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Washington Times

Le Pen's triumph based on electoral flaws
By David R. Sands
April 29, 2002

Far-right 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

Mark 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 said.

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 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 so volatile.

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 0.1 percent of all registered voters.

Any "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 either to express a preference or to register a protest 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.

First-round whimsy

"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 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 like the French ballot, a multicandidate, two-stage contest 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 who had a history of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Hungarian comments on his record made it into the runoff against ex-communist Ion Iliescu, when the center-right governing coalition was shut out by voters.

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.

Condorcet's solution

"In 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 French.

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, was a French Enlightenment philosopher, social scientist, economist and mathematician a friend of Voltaire and Diderot who met an untimely end in jail during the most radical period of the French Revolution.

Condorcet's Rule formulated as part of a pioneering study of voting preferences in 1785 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 where the candidate with the most votes wins 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 the preferred candidate of an estimated 20 percent of the French electorate at most would have had no chance of making the runoff over Mr. Jospin, or any other acceptable center-left or center-right candidate.

Several countries have tried to introduce a variant of Condorcet's ideas into their election rules.

Australia's 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.

The 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 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.

Mr. Richie, 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 substance.

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 International Studies.

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 elimination rounds.

Israeli 'fix' thwarted

But sometimes systems backfire.

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 parties.

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 nasty fights."

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.


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