Pen's triumph based on electoral flaws
By David R. Sands
April 29, 2002
populist Jean-Marie Le Pen's stunning success in last week's first
round of French presidential voting has been variously ascribed to
the collapse of the French mainstream, a crisis of conscience on the
French left, rising xenophobia in Western Europe and rising crime
rates on the streets of France.
But scholars who specialize in the
dry mechanics of electoral systems and voter-choice theory have a
different take on the vote: A two-stage, multicandidate contest
failed to impose discipline on voters and thus did not demonstrate
the public's preference.
In other words, a poorly designed system
produced a predictably unrepresentative result.
"If you study
comparative electoral systems for a living, you could really see
this coming in France," said Robert Richie, executive director of
the Takoma Park-based Center for Voting and Democracy. "They've been
playing with fire for a long time."
Rules affect outcome
Jones, an associate professor in political science at Michigan State
University, is one of the country's leading researchers in
comparative electoral systems, the increasingly sophisticated
modeling of how the world's voting democracies choose their leaders.
"They tend to get overlooked, but the rules of the vote have a
profound effect on who runs, who gets elected, how campaigns are
conducted, and often, how well the government will function," he
Choice theorists tend to inhabit a non-ideological parallel
universe, a world of "droop quotas" and "retention fractions,"
"Newland-Britton methods" and "surplus transfers."
But they contend
that such ivory-tower theorizing can produce real-world insights ó
explaining, for instance, why Israel's Knesset is chronically
divided, why so few U.S. congressmen face difficult re-election
fights, or why Germany's parliament is so stable while Brazil's is
Mr. Le Pen's second-place finish in the April 21 vote,
bumping Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the runoff
contest next Sunday with center-right President Jacques Chirac,
stunned pollsters and pundits in France and caused consternation
across the continent.
But Mr. Jones and others have noted that Mr.
Le Pen's 16.86 percent share in the 16-candidate field was only
marginally ahead of his results in the first-round presidential
balloting of 1988 and 1995.
No Le Pen surge
The base-line support
for Mr. Le Pen's National Front rose by a mere 429,000 voters
between 1988 and 2002 ó 0.1 percent of all registered voters.
"surge" of support for Mr. Le Pen, 73, was purely relative, a
reflection of the sharp fall in support for Mr. Jospin coupled with
an unusually high abstention rate (28 percent) among French voters
in the April 21 balloting. The nine French presidential candidates
representing left, far left and environmental parties received a
combined 47.7 percent of the vote, but the left-leaning vote was so
badly fragmented that Mr. Jospin was denied a place in the runoff.
A multifield candidate and a two-round election affect not only who
runs but how voters vote.
In France, voters have in recent
elections been more likely to support a fringe candidate in the
first round ó either to express a preference or to register a
protest ó knowing they can still vote for one of the electable
"mainstream" candidates in the second round.
French voters, it is
said, vote with their hearts in the first round, and with their
heads in the second.
The problem with that strategy in the bloated
French field is that the transition from 16 to two choices is "too
abrupt," said Mr. Richie.
"The prospect of a
runoff liberates voters psychologically in the first round," he
said. "Voters on the left who had every intention of switching to
Mr. Jospin in the second round woke up to find they had helped vote
him out of the race."
Mr. Jones at Michigan State said that
electoral theorists are constantly striving to fashion electoral
systems that balance choice and responsibility ó offering voters a
manageable range of candidates, but also forcing them to realize
that they will have to live with their selections.
The Le Pen
phenomenon is nothing new to electoral specialists.
In the 1991
Louisiana governor's race ó like the French ballot, a
multicandidate, two-stage contest ó former Ku Klux Klan leader David
Duke knocked incumbent Republican Buddy Roemer out of the race with 32
percent to 29 percent, behind Democrat Edwin Edwards.
In a more
recent example, Romanian ultranationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor ó who
had a history of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Hungarian comments on
his record ó made it into the runoff against ex-communist Ion
Iliescu, when the center-right governing coalition was shut out by
Both Mr. Duke and Mr. Tudor were decisively rejected by
voters, as politicians of the large mainstream parties united to
stop them. Most observers predict the same thing will happen to Mr.
Le Pen in France, where left and center-right politicians are lining
up behind Mr. Chirac for the May 5 vote.
a sense, you could say the runoff system worked just as it was
supposed to," said Mr. Richie.
"Voters will have time to consider
their choices and the extremist will be crushed," he added. "On the
other hand, you can say that almost half the electorate is being
forced to make a choice between two candidates they would never
prefer under ordinary circumstances."
In a neat bit of Gallic
irony, the man considered the father of Electoral-choice theory was
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de
Condorcet, was a French Enlightenment philosopher, social scientist,
economist and mathematician ó a friend of Voltaire and Diderot who
met an untimely end in jail during the most radical period of the
Condorcet's Rule ó formulated as part of a
pioneering study of voting preferences in 1785 ó holds that the
winning candidate should be the one who could defeat any other
candidate in a one-on-one contest. Instead of selecting just one
candidate from a large field of choices, voters under the system
envisaged by Condorcet would rank every candidate by preference.
Plurality vs. majority
A recurring problem with "plurality" voting
systems ó where the candidate with the most votes wins ó is that
many times, the winner is supported by far less than half of the
voters. President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both
won decisive electoral victories without ever claiming 50 percent of
the popular vote.
If the first round of this year's French
presidential election had been conducted under the Condorcet Rule,
Mr. Le Pen ó the preferred candidate of an estimated 20 percent of
the French electorate at most ó would have had no chance of making
the runoff over Mr. Jospin, or any other acceptable center-left or
Several countries have tried to introduce a
variant of Condorcet's ideas into their election rules.
national elections since 1919 have used what is called instant
runoff voting, in which voters rank candidates for office. When the
votes are counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated
and his ballots are given to each voter's second choice.
process continues, eliminating the low scorer each round, until a
winner is produced. A similar system is in use in Ireland and in
some U.S. jurisdictions, including San Francisco's municipal
elections and the Republican primary convention in Utah.
The Nader factor
Mr. Jones, the political scientist at Michigan State, said
the voter ranking, instant runoff system would almost certainly have
changed the outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election ó already
notorious among election theorists for the butterfly ballot, hanging
chads and other unique difficulties.
Vice President Al Gore "would
have won unquestionably under that system," Mr. Jones said. "He
would have taken Florida and New Hampshire as the overwhelming
second choice" after Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
whose nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy strongly backs the
instant runoff idea, said the instant runoff provides a classic case
of how the rules for an election can determine its tone and
In a crowded field where voters cannot rank their
preferences, candidates are often tempted to attack those closest to
them on the ideological scale. The phenomenon can be seen in the
often brutal early fights in U.S. party primaries, where candidates
vie to emerge as "the liberal" or "the conservative" standard-bearer
by turning on the rivals most like themselves.
The French election
was "just New Hampshire writ large," said Simon Serfaty, director of
the European Studies program at the Center for Strategic and
But in Australia, the system is designed to
reward those who score high, even if they are not the first choice
of their rivals. Candidate A is not likely to attack Candidate B too
fiercely if he hopes to collect B's supporters in subsequent
Israeli 'fix' thwarted
But sometimes systems
Israel's decision in 1996 to go to direct election of the
prime minister was intended by its backers to create a stronger
executive and a legislature less dominated by small, quarreling
But smaller parties still claim a large share of the seats
in the Knesset. Political analysts say that Israeli voters, against
expectations, have tended to focus their "sensible vote" on the
prime minister's race while indulging their true political leanings
in the Knesset.
Despite the economic, military and cultural clout
of the United States, the American election system remains a
distinct outlier among the world's voting systems. No nation has
copied the Electoral College, and, among major, full-fledged
democracies, only the United States, Britain, Canada and Jamaica
elect national representatives entirely through plurality contests
in single-member districts.
Other countries also tend to be more
willing to change their national voting systems than the United
States, where the last major alteration was a 1967 law approved by
Congress forbidding states to use statewide e election to elect more
than one House seat.
Mr. Richie said, "People tend to pay a lot
more attention to these questions overseas. You've had some very
The Czech Supreme Court was called in last year to
referee a dispute between President Vaclav Havel and the parliament
over a bill that would have altered the country's proportional
representation system. The bill was backed by both major parties.
The court backed Mr. Havel.