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CVD Publishes Commentaries on French Presidential Elections

May 2002

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 politics
- CVD pages on instant runoff voting and proportional representation

Curing France's Electoral Problem -- and Ours
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Circulated by Knight-Ridder News Service

American commentators 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.

Most importantly, 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 2002).

France's Problem Is Its Electoral System
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
(Published by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Progressive Populist 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 winner.

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 other down.

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 executive director .


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