How people elect parliaments
American voters are this week facing a choice of president between two candidates that most voters reject – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
It doesn’t need to be that way. America’s voters could have a different voting system giving them much more powerful choice, and one that did not force them to expend their vote opposing their least-liked alternative.
If voters in the state of Maine adopt the preferential system of voting for future elections in a ballot referendum this week, it will set a direction for the possible use of this more powerful voting method across the nation.
A preferential system would allow voters access to multiple options within the two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats.
Such a reform would likely be well received by many millions of voters. Earlier this year, at the end of each party’s primary season, there were large numbers of frustrated voters who – denied a final nominee for the party campaign whom they genuinely support – have had to decide if they will still vote for a rival nominee selected by their preferred party.
This year Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders’ supporters have provided an obvious example of such a situation. Sanders and Clinton represented significantly different political directions, and Sanders’ support base was highly critical of Clinton.
The divisions in the Republican party have been even more complex. The political issues arising from Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee for president have made the final choice very difficult not only for serving politicians, but also for tens of millions of the party’s supporters.
Multiple candidacies from the same party at the end of the election race would admittedly complicate the flow of political debate and rivalry seen during the campaign season. It would expand set-piece events such as the formal candidate debates. But this would be no bad thing, because the voters – the customers in the whole process – would be getting more choice.
Below is a simplified illustration of a ballot that Americans could see in their polling places if they used preferential voting:
A hypothetical ballot for a preferential election for the US presidency
The ballot above gives voters seven different choices, which most voters would find fairly easy to rank in order.
There would be no need to vote tactically in order to vote against the option a voter liked least. All that is needed is to rank the candidates in order of desirability. Obviously preference “7” would be a voter’s least desired option.
The illustration above actually has three different Republican tickets – a traditional party ‘establishment’ option led by Marco Rubio, a Donald Trump option, and a conservative christian option led by Ted Cruz. Republican voters would be free to rank all three alternatives as they preferred, and to mix those preferences amongst their placings of the other four ballot options.
Democrats would similarly have the choice between a Clinton option and a Sanders option. Bernie Sanders could – if he wished – urge his supporters to vote ‘1 Sanders, 2 Clinton’, without any adverse impact on the prospects of one or other of the Democrats winning the election.
Green and Libertarian voters could put their candidates first without any risk of wasting their vote, and place their other preferences in whatever order they wished.
The illustration ballot above could of course feature more than seven candidates, giving voters even more options
In the real election this week, five more tickets (the Constitution Party, America’s Party, a joint ticket of the American Delta Party and the Reform Party, and the independent runs of Evan McMullin and Laurence Kotlikoff) have achieved ballot access or have registered for write-in votes to be counted in enough states to possibly achieve 270 College votes.
Six more tickets (the Socialists Workers Party, Veterans Party, Prohibition Party and three others) have nominated or registered for write-ins in a smaller number of states, but not enough to possibly win a College majority.
Voters would not need to fill in all the boxes appearing on the ballot; any that they leave blank are by default their lowest preferences. Overlooked candidates never pick up any support from such a ballot; all that happens is that the voter is sacrificing the opportunity to distinguish between how they would order their least-favoured candidates.
To make a preferential voting system work there would need to be adjustments to how the US Presidential Electoral College operated.
One option, of course, would be to abolish the College altogether and simply count all the 130 million voter ballots as one nation-wide preferential election. That would require an amendment to the US Constitution.
Another option would be to count voters’ ballots within each state and – similar to what happens now – award all the state’s Electors to one ticket, except to the preferential winner – not the plurality winner – in each state. But given that this model offers voters multiple options within the two major parties, such a system would want to provide that all Electoral College members then go on to cast their final 538 College votes in the same preferential manner as the voters themselves.
In that approach, the College electors could be allowed to preference between all the original candidates, or they might be restricted to only ranking the candidates who had won at least some Electoral College positions around the nation.
A final option would be to allocate the Electoral College places within each state proportionally, applying the single transferable vote method to the votes cast in each state. Since that would also yield a diverse College make-up, the 538 College votes would again best be cast as preferential ballots as well, as described in the previous option.
These last two Electoral College approaches could probably be implemented through state and federal legislation. They might work if implemented just in individual states, but these systems would really only operate appropriately if they were adopted by all the states together.
Preferential voting is not completely unknown to the political culture of the United States.
The way voting is done now in the Louisiana, California and Washington state elections already resembles this way of selecting a winner.
In those states all the candidates from all parties – including multiple Republicans and Democrats – are initially listed on the same ballot paper. Then the top two placed candidates face off in a second election a few weeks later.
This is however a messier approach, requiring double the election resourcing, and it can also malfunction if the top two candidates happen to leave out an option from one major party. The full single-ballot preferential system is less prone to unwanted results, simpler and quicker.
There are lots of voting methods by which Americans could select their president. The current method is arguably one of the worst.