By Steven Hill
Most people in France -- indeed, all over Europe -- are heaving a great sigh of relief that France uses a majoritarian voting method rather than a mere plurality to elect its president.
In the first round of their two-round runoff election, the far right's candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen from the National Front came within three percentage points of finishing first in a badly split 16 candidate field. Le Pen's second-place finish allowed him to make the runoff, where fortunately the French will have an opportunity to show how strongly they reject his nativistic, anti-immigrant policies.
In the U.S., lacking majoritarian methods for electing our most powerful offices, our "plurality takes all" methods have produced a few hair raisers. David Duke has thrived in plurality elections where he is able to mobilize his fervent core of supporters and rely on split votes among his opponents in a multi-candidate field.
Even our plurality method for electing our president, while not allowing candidates of Le Pen or Duke's ilk to gain much of a foothold -- at least not yet -- have produced three presidents in a row who failed to win a majority of the popular vote.
'Majority rules' ought to be a basic tenet of single-winner elections, yet too many elections in United States fail that fundamental test of democracy.
But there are different electoral methods to make sure that the majority rules. One method is the two-round runoff election used in France, but that method, while better than any plurality method, also presents paradoxes and dilemmas.
The primary defect of a two-round runoff, ironically, is that it uses a plurality method to decide which two candidates make the runoff. Like any plurality method, once again spoiler candidates and split votes can plague the results. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin finished third and did not make the runoff because center-left voters split their support among at least five candidates. Together these candidates garnered at least 40 percent of the vote and possibly enough to win a majority; divided, no single one of their candidates pulled enough votes to make the runoff.
In the United States, runoff elections in the South, and even in liberal cities like San Francisco, have hurt racial minority voters whose voter turnout tends to plummet in the second (runoff) election once their candidate has been eliminated. In New York City, runoff elections for the last mayoral race were tinged with racially divisive rhetoric that, arguably, caused the Democratic Party candidate to lose in one of the most Democratic of cities.
The better method for ensuring that the majority rules, whether in France, the South, San Francisco, or New York City, is called instant runoff voting. With an "instant" or "same-day" runoff, voters indicate their runoff choices at the same time as their first choice by ranking them on their ballot, 1,2,3. If no candidate has an outright majority of first choices, voters' ranked runoff choices are used to determine the majority winner.
The result is that the majority prevails in one election instead of two; split votes and spoiler candidacies which plague plurality elections are prevented; candidates are relieved of the awesome responsibility of having to raise lots of cash fast for the second election; and taxpayers are spared the expense of a completely unnecessary second election. Moreover, candidates have incentive to court the supporters of other candidates, asking for their second or third rankings, winning by building coalitions instead of by tearing down opponents.
If France had used instant runoff voting, the center-left voters could have ranked their favorite candidates first and their second and third favorites as their runoff choices. Their votes would have coalesced around their front runner, Lionel Jospin, who would have made it to the instant runoff over the marginalized Le Pen who has very little runoff support from any other parties or candidates.
San Franciscans just voted to implement instant runoff voting for all local elections. Used also in London, Ireland, and Australia to elect offices like mayor, president, or the legislature, it is clearly a wave of the future because its benefits are too powerful to ignore. Just ask Al Gore, who would have loved to have benefited from the second rankings, i.e. runoff choice, of Ralph Nader voters in Florida and New Hampshire.
Steven Hill from the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) was the campaign manager of San Francisco's Proposition A, which was passed on March 5 to implement instant runoff voting for local elections. He also is the author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge, June 2002)