No More Plurality Presidents

Majority Preference Voting Is a Sensible Solution         John B. Anderson

        1996 could be a disastrous year for American democracy. No, this is not a judgment about whether a Republican or Democrat should be elected president. Rather, it is about how our president will be elected and whether we can pursue reforms to ensure that the majority rules and that voters have real choices.
        Over a year before the election, political observers are predicting that we could have several strong independent candidates seeking the presidency: Pat Buchanan on the right, Jesse Jackson on the left and Colin Powell, Ross Perot and/or Lowell Weicker pursuing the "militant center."
        Currently, every state allocates its electoral college votes to the candidate with the most votes, even if this total is less than a majority. The irony of such plurality elections is that the more candidates who enter the general election field, the more incentive there is for other candidates to run. Unlikely to win in a three-person race, a Buchanan or Jackson could have a realistic chance to win by capturing the big states' electoral college votes with as little as 26% in a four-person race or 21% in a five-person race.
        1992 shows this scenario is hardly far-fetched. With three major candidates running, only a single state was won with a majority: Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas. The 49 other states gave all their electoral college votes to candidates that the majority of voters in those states opposed.
        The last presidential election in the Philippines provides a disturbing example of what could happen in 1996. In a large field of candidates using U.S.-style plurality voting, Fidel Ramos won the presidency with less than 25% of the vote.
        To avoid this scenario, Congress -- or, at the least, individual states, which have the constitutional right to determine election law when Congress does not act -- should support a sensible reform called majority preference voting (MPV). Designed to provide for a majority winner, MPV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than simply "x" vote for one.
        This simple provision for "voter literacy" -- few voters would have difficulty marking a "1" next to a first choice, a "2" next to a second choice and so on -- allows a different method of tabulating results. Rather the winner being whoever has the most first-place votes -- the current approach -- a candidate would need a majority of over 50% to win.         
        If no candidate obtains a majority of first-place votes, then the last-place candidate is defeated, and, just as if there were a run-off election, the ballots for that candidate are transferred to the next candidate listed on these ballots. This process of transferring ballots from last-place candidates continues until only one candidate remains or gains 50%.
        What would MPV have meant in 1980, the year I ran for president? I easily could have received at least 20% of the vote, as my candidacy would have been treated more seriously and more people might have voted. Ronald Reagan likely would have been forced to explain his economic program more thoroughly with me as a serious contender and his mandate as President would have been clearer if his victory had depended on a significant number of transfer votes from my supporters -- people who wanted change, but not Reaganomics.
        In 1992, with MPV, Bill Clinton almost certainly still would have won the presidency, as exit polls showed that Perot voters were evenly split between Bush and Clinton. But Clinton would have had the legitimacy of being a majority president rather than a plurality winner with 43%.
        Having MPV in 1996 would reverse current political calculations. A Jesse Jackson candidacy would help Clinton rather than hurt him. Jackson supporters on the left would be more inspired to vote, but likely would list Clinton as their second choice, where their vote would go if Jackson did not finish ahead of Clinton in a particular state.
        Similarly, candidacies by Perot, Powell or Buchanan would not fracture the opposition to Clinton. Instead, that vote would coalesce behind the strongest of the opposition candidates.
        The result is that MPV encourages candidacies for citizens who feel left out by the limitations of the current system. It provides them with a greater reason to vote and, if they choose to vote, an increased chance to have their vote count toward a inner. By opening the field to more choices -- an increase that polls show a majority of Americans would welcome -- MPV could lift our voter turnout, which now is among the lowest in the world.
        Unlike a change to the electoral college, MPV could be introduced nationwide by a congressional statute. State legislatures could address the issue first by instituting MPV for presidential elections -- as well as congressional and state races -- in their states.
        The only downside to MPV is that some states might need to find new ways to tabulate ballots, but such one-time changes would be a small price to pay in exchange for providing for majority rule and for a more engaged electorate in what promises to be a watershed election in our nation's history.

        A former Member of Congress (R-Illinois), John Anderson is National Chair of the Advisory Board of The Center for Voting and Democracy.

        It's time to change our electoral system

        Have you ever tried to explain the electoral college system to a youngster? It gets real confusing, real fast. For now, we're stuck with this archaic system of electing the president and vice president, but there are changes that will make the system more balanced and fair.
        Under existing state law, it's winner take all. The presidential/vice presidential team that gathers the most votes in the popular election, gets the entire block of electoral college votes. Forty-seven other states follow the same practice. That's how it is that an independent candidate like Ross Perot can get 20 percent of the popular vote nationwide, yet not land a single vote in the electoral college.
        House Bill 1594 would give each candidate a proportional share of electoral votes. If a candidate gets 40 percent of the popular vote, that candidate would get 40 percent of the electoral college vote. This is a good bill. It should be passed.

        This editorial appeared in The Olympian, the newspaper of Washington state's capital. on February 25, 1993 advocating another presidential election reform. HB 1594 did not pass the legislature, but Maine and Nebraska have modified electoral college allocation to winner-take-all voting by congressional district (with candidates earning an electoral college vote for each district they win).

        Sample Statutory Language for "MPV"

        If there are more than two candidates for [this particular office], then the election shall be held by majority preference voting.

SECTION 1: Voting Instructions (Two Alternatives)

Alternative 1: Each voter shall place numbers beside the name of candidates to indicate the voter's preferences; that is, "1" for first choice, "2" for second choice and so on. The instructions on the ballot shall read as follows: "Mark your first choice by marking the number '1,' your second choice by '2,' and so on for as many choices as you wish. Use each number only once. Do not skip numbers."

Alternative 2: The name of each candidate shall be listed in a column along the left of the ballot, with additional columns marked "First Choice," "Second Choice" and so on. The number of such additional columns shall be equal to the number of candidates or seven, whichever is less. The instructions on the ballot shall read as follows: "Mark your first choice by placing an 'X' in the column labeled 'First Choice;' Mark your second choice by placing an 'X' in the column labeled 'Second Choice;' and so on for as many choices as you wish (up to a maximum of seven). Use each column only once. Do not skip columns."


Ballots shall be counted initially according to the first preferences marked on each ballot. If one candidate receives a majority of the total valid votes cast, that candidate shall be declared elected. If at the end of any count, there is no candidate with a majority of the votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes shall be declared defeated and the ballots previously counted for that candidate shall be redistributed according to the next available preference marked on each ballot (that is, for any candidate who has not been eliminated). The count will end when a candidate wins by obtaining a majority of votes cast or is the sole remaining candidate.

If any ballot has no more available preferences, that ballot shall be declared void. Ballots with two of the same number [or two marks in the same column] shall be declared invalid when such double numbers are reached. Ballots skipping a number [or skipping a column] shall be declared invalid when the skipped number is reached.

Table of Contents
Chapter Six