Newsworthy research: 24-year-old voting systems analysis stands “Test of Time”

In 1992, Mike Trick, senior associate dean of faculty and research, joined his Ph.D. advisor from the Georgia Institute of Technology, John Bartholdi, and Georgia Tech professor Craig Tovey on a paper that went largely forgotten for a decade. Many years later, their work has earned them credit as the founders of computational social choice, a field that ranges from computational decision-making to developing page-ranking systems for search engines.

“We were excited to bring new insights from computer science and operations research to economists and other researchers looking at issues in voting theory,” Trick said. His 1992 paper with Bartholdi and Tovey — “How hard is it to control an election?” — was honored with a Test of Time Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Electronic Commerce (SIGecom) at an international conference in summer 2016. “It took quite a long time, but eventually the field understood the relevance of these results, and then dozens of other researchers continued in this direction.”

The paper, published in Mathematical and Computer Modeling, largely concluded that voting systems differed in their computational resistance to manipulation by the addition or disqualification of candidates or voters, showing that one system protected candidates, another voters.

“Better understanding of how voting systems can be manipulated through the addition or modification of voters and candidates helps clarify the spoiler role that third-party candidates have in our electoral system,” Trick said. “Other voting rules — such as approval voting, where voters check all candidates they approve of — do not have similar manipulation aspects. This can help people think about appropriate voting processes in committees, social groups or other organizations.”

The 1992 paper remains highly cited in the field and ranks among the 21 most-cited in the history of Mathematical and Computer Modeling. By a unanimous vote of the selection committee, SIGecom chose it along with a 1991 paper by Bartholdi and James Orlin from MIT as its 2016 Test of Time winners. The award recognizes  papers that are 10 to 25 years old with “significant impact on research or implications that exemplify the interplay of economics and computation.”

“I had no idea that hundreds of papers would result from our initial insights,” Trick said. “It is heartening to see the papers get the recognition they deserve.”