A New Idea for Reforming Presidential Elections

Research report

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The pathologies of our election system have been glaringly obvious for several Presidential election cycles, this year more than ever. Voter frustration with a two-party dominance propped up by our electoral laws has metastasized across the electorate.

Third party candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader drew enthusiastic voter support in their campaigns, ultimately only to be crippled by the “spoiler” role. Now we have candidates best suited for independent candidacies—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—trying to run within the dominant parties but being resisted or openly opposed by party regulars.

Why can’t we have a real choice of a variety of candidates in the general election instead of the dilemmas of “spoilers” and intraparty warfare? Well, we can. The cause of these problems is “winner take all” plurality rules which herd candidates and voters into just two parties. I propose a simple reform to the general election of the President which will:

  • reduce the spoiler problem,
  • allow independent and third party candidates a fair opportunity to run,
  • free voters to vote for their real first choice of the candidates,
  • and insure majority support for the winner.

This can be accomplished by using ranked choice voting in the process of translating the popular vote in each state into electoral votes. And it doesn’t require special ballots, new election technology, changes to federal law, or buy-in by all the states to begin improving the process.

Remember that the President and Vice President are not directly elected by the vote of the people but are elected by an “electoral college” as mandated by the U.S. Constitution. There have been periodic attempts to change this archaic system, but since it would require a constitutional amendment none have yet succeeded.

Here’s how it works now. Each party chooses some party members as proposed electors to vote in the electoral college. In all but two states, whichever Presidential candidate gets the most votes in that state will determine which party’s proposed electors become the official electors. Let’s use Oregon, which gets seven electors in the electoral college, as an example:

1. End of August: The political parties each report seven proposed electors to the state.

2. Early November: Voting ends on Election Day and the votes for President are counted.

3. November: Whichever candidate gets the most votes in the state, that candidate’s party’s proposed electors become the seven official electors.

4. Mid-December: The seven official electors convene in the state capitol and cast their votes for President. These electoral votes are then conveyed to Washington, D.C., to be combined with the electoral votes from the other states and determine the winner.

This winner-take-all plurality system (the candidate with the most votes in the state gets all the electoral votes) is responsible for many of our electoral problems. Any candidate who appeals to the same voters as another candidate can be labelled a “spoiler” for “taking away” votes from the other candidate and allowing someone they both oppose to get more votes than either of them individually. This “vote splitting” hobbles independent and third party candidacies and puts some voters in the situation of voting for a less preferred candidate to avoid causing someone they like even less to win.

Ranked choice voting (RCV), also called instant runoff voting, is an alternative democratic election process which addresses these problems. In RCV, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of the first-choice votes (at least 50% plus one), the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are transferred to each voter’s second choice. This process of candidate elimination and vote transfer continues until one of the candidates has a majority.

RCV has been slowly spreading to cities and counties across the nation, but it requires vote tabulation machines capable of processing the votes according to the ranked choice formula. As most counties do not (yet) have such machines, a state-wide election would be very difficult to conduct with traditional RCV.

In the Presidential race, however, the electoral college gives us a way around this problem. Each party (instead of each voter) could be allowed to rank choice the candidates, and then the ranked choice operation could be performed on the outcome of the popular vote before awarding the electoral votes. This would be the changed process, with two added steps:

1a. End of August: The political parties each report seven proposed electors to the state.

1b. Sometime before November: The political parties report their ranked choice of Presidential candidates to the state.

2. Early November: Voting ends on Election Day and the votes for President are counted.

3a. November: If a candidate gets a majority of the first-choice votes (not just the most votes), that candidate’s party’s proposed electors become the official electors.

3b. November: If no candidate received a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and all their votes are transferred to their party’s second-choice candidate. The process is repeated until a candidate has a majority. That candidate’s party’s proposed electors then become the official electors.

4. Mid-December: The seven official electors convene in the state capitol and cast their votes for President. These electoral votes are then conveyed to Washington, D.C., to be combined with the electoral votes from the other states and determine the winner.

The parties’ rankings would be available to the public so voters would know that if they vote for a candidate and there is no first place majority winner, their vote could be transferred to the candidate’s party’s second choice. The parties could choose to rank as many candidates as are running, or as few as only one (their own candidate). There are common rules in RCV for what to do if there is no second choice for an eliminated candidate, there’s a tie, and so forth, that could easy apply to this process.

This block transfer of votes is possible because the President is elected by electoral votes in the electoral college, not the popular vote, and the U.S. Constitution leaves it up to the states to choose the method of determining their electoral votes.

In sum, voters in that state could vote for independent or third party candidates without worrying about their candidate being a “spoiler.” This would be a boon to those voters without hindering other voters. It would give greater voter choice and a clearer voice for their real preferences.

And if enough states implemented this reform more candidates would opt to run as independents or third party candidates rather than trying to fit themselves into a party that doesn’t really fit them well.

–Alan F. Zundel

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