Electoral and popular votes

By Rob Richie
Published June 23rd 2006 in Washington Times

Electoral and popular votes

The Washington Times has had two editorials this month about presidential elections in Latin America that are instructive for the value of establishing majority thresholds for winning executive offices. 

The most recent editorial, "Nicaragua's election" (Monday) points out that in Nicaragua, the required vote for avoiding a runoff has declined from 45 percent to 35 percent — down to a level where it will be easier for Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to win if his opposition is fractured, as may happen in this November's election. In contrast, as you pointed out on June 4 ("Peru's front-runners," Editorial ), Peru has a majority runoff requirement that was necessary for more centrist candidate Alan Garcia to overcome front-runner Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala, a left-leaning nationalistbackedby Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

A majority requirement does not mean left-leaning or right-leaning candidates can't win, but it does make it more likely that winners will be representative and that voters will be able to hold their leaders accountable. In fact, of the 28 major democracies that Freedom House rates highly for protecting human rights, 20 require winners to receive a majority in runoff elections, and one (Ireland) requires a majority with instant runoff voting. Two set lower thresholds, and just four allow plurality winners.

The American Electoral College system is unique among these democracies in allowing winners who lose the popular vote, but at least it does require candidates to obtain a majority of electoral votes.