Commentaries on French Presidential
The 2002 French presidential elections had the twin
value of showing the importance of a majority requirement for
executive elections and the importance of allowing voters to rank
candidates in order of choice rather than just vote for one in a
given election. Following are two commentaries by CVD's Rob Richie
and Steven Hill that elaborate on these points. Note that they
anticipated Jacques Chirac's sweeping 82%-18% win over Jean-Marie Le
Pen, but also explain the hollowness of that victory due to the
system breakdown that failed to nominate Chirac's strongest
potential competitor, Lionel Jospin.
For more information, see:
- Washington Times
news article on the role of electoral systems in international
- CVD pages on instant
runoff voting and proportional
Curing France's Electoral Problem
-- and Ours
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Circulated by Knight-Ridder News Service
on extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in achieving a place in
France's presidential runoff election have largely glossed over the
central role of France's electoral system. It provides important
lessons for both France and the United States.
France has a majoritarian system that keeps such extremists from
governing. Although falling only 2% short of a winning plurality in
the first round, Le Pen could only be elected by winning a
one-on-one runoff against President Jacques Chirac -- impossible
given his xenophobic, racist views.
Most presidents around the
world are elected in similar runoffs, but Americans generally elect
our leaders with mere pluralities even though third parties and
split votes are becoming more typical in our elections. Pat Buchanan
"won" the 1996 New Hampshire presidential primary with a quarter of
the vote, for example, and had a fleeting chance to capture the
Republican nomination with a string of similar low-plurality primary
wins in a fractured field.
In Minnesota, Jesse Ventura in 1998 came
from far behind to win the gubernatorial race with 37%. Ventura
probably commanded majority support, but didn't need to prove it --
just like fellow plurality-winner Evan Mecham who had a disastrous
stint as governor of Arizona in the 1980s. Bill Clinton and George
W. Bush both fell short of winning a majority of the popular vote.
Second, France's runoff method of providing a majoritarian winner
has been discredited. A full 64% of voters supported candidates
other than the two advancing to the runoff. Several center-left
parties split their vote, which together amounted to at least 40%,
but no particular candidate, even prime minister Lionel Jospin,
matched Le Pen's 17%.
In fact, for all the hand-wringing over Le
Pen's performance, his popular vote closely mirrored his last try
for office in 1995. His percentage rose slightly because of lower
turnout, but there hardly has been a major surge of right-wing
populism in France.
It certainly should be legitimate for parties
and voters to challenge the status quo, but by narrowing the field
so quickly from sixteen to two, France has suffered a crisis that
could have been avoided by a better electoral system.
There is a
better way. In March, San Franciscans voted to replace traditional
runoffs with instant runoff voting. With instant runoffs, voters
indicate their runoff choices at the same time as their first choice
by ranking them on their ballot: 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no candidate
wins a majority of first choices, the weakest candidates are
eliminated, and their supporters' runoff choices determine the
majority winner. The field is reduced gradually in the ballot count,
allowing a major candidate like Jospin to move past an extremist
candidate like Le Pen.
With instant runoffs, the majority prevails
in one election instead of two. Candidates don't have to raise lots
of cash for a second election, while taxpayers and administrators
are spared the expense of an election. Candidates have clearer
incentives to win by building coalitions instead of tearing down
opponents. Split votes and spoiler candidacies which plague
plurality elections are prevented.
Used already to elect major
offices in Ireland, Australia and London, instant runoff voting
provides a means to accommodate voters' growing interest in more
choices. Most states could adopt it by statute for all major
elections, including the president. France's political trainwreck
sends a clear warning that demands action by our representatives.
Rob Richie is the executive
director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill
is the Center's West coast director and author of "Fixing Elections:
The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge, June
France's Problem Is Its
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
(Published by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram,
and other publications.)
Commentators on France's recent presidential election have reacted
with alarm to far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's upset in
achieving a place in the French presidential runoff election. But
contrary to the headlines, there has not been a major surge of
right-wing populism in France any more this year than in previous
years. Instead, what we saw was a major breakdown of France's method
of electing the president, with attendant lessons for the U.S.
France uses a two-round runoff system to guarantee that the winner
has a majority of the vote. The top two finishers advance to the
runoff, a method that is common in the United States as well. But
one obvious defect of a two-round runoff is that, just like the U.S.
method of electing our president, it can be plagued by spoiler
candidates and "split votes."
In the case of France, in the first
round of voting a full 64% of voters supported candidates other than
the two who advanced to the runoff. Many liberal voters, looking to
express disappointment with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the
first round, split their support among six other candidates.
Together these liberal-leaning candidates garnered more than 40
percent of the vote -- divided, none polled enough votes to make the
final runoff. The anti-immigrant Le Pen took just 17 percent of the
vote, virtually the same popular vote he won in past presidential
runs. But he benefited from the split votes and spoiling by liberal
candidates, edging out Jospin for a spot in the runoff by a mere one
percent of the vote.
Jospin learned what Al Gore knows all too well
-- in the American as well as the French electoral systems, spoiler
candidates can cost you an election.
A better electoral method for
ensuring majority rule 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' runoff choices are used to determine the majority
The result is that the majority prevails in one election
instead of two. Split votes and spoiler candidacies which plague
French and U.S. elections are prevented. Candidates are spared the
expense of raising money for a second election, and taxpayers are
spared the expense of paying for this completely unnecessary second
election. Moreover, candidates have incentives to court the
supporters of other candidates, asking for their second or third
rankings and winning by building coalitions instead of tearing each
If France had used instant runoff voting, liberal
voters could have sent a message to Prime Minister Jospin by
awarding their highest rankings to other candidates, but would have
had the option of ranking Jospin as one of their runoff choices.
During the ballot counting their votes would have coalesced around
Jospin as their front runner, who would have made it to the instant
runoff over the marginalized Le Pen, who had very little runoff
support from any other parties or candidates.
Certainly Al Gore
wishes instant runoff voting had been used in the U.S. presidential
election, as runoff rankings from the supporters of Ralph Nader
would have allowed Gore to win the states of Florida and New
Hampshire, either of which would have handed Gore the presidency.
Similarly, in 1992 many of Ross Perot's supporters would have ranked
George Bush second ahead of Bill Clinton, who won just a single
state with a majority.
In fact, our last three presidential
elections were won by candidates lacking a majority of the popular
vote. Many governor's races and Congressional seats also are won by
candidates without majority support. Instant runoff voting would
ensure majority rule even while allowing more robust political
debate and preventing electoral mayhem that results from split votes
and spoiler candidacies.
In March, San Francisco voted to become
the first American city to implement instant runoff voting for its
major local elections, while Utah Republicans will nominate their
congressional candidates in May with it. Used already to elect major
offices in Ireland, Australia and the United Kingom, instant runoff
voting provides a means to accommodate voters' growing interest in
more political choices. Most states could adopt it by state statute
for all major elections, including the U.S. president. This
electoral method is clearly a wave of the future because, when
compared to current methods used in France and the United States,
its democratic benefits are too powerful to ignore.
Steven Hill from the Center
for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) managed the San
Francisco campaign for instant runoff voting and is author of
"Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All
Politics" (Routledge, June 2002). Rob Richie is the Center's