06 November 2008

The Case For Majority Rule

Georgia and Minnesota Compared

There are four close U.S. Senate races that have not yet been resolved. In Alaska and Oregon, they are still counting votes. In Minnesota and Georgia, strong third party bids denied either major party candidate a majority.

The vote in Minnesota was Democrat Al Franken 1,211,167 to incumbent Republican Norm Coleman 1,211,643 to Independent Dean Barkley 437,381 to Libertarian Charles Aldrch 13,915 to Constitutional Party candidate James Niemacki 8,907. Thus, the two leading candidates virtually tied at 42% of the vote. Almost 16% of the voters chose a third party candidate. Minnesota has a first past the post system in which the individual winning the most votes wins the race. The winner will be determined in a recount.

The vote in Georgia was Democrat Jim Martin 1,727,626 to incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss 1,841,454 to Libertarian Allen Buckley 126,328. Georgia requires a majority of the vote to win, so the top two candidates will face off in a run off election.

Precedent and History

The notion of requiring a winner to receive a majority of the vote is as old as our Constitution. To be elected President, a candidate must receive a majority of the electoral college vote, not just a plurality, or the decision is thrown to a runoff in the House of Representatives, which must also produce a winner who has majority support to select a winner.

Denver uses the Georgia rule to determine who wins its municipal races. In Denver, you need a majority to win, and if no candidate gets a majority there is a runofff. France, Louisiana and San Francisco also require winners to win by majorities. In Colorado state races, the Minnesota rule applies.

One doesn't have to look back very far to see situations when the difference between the Georgia rule and the Minnesota rule make an important difference.

In Florida in 2000, neither candidate in the Bush v. Gore race that was instead decided by the U.S. Supreme Court had a majority, because Nader and other third party candidates had more votes than the difference between the two major party candidates.

In the 4th Congressional District in Colorado in 2006, Eric Eidness made a strong third party run that left neither Republican Marilyn Musgrave, nor Democrat Angie Paccione with a majority.

The rule would have made a difference in the Presidential races of Bill Clinton, where Ross Perot was a decisive factor in a few states.

This year, in Colorado, a majority requirement would have produced runoff elections in three RTD Board Districts (A, F and H), and in the race for Jefferson County Commissioner for District 2, in which Democrat Jason Bane got 45% of the vote, Kevin McCasky got 47% of the vote, and Green Party candidate Scott Zulauf got 8% of the vote.


I favor the Georgia rule. It is simple. It is more fair to third parties and those who vote for them by discouraging strategic voting for major party candidates. It favors having voters resolve close races based upon their preferences among the top contenders after further deliberation, rather having courts and partisan election officials resolve races based upon technicalities. And, it gives winners a stronger electoral mandate. The rule can be adopted with a simple state statute.

A Simple Rule

The Georgia rule is very simple to apply and understand. In the vast majority of races, where there are only one or two candidates seeking an office, or one candidate receives a majority of the votes cast for an office, nothing changes at all.

In the small percentage of races where no candidate receives a majority, a runoff election is scheduled between the top two candidates and operates like any other two candidate election. One could also establish a rule that dispenses with a runoff in the very rare case where there is a three or more candidate race for a single post, and there is a tie for second place, instead, granting victory to the top vote getting in the first round (since a three way runoff is unlikely to produce a majority for any candidate).

Ideally, a Georgia rule system should also permit a runner up to concede, dispensing with a runoff election when the outcome seems to be a foregone conclusion (perhaps because the third party voters are very likely to favor the top vote getter), and forcing a runoff where there would otherwise be a tie for the second spot in the runoff.

There would be no need to change voting equipment or procedures in any way (unlike instant runoff voting), or to offer special training to voters, or to anyone below the top election official for a particular race.

It is simpler than "instant runoff voting" (previously known as the single transferable vote system) because voters don't have to consider hypothetical second choices, voting machines don't have to be equipped to register second choices, and considering hypothetical situations turns out to be a difficult thing for typical voters to do. Voters have to inform themselves about second choices only in the unlikely event that there is a runoff.

It is also a far less profound change than reforms like proportional representation with voters choosing parties rather than candidates, while still affording a level playing field to third parties.

Fair To Third Parties While Discouraging Strategic Behavior

It is also easier for voters to interface with, because strategic voting is discouraged.

Under the Georgia rule, if you prefer a third party candidate, you can vote for that candidate in Georgia, knowing that if your third party vote would have made a difference in the outcome, that there will be a runoff. You only have to choose the lesser of two evils (or not voting at all), when that really is a necessary choice.

Under the Minnesota rule, a voter who favors a third party candidate must agonize between supporting the candidate that the voter really likes, or strategically voting for a second choice with a better chance of winning. A voter who favors a third party candidate can't cast a rational vote without having some idea of how the polling is going in the race (something unavailable in most down ticket races).

Because the Minnesota rule strongly encourages strategic voting by people who favor a third party candidate, the rule suppressed the vote for third party candidates. The Minnesota rule allows conventional wisdom about who other voters will prefer to undermine voter's actual preferences. If Minnesota had a majority requirement, independent Dean Barkley would probably have won even more than 15% of the vote and might have even made it into a runoff election.

The Minnesota rule also encourages perverse campaign behavior. In close Presidential races, conservative Republicans who hate everything that the Green Party stands for, have an incentive to support Green Party candidates financially and politically, because most Green party voters would favor a Democrat over a Republican if forced to make that choice, since the Green Party is to the left of the Democratic party. Likewise, liberal Democrats have an incentive to support conservative third party candidates for similar reasons.

We should have election rules that create incentives for people to support their friends and not their enemies.

A Voter Centered Process

The Georgia rule supports important process values.

Under the Georgia rule, many very close elections will produce runoffs, because many very close elections involve some votes cast for third party or write in candidates. This gives voters a second chance to focus in on a race where their vote really matters between the two candidates who could possibly win the race. It allows voters to hear out and evaluate the runoff candidates in a close election greater length, when a third party voter's second choice is no longer hypothetical.

There is a process benefit to having many close races decided by the people, rather than by recounts or the courts. The focus returns in many close races to who is the better candidate in the eyes of the voters, rather than the technicalities of the election process itself.

Wouldn't a two way runoff vote have been a better way to resolve the Bush v. Gore race, than intense recounts and elaborate court challenges that ultimately was resolved by a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court that stained the Court's reputation and public confidence in the electoral process?

A Stronger Mandate For Winners

When someone can't command a majority, we are left with an election were a majority of voters favored someone else than the person who will take office. Indeed, the majority of voters may even be firmly opposed to the winner.

This possibility undermines the legitimacy of an elected official who fails to secure majority support to some extent, even if they would have won in a runoff election if one were held.

In Minnesota, how can either candidate really claim securely that he speaks for the people of Minnesota after winning just 42% of the vote. Bill James in RTD District A has been elected with just 36% of the vote. This does neither the public, nor Mr. James and RTD, a favor, in a year when RTD is facing some crucial challenges.

An Easy Change To Make

The Georgia rule can be achieved with a simple statutory amendment to election laws.

As the Minnesota v. Georgia example illustrates, there is no federal mandate to use one rule or the other. (Louisiana also uses a version of the Georgia rule.)

The choice between a Minnesota or Georgia rule for determining the winner of an election is also not constrained by the Colorado constitution, which doesn't address the matter. The only factor the determines the outcome are a couple of sections in Article 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

Colorado's General Assembly could make the change this year, without voter approval or supermajority requirements. It should do so.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, as long as we use single-seat winner-take-all elections, even with a majority requirement there is no assurance of majority rule.Due to gerrmandering, and partisan balance in entire states, winner-take-all elections always allow the majority of a legislative body to represent a minority of the voters. The only solution is some form of proportional representation(PR), though that can't work for U.S. Senate seats. There is no need to amend the federal constitution to adopt PR for the House. The most appropriate form of PR is the one adopted by Minneapolis using ranked-choice ballots.

For electing governors and any single-seat office (not a legislature), IRV makes the most sense. It is better, cheaper and faster than holding a separate runoff election, and avoids the drop-off in voter turnout that is typical of separate runoff elections.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Federal law prohibits states from establishing multi-member House Districts, which were an option used for much of U.S. history (the ban was designed to prevent multi-member at large races from suppressing minority voting power).

Gerrymandering is inherently problematic, but is tame in Colorado, where state constitutional provisions place significant constraints upon the kinds of plans that can be adopted.

While I was once a fan of IRV, I am no longer. It is cheaper and faster, but the experience of Denver, at least, has been that there isn't much of a dropoff in voter turnout for runoff elections. The opportunity for additional campaigning in key races, additional time to deliberate, and the ability to avoid asking voters hypothetical questions are all worthwhile in my view.