Americans Love Elections. Why Not Have More?

Americans vote on everything, but usually don’t have a lot of choice. Here is a way to change that.

An old-fashioned lever voting machine used in New York City, New York, November 4, 2008 (Caren Litherland)

The number of things Americans can vote on is bewildering to a European. From county coroners to judges to the head of state, there’s scarcely an office that’s not elected in the United States. Their counterparts in Europe are more often appointed by whichever government happens to be in power.

In contrast to their proliferation of elections, Americans don’t usually have much choice. In most places, most of the time, they can only pick between a Democrat and a Republican. That’s not something Europeans would put up with!

This year’s presidential election is even less of a contest. With the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, so unfit for high office, sensible Americans really don’t have a choice at all.

A switch to European-style proportional representation, which would open up the political sphere to more parties, is unlikely. But there is room for reform inside the current American system. The trick is adding another layer of elections: runoffs.

Some cities, like Minneapolis and San Francisco, already use something like this, called preferential voting or instant runoffs. Their voters list candidates for city council in their order of preference. If one candidate is a majority of voters’ first choice, he or she wins outright. But if no candidate has a majority, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated and so forth until one gains an absolute majority. (Which could mean that everybody’s second choice wins in the end. Better than having the last choice of two-thirds of voters prevail, as happened in the Republican primaries this year.)

Let’s do as the French do

A country that uses runoffs is France. Every election — local, parliamentary, presidential — is held in two rounds. In the first, various candidates and parties compete. The two that receive the most votes proceed to the second round.

That usually means the center-left Socialist and the center-right Republican candidates face off in the runoff. But sometimes a leftist, a centrist or a candidate from the far-right Front national manages to eke into second place, in which case the mainstream will typically unite to keep them out of office.

This happened in the 2002 presidential election, when the Front‘s Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of the current leader, Marine) beat the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, into third place. In the second voting round, left-wing voters held their noses en masse and voted for Jacques Chirac, the incumbent conservative, who won reelection with 82 percent support.

So the French system keeps extremists at bay, but it also gives small parties more influence.

Unlike the Democratic and Republican Parties in the United States, the Socialists and Republicans in France are really coalitions. They have official factions: The Socialists range from center-left social democrats to eco-socialists; the Republicans from hard-right Gaullists to center-right liberals. And they have allies: Some, like the Greens, will always throw their support behind the same party (the Socialists, in their case); others, like the centrist MoDems, will let the main two parties vie for their support in the runoffs.


Something similar happens in the American primary system. Bernie Sanders this year managed to extract some concessions on education and trade policy before endorsing Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest. But now that she has the nomination, Sanders and his movement no longer have any leverage. If Clinton reneges on a commitment, there is little they can do (other than vote for a hopeless third-party candidate).

Imagine if Sandernistas were their own party, like the Greens in France. When they were dissatisfied with Fran├žois Hollande’s appointment of a new centrist prime minister, Manuel Valls, in 2014, they simply walked out, leaving the Socialists with a wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly — and thus giving more power to the Socialists’ own left wing.

Several Greens only took up cabinet posts again this year, after Hollande reversed some liberal economic reforms and replaced them with stimulus policies.

Political cover

The American parties don’t have a tradition of strict party loyalty anyway. It’s not unusual for a few Democrats to join the Republicans in supporting a trade deal or for a majority of legislators close to the center in both parties to vote for a budget.

Too often when they do, such politicians are hounded by their base for betraying left- or right-wing purity and helping the other side to a victory. This is shortsighted and it helps explain why so little gets done in Washington DC nowadays. Republican voters in particular are frustrated that their party, even though it controls both chambers of Congress, can’t always get everything it wants.

Breaking up the parties into formal factions would give political cover to politicians to make deals.

Imagine that the Republican Party is split into three: a Front national-style populist party led by Donald Trump (let’s call it “America First”); a Christian-right party led by Ted Cruz (“Moral Majority”); and a center-right, pro-business party led by Paul Ryan that also has most of the foreign-policy hawks (“Conservatives for Growth”). They would each get around a third of the right-wing vote, meaning that whichever party wins a plurality in a given district or state would need the support of at least one of the other two in a runoff. No one faction can dominate the others and voters of each one would likely understand the need for quid pro quo to unite the right.

If worse comes to worst and the three fail to agree, the Conservatives for Growth could probably make common cause with Hillary Clinton-led New Democrats to pass budgets and make foreign and trade policy.

Who knows? The Sandernistas might even recognize that they have something in common with America First and the Moral Majority when it comes to foreign policy and trade.

It’s not for the specific policy outcomes that such a situation is preferable. It’s that it would lend more legitimacy to the process. Bernie Sanders’ supporters might have been less reluctant to vote for Clinton if their leader had been promised a cabinet post. More Republicans might have forgiven Ted Cruz for failing to endorse Donald Trump if they understood the latter had refused to make concessions to the Christian right.

A lot of politics is wheeling and dealing. Better to have a system that reflects and accommodates that than pretend otherwise and leave voters disillusioned.

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