College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Iowa State researchers find evidence of growing polarization in U.S.

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

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