on a system devised by Jean-Charles de Borda, an 18th-century political scientist, mathematician, physicist, and sailor.
[mainbodyad]In a Borda count system, voters rank their preferred outcome, with different scores being applied to each position on the list. This results in the winner being the person most acceptable to the largest group of people in the population rather than the person the (often slim) majority wants to win most. A Borda count system has an advantage in that it avoids the tendency of people to vote for someone they don’t really want to win for fear of “throwing away” their vote on their preferred long-shot candidate.
Borda count systems are based on the idea that building a political consensus with which the stakeholders can live is more important than creating deep political divides and turning the government into a contact sport. Nobody is going to get everything they want, but most of the people are going to get most of the things they want. Under a Borda count system, you probably would have seen someone like Jon Huntsman win the 2012 Presidential election as he fell between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. He is fiscally conservative, socially moderate to libertarian, and overall pragmatic. This resulted in him being a wonderful governor (80%+ approval ratings and winning re-election with 78% of the vote), but a terrible national candidate as he’s just not divisive enough to win in a winner-take-all plurality voting system. You also could avoid a lot of the vitriol. “Who did you vote for?” now turns into, “Which order did you rank the candidates?”. It’s not nearly as controversial and likely to lead to fewer fights at family dinners.
Like all human systems, the Borda count is not perfect. Its biggest vulnerability is something known as strategic nomination. Regardless, it still seems like an improvement over the existing status quo where a simple majority+1 can mean half the population is miserable for two, four, or six years, depending on the office. As Americans, we already use it in some high-profile awards, such as the MVP in Major League Baseball, the Heisman Trophy in college football, and the ranking of NCAA teams in college basketball.
How Eurovision Uses the Borda Count System to Determine the Winner
Eurovision’s Borda count system requires each country to rank its preferred winner among the other entrants (countries cannot vote for their own representatives). The top choice gets 12 points, the second choice 10 points, with various declining points assigned until zero.
Different countries award their points different ways but almost all determine their national vote submission based on a 50/50 average between the public (who call or text to register their vote) and a national jury of 5 experts from the music industry. This can lead to some interesting outcomes in the election math when a country’s population disagrees with its national jury, as the BBC detailed this morning.
When all of the nations have submitted their ballots, the math is calculated and the performer receiving the highest aggregate score wins, taking his or her country to glory.
This Year, the Borda Count System Handed Austria a Cultural Victory and Infuriated Russian Politicians
Given the Borda count system’s ability to better reflect how a bigger part of society feels about given issues so that more people end up happier, it can lead to general public opinion weighing heavily on the outcome of the results, as you would expect in any cultural battle. This year, Russia effectively got a big middle finger as it received no points from more than half the countries involved in the contest due its annexation of Crimea and other high-profile attacks on individual freedoms. The Russian performers were even booed.
If that weren’t enough, some Russian leaders had epic meltdowns because they are so offended that the nations of Europe crowned Austria’s representative the winner. The Moscow Times has a story discussing calls for Russia to leave Eurovision entirely because the winner demonstrates the supposed moral decline of Europe.
Austria’s supreme victory over all other entrants was secured by Conchita Wurst. (If you don’t get the name, remember that a wurst is a type of sausage. That should give you enough of a tip-off to the joke.)
Conchita is the stage name of a 25-year old performance artist, Thomas Neuwirth. He resurrected the bearded lady act that was so popular here in the United States back in the 18th and 19th century and helped entrepreneurs like P.T. Barnum amass their fortunes (more on that later). Conchita won the hearts, and votes, of Europe with his live performance of Rise Like a Phoenix.
My personal favorite is Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. He tweeted, “Eurovision showed the Euro-integrators their Euro-perspective”; as if Euro is some sort of derogatory term. Hear that young people of the former Soviet Bloc? Yes, Europe might have exponentially higher living standards but you should turn away from it because you might be subject to drag queens singing power ballads! Who needs the extra 12 years of life expectancy Austria enjoys when you have to witness such horrors? (I’ve apparently been ruined by the freedoms of Western Civilization because my thought was not that his soaring notes were going to undo the foundations of society, but rather, “Damn. Boy’s got a good dentist. Those are some nice teeth.”)
Somehow, I imagine the entire Austrian population as Eric Cartman, reveling in their victory and trolling the Duma. “Oh, the tears of unfathomable sadness … yummy, yummy you guys!”
If you are interested in reading more of the Russian cultural outrage over Austria’s victory, check out the Post article, which is available online for free here.
Here’s the kicker: Despite the outcry from Russian legislators over Wurst’s win, because of the Borda count system, the people of Russia awarded Conchita 5 points in their official national tally (and that was after the jury panel selected by Russia averaged in their scores; the Russian public itself gave Wurst 8 points, ranking the performer as their 3rd favorite act). If you were looking solely at the headline newspaper quotes, you’d think all of Russia hated the outcome, but it’s not true. To learn more about the math breakdown, read Russia’s Eurovision Secret Is Out: Voters Backed Conchita.
Borda systems more accurately reflect the sentiments of the voters than simple plurality systems. That’s intriguing to any student of political science or economics. What the people at the top are saying does not fully reflect what society as a whole feels. Plenty of Russian citizens are just fine with the bearded lady and thought she should get some points.
P.T. Barnum, the Bearded Lady, and Entrepreneurship
While we are on the topic of bearded ladies, I can’t miss the opportunity to share an anecdote about P.T. Barnum, one of the richest self-made millionaires in early American history. Barnum was to showmanship what Steve Jobs was to technology or Walt Disney was to animation. He knew how to draw in crowds and convert onlookers into piles of cash, sometimes in unethical ways.
One of his famous acts involved Annie Jones. Jones was a biological woman with an unknown condition that caused her to grow enormous amounts of facial hair. Given the societal stigma, she joined Barnum’s traveling circus and became the most famous bearded lady in the country.
Barnum started a rumor that Annie was a man. When it became popular, he publicly sued Annie and forced her husband to come to court to testify that she was, in fact, a woman. This generated huge publicity for the attraction and raised his ticket sales, as well as the Barnum brand equity. Though the act was (unknown to the public) planned from the beginning, it gave P.T. a reputation for honesty that made folks believe anything he exhibited had to be real. Otherwise, if you questioned it, he’d drag you to court so you better be certain before you accuse him.
While lacking in the integrity department, none can doubt it was a stroke of genius. Barnum did stuff like this all the time and could manifest money out of thin air. (He purposely relinquished the copyright on his autobiography so that publishers could make money selling it, making it the second most printed book besides the Bible in the country, driving even more people to his exhibits.)
Using his ability in its most natural outlet, he became a politician, serving two terms in the Connecticut legislature. To his credit, he spoke out against slavery and worked to improve standards of living for his constituents. He also showed admirable resiliency, having suffered a humiliating bankruptcy due to a bad investment, only to come back and make an even bigger fortune. He didn’t enter the circus business, for which he is best known, until he was 61 years old, proving it is never too late to make your mark.
For those of you who are interested in P.T. Barnum’s own philosophy on how he made so much money, you can read at least one of his books for free at the Gutenburg project. It’s called The Art of Money Getting or Golden Rules for Making Money.
Also, for those of you who are interested in watching the entire finale of Eurovision 2014, you can watch all 26 performances for free here. It’s so absurdly large and dramatic it seems like something right before a summoning ritual in Final Fantasy. You half expect Bahamut to descend from the sky. The United States has nothing like this, except maybe the Super Bowl. Excess does not even begin to cover it.