• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom; Super Moons, Rare Events and History

History lessons.

November 17, 2016

One of the qualities that I love the most about my daughter is her ability to notice things around her that others might not take the time to see. It is not uncommon for me to be frantically fighting traffic, with my eyes on the road, while she pulls out her phone and takes a picture of a sunset or a rainbow. It is such amazement that came to my mind as I appreciated the “super moon” of this past week, an event that comes only approximately every eighteen years. I hope that, as I age, I begin to acquire more of the wonder that she brings to the world.

Indeed, this was a week that was spent thinking about rare events, as it becomes clear that, for only the fifth time in U.S. History, the results of the popular and Electoral College vote for president will not coincide. This has been a constant topic of discussion among friends, family and faculty around me. My father, who has seen twenty presidential elections in his life, has taken an active interest in this issue, while some have proposed a constitutional amendment to find another way to elect a president.

I was surprised, upon some preliminary research, to learn that the Electoral College was created, at least in part, as an outgrowth of slavery. In order to have the  many slaves in the South have a positive influence on a state’s input into representation and into an election, votes from each state were determined by population that counted each slave as 3/5 or a person (the “three fifth’s compromise”). As I had always been taught that the Electoral College was designed to protect the input of smaller and less populous states, I was shocked to learn of this dark side of the history of a structure that still has effects on our country today.

“Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem” tells us that it is impossible to find a method, other than a dictatorship, that allows voters to consistently choose among more than two options. This implies that there will be difficulty when we have elections with more than two candidates, as was the case in recent weeks. However that does not prevent us from trying to find a way that might work. Indeed, many would say we have to do just that, especially if we want to continue to allow more than two candidates in presidential elections.  

I want to throw the question out to my readers, to see what ideas come forward. Some have proposed that, instead of the Electoral College, we rely on the popular vote in future elections. Is this something that you agree with? And if so, how would we maintain interest in less densely populated areas; how could we make sure that any candidate actually visits Rhode Island or Delaware, given their size and population? Or perhaps we should allocate electoral votes by states in a proportional manner, similar to the way some states do this for some party primaries? And do we need states as a unit of measurement at all? For example, Cleveland is very different from small towns in Appalachia, but both are parts of Ohio. Maybe we should just use a national tally of votes.

I doubt that my sunset-photographing, moon-appreciating daughter will run for President someday, but someone who is now her age certainly will. When they do, I hope that the election that year is based on a system that was not developed to count the ancestors of some of my most cherished relatives as only 3/5 of a person.



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