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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A single shouter can taint the outcome of a voice vote, a procedure legislative bodies regularly employ to determine public policy, new research shows.
"Even when you have as many as 30 or 40 people voting, one loud voice can bias the vote," the study's lead author, acoustician Ingo R. Titze, told Reuters Health.
"A soft vote is no vote at all. They might as well not be voting."
Titze directs the National Center for Voice and Speech in Salt Lake City. His ears perked up while watching delegates vote during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked the delegates in a 20,000-seat arena to cast one voice vote on two controversial amendments to the party platform. One of the amendments would restore the words "God-given talents" to a statement about rewards for hard work. The other would restore language about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel.
Villaraigosa called for the vote - aye or no - three times. Each time, both sides seemed to become more emotional and to raise their voices louder. No one watching could possibly gauge the required two-thirds majority, says the study published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
Nonetheless, after a third voice vote, Titze said Villaraigosa announced that the amendments passed by a two-thirds majority.
"We know how he drew his conclusion," Titze said. "He read it off the teleprompter. Apparently, someone behind the stage wanted this outcome."
The former mayor did not respond to requests from Reuters Health for comment.
The scene prompted Titze to ask, "What good is a voice vote when there's a real issue at stake, real emotion involved?"
To find out, he designed a series of four experiments with 54 female students testing the judgment of five adult listeners. He said he used only females because his class had few males, and he did not want gender to bias the results.
The student voters adjusted their votes and the loudness of their voices to simulate various voice-vote scenarios, and each time, the judges reported which group they considered louder.
"Even in a group size of 40, one speaker can raise the group sound level . . . near the just noticeable difference," according to the results.
Two of the experiments left "little doubt that loud speaking voters in a group dominate the vote, while soft speaking voters contribute little to the outcome," the study says.
"All voters should realize that a soft vote is basically an 'abstaining' vote and that one loud vote is equivalent to several votes with normal loudness," it concludes.
For more accurate voice-vote counting, Titze recommends that parliamentarians calling for voice votes urge participants to state their opinions in a moderate, conversational tone. He also recommends that voters use the words "yea" and "nay," rather than "no," for phonetic balance.
Determining a majority opinion in groups as large as the Charlotte convention hall "is unattainable by voice vote unless individuals know how to produce (and agree to produce) a standard sound level, which is unlikely," the study says.
The results came as no surprise to Thomas H. Little, director of curriculum development for the national nonprofit State Legislative Leaders Foundation.
Little, who did not work on the study, watched the questionable voice vote at the 2012 Democratic convention.
"I would not be surprised if it was a fait accompli, and that's not unusual in a voice vote," he told Reuters Health. "Normally the presiding officer knows what they want; they're not sure they're going to get it; so they do it by voice vote."
In other words, they cheat?
"You can say, 'cheat,'" Little responded. "Cheat's probably a strong word, probably accurate, but strong," he said.
"You do have to have enough of a vote there to reasonably say you won."
SOURCE: bit.ly/1n9qk3i The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, January 2014.