America and Mexico: Electoral Outliers

By Ryan O'Donnell and Usman Ahmed
Published September 15th 2006 in The Progressive Populist
Mexico's tumultuous presidential election was a reminder that electing heads of state is more than a national affair, but a regional concern. Because of this, we should also remember that the methods countries use to elect their leaders are as important as who wins.

For America, it's a valuable lesson, because Mexico's election system has more in common with the United States then any Latin American country.

Internationally, the norm for presidential elections is a two-round system where the winner needs a majority and, if none emerges, the top two candidates compete in a second contest. Mexico and the United States are the outliers, nearly alone in the Western hemisphere in choosing their most powerful leaders by plurality, or simply the most votes.

Mexico can see why plurality can be a problem. In the final count, conservative candidate Felipe Calderon edged left wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador 36.9 to 36.3 percent - a lead of under 0.6 percentage points. Third party candidate Roberto Madrazo Pintado was the vote-splitter, coming in third with 22 percent of votes. Mexicans got a winner who was opposed by almost two-thirds of voters.

The United States is no stranger to electing presidents without a majority of the vote. Since 1824, 17 out of 46 presidential elections have been won this way. Bill Clinton won with both times by plurality, as did George Bush in 2000.

The American-Mexican aberration should concern regional observers. International politics is complex, but it's undeniable that cooperation and prosperity between countries starts with choosing national leaders in a fair and democratic way. The questionable elections of Venezuela, for example, are troubling in part because president Hugo Chavez enjoys substantial regional influence but has shaky legitimacy. Shouldn't we be equally concerned that the election methods of two major countries, America and Mexico, can also run up an accountability deficit with non-majority winners?

Consider a majority runoff system. If such a thing had been used in Mexico, Calderon and Obrador would have faced off in a second round. Maybe we can't tell who first-round Pintado supporters would have voted for as their second choice, but it doesn't really matter. If voters had turned out for a second election, Pintado voters would have gotten a chance to express their second choices, and the winner would represent the true majority in Mexico.

Why is finding the true majority so important? Ask the crowds that poured into Mexico City's Zocolo. At any international summit, heads of state elected with true majorities will bring policies to the table backed by a real mandate from their citizens.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) would be a great way for America, Mexico, and any other country to ensure its leaders have the support of this true majority. IRV works by letting voters rank candidates in order of choice. The counting uses the rankings to conduct a series of runoff elections to determine a winner with a majority of the vote. That means that if a voter's first choice were eliminated in the round one, their second choices would still count. No spoilers, and no vote splitting.

As Fidel Castro drifts into his political twilight and immigration looms as an ever-larger issue for the United States, the world has renewed its interest in the geopolitics of the Americas. For those looking for a policy of cooperation and stability there, fair elections must be on the agenda, for Mexico as well as the United States.

[ Ryan O'Donnell is communications director for FairVote, a nonprofit nonpartisan election reform group in Washington, DC. Usman Ahmed is a senior research fellow.]