# Researchers find evidence of growing polarization in US

##### June 25, 2014 by Angie Hunt

(Phys.org) —Personal values, race, as well as social and economic inequality, all contribute to the growing political divide in America. To better understand the impact of this division, Iowa State University researchers developed a technique to determine if election results truly represent the "will of the people." Their study of ballot data from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council elections provides new evidence of the growing polarization of U.S. voters.

Sunanda Roy, a lecturer of economics at Iowa State, and colleagues Abhijit Chandra, a professor of mechanical engineering, and Kuan Chuen Wu, a graduate student of mechanical engineering, analyzed eight years of election results dating back to 1997. Roy says the Cambridge council elections are unique in that are asked to rank the candidates by preference. To fill the nine seats on the council, there are often as many as 18 to 25 candidates on the ballot. With the voters' rankings, the candidates with first-place votes greater than or equal to a specific number or quota are elected.

The problem is the process based on first-place votes is somewhat arbitrary, Roy said. For example, some voters may rank candidates in the order of A, B and C. However, an equal number of voters may rank candidates C, B and A. Equal groups of voters with opposite preferences, as in this example, demonstrates voter polarization. Any process that focuses only on first place votes fails to consider the fact that an equal number of voters may have placed the candidate last. That is to say, the process does not treat all rankings impartially.

"If we are only going to count the first-place votes, then the candidate with the most first place votes gets elected. However, he may not be the best choice if there are an equal number of people who hate him. Unfortunately, with many elections, including the U.S. presidential election, that's what we do; we count only the first place votes," Roy said.

Using linear algebraic techniques, ISU researchers developed a method to measure the level of polarization and applied the method for each election year. Researchers found less evidence of polarization during the period from 1997 to 2003, but it steadily increased from 2005 to 2011.

"From the anecdotal evidence we know there is increasing polarization. We developed our methodology to try to understand how much polarization is there, and what we found is that it has been increasing steadily," Roy said. "The more voters we have whose preferences are directly reverse of each other, then we have more ."

Roy presented the findings at the French Economic Association meeting in June. Wu shared the research results at the Spring 2014 Midwest Economic Theory meetings in May.

Implication for governance

The research raises a larger question about how government officials should be elected – a question the ISU team is not attempting to answer with this research. However, since most elections require voters to select one candidate and not rank them by preference, Roy says they are working to develop the technique to apply it to any style of election. For now, their technique only works in elections in which voters must rank the candidates.

"What we're addressing with our methodology is whether the electorate is divided or not," Roy said. "If it's very divided or very polarized, then using the plurality method, under which the candidate with the most first-place votes wins, is not the right thing to do. You can have a candidate who is elected, but it is not reasonable to say that the people want him, or that the election outcome is the will of the people."

Researchers hope to work with election officials in Australia, which like the Cambridge City Council requires voters to rank candidates, to collect data for a future study. They are interested in finding other communities around the world that use a similar ranking system to further test their methodology. They are also working to extend the technique to apply to other styles which do not require voters to rank .

Explore further: Swing voters hold more sway over candidates on economic issues

## Related Stories

#### Swing voters hold more sway over candidates on economic issues

March 20, 2014

New research from two University of Illinois economics professors who study election trends analyzes how polarization on social issues affects competing candidates' economic platforms.

#### Minority political candidates just need a chance

February 11, 2014

It's not necessarily voters who should be blamed for the lack of minorities in state legislatures, but instead the two major political parties for not recruiting enough candidates, indicates new research by a Michigan State ...

#### Potential for odd election outcomes with ranked choice voting system, says mathematician

November 7, 2011

"Instant runoff" voting – which San Franciscans will use next week to choose their new mayor, county sheriff and district attorney – requires voters to rank their three top choices in each race, instead of simply ...

#### Researchers determine televised presidential debates help moderates choose candidates

November 7, 2013

Televised presidential debates have been a staple of the political landscape for more than 50 years. Starting in 1960 with John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, debates have influenced popular opinion and have swayed voters ...

#### New Data Support Use Of Instant Run-Off Voting

December 3, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- New data collected as part of a North Carolina State University study during the 2009 municipal election in Hendersonville, N.C., show that voters prefer instant run-off voting (IRV) to traditional voting ...

#### Physicists use magnetism simulation software to model US presidential elections

April 24, 2014

(Phys.org) —A team of physicists working at IFISC in Palma de Mallorca, Spain has used a computer simulation originally designed to model the transition of iron between magnetized states to create a model to do something ...

## Recommended for you

#### Indonesian island found to be unusually rich in cave paintings

December 15, 2017

A tiny Indonesian island, previously unexplored by archaeologists, has been found to be unusually rich in ancient cave paintings following a study by researchers from The Australian National University (ANU).

#### Ancient feces reveal parasites described in earliest Greek medical texts

December 14, 2017

Ancient faeces from prehistoric burials on the Greek island of Kea have provided the first archaeological evidence for the parasitic worms described 2,500 years ago in the writings of Hippocrates - the most influential works ...

#### Coalition seeks to increase transparency on life science career prospects

December 14, 2017

Nine U.S. research universities and a major cancer institute today announced plans to give would-be life scientists clear, standardized data on graduate school admissions, education and training opportunities, and career ...

#### The oldest plesiosaur was a strong swimmer

December 14, 2017

Plesiosaurs were especially effective swimmers. These long extinct "paddle saurians" propelled themselves through the oceans by employing "underwater flight"—similar to sea turtles and penguins. Paleontologist from the ...

#### Upper body strength key factor in men's bodily attractiveness

December 13, 2017

What makes a man's body attractive? In many mammalian species, females evolved to prefer the strongest males. According to research from Griffith University, the same is true of humans.

#### Experiments show Neolithic Thames beater could be used to kill a person

December 12, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers with the University of Edinburgh has found evidence that the "Thames Beater" was a weapon that could be used to kill another person—perhaps at times, with a single blow to the head. In ...