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Two ways to improve our presidential elections: RCV, NPV

Minneapolis voters
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Citizens in the West Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis voting on Election Day 2018.

More fun with presidential election trivia (if you, like me, have a twisted and nerdy definition of  “fun”):

How many recent presidential elections have been won by a ticket that received less than a majority of the vote?

Answer: Six out of the last 14 elections.

To me, that’s a wow. I can’t remember why I started looking up these numbers, but it caught me off guard that it was almost half of all elections since 1960.

Two of them (George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 and Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016) were won by candidates who actually finished second in the popular vote but won through the “magic” of the Electoral College and, in one of the instances, perhaps a bit of foreign interference.

But in four other elections since the Eisenhower era, the winner got less than 50 percent of the total popular vote. Those were (with their percentage of the total vote in parentheses):

1960: John F. Kennedy (49.72%) over Richard Nixon (49.55%)

1968: Richard Nixon (43.4%) over Hubert Humphrey (42.7%) plus George Wallace: 13.5)

1992: Bill Clinton (43.0%) over George H.W. Bush (37.4%) plus Ross Perot: 18.9

And 1996: Clinton (49.2%) over Bob Dole (40.7%) plus Perot 8.4%).

The Kennedy-Nixon one is not like the others, because between them they received 99% of all votes, and the total was just incredibly close.

In all of the cases, including the two in which the popular vote loser won the election, the winning ticket amassed a majority of the electoral votes, which is what really matters in U.S. presidential elections.

(By the way, the Framers who set up this weird Electoral College system had no intention of having it work this way. If you want to know what the Framers thought they were doing, here’s a full piece of mine on how Washington, Franklin and Madison and the rest of the boys thought the Electoral College system would work.)

But the Framers’ plan disappeared almost immediately into the two-party-system reality, which the Framers neither foresaw nor intended).

Still, in a country that likes to think of itself as a model of democracy to the world, it’s at least surprising that almost half of our last 14 presidential elections have been won by someone who didn’t get a majority of the popular vote, including two cases where it wasn’t even a plurality.

Reformers have come up with at least two potential work-arounds for this problem, both of which I think would be improvements on the status quo. One is ranked-choice voting (RCV, sometimes called “instant runoff voting.”) We have this in Minneapolis municipal elections. Here’s an old piece of mine explaining how it works. But it virtually guarantees that the ultimate winner of an election was preferred by a majority of the voters, at least over the runner-up. RCV has the additional advantage of allowing voters to vote for the person they really prefer, even if the polls suggest that that candidate is an underdog, and still, by ranking their second- and third-choice candidates accordingly, not have to worry about “wasting” their vote on someone who probably won’t win. But in the context of presidential elections, it would work only if it applied across the country.

The other work-around is called “National Popular Vote” (NPV).

It asks states to adopt a law pledging to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, with the necessary provision that it takes effect only when enough states have joined the compact to ensure that the ticket that got the most votes will get a majority (270) of electoral votes.

If you’re not aware of this clever plan, you might be surprised to learn that states that have legally adopted the pledge represent a combined 196 electoral votes, which is more than two-thirds of the way to 270. The Minnesota House passed the bill in April, but the Senate did not, so Minnesota is not yet a member of the compact. There are several other states that have passed the NPV in one house of the legislature, but not both.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the NPV plan would not guarantee that a president would be chosen with a majority of the total national vote. A strong third-party or independent candidate could prevent anyone from getting a majority. But the RCV/IRV mechanism would come much closer to ensuring that the winner of the election had majority support. (The exception to that rule would be a case where not enough voters expressed a second choice on their ranked-choice ballot.)

Here’s the NPV website, and here’s a 2014 piece of mine in favor of NPV.

As we currently endure a president who won neither a plurality nor a majority of the total vote, it’s worth thinking about the benefit of such potential reforms. One more advantage of either plan in presidential election is that it would do away with the absurd-and-undemocratic-but-necessary focus of every presidential campaign on the relative few (usually fewer than 10) “swing” states that are the only ones that ultimately decide the election.


Comments (37)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/10/2019 - 09:06 am.

    Or, we could scrap the Electoral College and vote for presidents like we do everyone else.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/10/2019 - 09:25 am.

      And like other democracies do.

      • Submitted by Chas Dalseide on 07/10/2019 - 07:55 pm.

        And just how many “democracies” are there who have Presidents with executive powers. I can think of a couple to start with; France and Mexico.
        Not Canada, nor any country with royal heads of state. Not Germany or Italy. By the way, it is interesting to read the history of the Mexican Presidency.

    • Submitted by Vicki Barnes on 07/10/2019 - 04:57 pm.

      Yes, but I believe we would need to amend the constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. If we elect only reform-minded candidates to Congress, that could be possible. And probably should be done even if NPV is adopted. That way the change is permanent. So vet your candidates well, and share their response. People have the ability to push amendments. We have done so several times in history.

  2. Submitted by Tom Knisely on 07/10/2019 - 09:23 am.

    Ranked choice voting is is simply a scheme by which a losing candidate is given a chance to win.

    If you think a president winning with less then a majority of the vote is a problem, I don’t, then simply have a run off. So, in 92 for example, Ross Perot gets dropped off the ballot and we have a national runoff the first week of December.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/10/2019 - 12:13 pm.

      Ranked Choice Voting lets people rate the candidates from first choice to last choice. Basically it’s a run-off that’s simply done more quickly than holding a secondary election a few weeks later.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 07/10/2019 - 01:05 pm.

      Yeah, but we’d have a runoff pretty much every time.

      In October, the major party whose candidate is slightly behind in the polls would run ads supporting a minor 3rd party candidate, to ensure that the leader would not reach 50%. That would extend the campaign for another month, and make campaigns that much more expensive.

      Commercial media would love the extra revenue, but the rest of us would absolutely hate it.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/10/2019 - 09:26 am.

    My choice would be for ranked choice.
    This has the advantage of ensuring that the final choice would be at least acceptable to the majority of voters.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/10/2019 - 10:45 am.

      The problem is that ranked choice voting does not ensure a majority winner. Both of the last two Minneapolis mayors were elected with less than a majority. The old system in Minneapolis (runoff between final two) ensured a majority winner in the final choices, but RCV enables non-majority winners.

      • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 07/10/2019 - 11:15 am.

        The primary system doesn’t ensure a majority winner in partisan races, either. In 1998, Jesse Ventura won our governorship with a 37.0% plurality of the vote. This was one of four gubernatorial elections in a row where the winner did not receive a majority of the vote.

        Things are even worse for the presidency because of the electoral college, but that’s why we’re here commenting on this article.

        (Mpls elections are technically non-partisan per state law even though parties endorse and the ballot allows a candidate to specify up to three words as a “party or principle”)

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/11/2019 - 10:33 am.

          First, I am 100 percent in favor of abolishing the electoral college.

          I am also aware that partisan primaries do not ensure majority winners. My point was that RCV does not solve that problem, despite the false claims of its advocates.

  4. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 07/10/2019 - 10:12 am.

    The idea of RCV is always absurd. This country was not set up with the idea that you have to have a majority to win an election, only that you get the most votes. Only that one person gets to vote for one candidate. RCV is the system where a voter can vote for more than one.

    The NVP is also based upon this idea of having a ‘majority’ win the Presidency. The Framers wanted to ensure that the President was elected by much of the country an not just pockets so this form of election was put into place. In a NVP, candidates would only pander to those areas with high populations (heck, the DFL would be considered flyover land by the DNC). In a close election, can you imagine a recount? Nightmare in the making. Plus, the chances of people voting more than once would be much higher.
    The NVP is based upon that every vote would be ‘equal.’ Numerically, that is correct. But sometimes what is the best intention is the worst in outcomes. In practicality, those states that have joined the NVP have basically nullified the votes of their citizens because it will be mostly based upon the approximately 25 most populous counties in the US.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/10/2019 - 10:51 am.

      What utter nonsense. There is no justification for counting some people’s votes leas than others because of where they live. If everyone’s vote counts the same, then candidates will pursue all the votes. There would be no reason to focus on population centers.

      And FTR, it wasn’t the best of intentions. It was to protect slavery.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/10/2019 - 11:14 am.

      The Electoral College was established to avoid the possibility of a President “elected by much of the country.” In Federalist 68, the only Federalist Paper to deal wit the selection of the President, Hamilton said that “the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

      Of course, Hamilton lacked prescience about how the Electoral College would operate in reality. His thought that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” seems particularly quaint today.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/10/2019 - 12:15 pm.

      No, you do not get to vote for more than one person with RCV. You get to set your preferences from best to worst, but at the end of the day you still only have one vote cast per person.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/10/2019 - 12:22 pm.

      It’s NPV, not NVP. NVP would read National Vote Popular.

      It’s doubtful that candidates would concentrate on the most populous areas as they need to concentrate not on where the most votes are, but rather where the most undecided votes are. And that could be anywhere.

      Even if they did decide to concentrate on the population centers, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that where the people are? As it stands now, they just concentrate on a couple of swing states and ignore the rest of the country. Just look at the spots where candidates make the majority of their campaign stops and you see how the current system works. Most states get ignored AND you still end up with a candidate winning who lost the majority vote by a wide margin.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 07/10/2019 - 02:24 pm.

      The electoral college doesn’t just distort the principle of one-person, one-vote; it really trashes it. Your power as a voter in a presidential election depends to an amazing degree on which state you vote in.

      This relative power is easily expressed by dividing your state’s population by the number of electoral votes your state gets.

      Wyoming has less than 577,737 people, but gets 3 electoral votes. That’s 192,579 people per electoral vote.

      Minnesota has almost ten times as many people, but only 10 electoral votes. We have 561,118 people per electoral vote.

      So a Wyoming voter has almost three times as much power in a presidential election as a Minnesota voter … and almost four times as much power relative to a Texas voter!

      I don’t see how that protects flyover-land from the will of the coastal mobs.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/11/2019 - 09:46 am.

        Why are we worried only about “coastal mobs?” What about the disproportionate influence of, say, petrochemical oligarchs from Kansas?

    • Submitted by Drew Gmitro on 07/14/2019 - 02:06 pm.

      Exactly. You’re 100% correct in your analogy. Thank you.

  5. Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/10/2019 - 11:11 am.

    “But it virtually guarantees that the ultimate winner of an election was preferred by a majority of the voters, at least over the runner-up.”

    The first clause is simply false. Many contested RCV races, including the last two Minneapolis mayoral elections, have non-majority winners. A primary that narrows the field down to two – like Minneapolis used to have – absolutely guarantees majority winners. RCV actually makes it fairly likely that a non-majority winner gets in.

    The second clause renders the claim in the first clause meaningless. Yes, if you only consider the votes that went to the top two candidates, you have a majority winner. But to do that you have to discard the votes of people who did not vote for either of the top two. People who cast valid ballots, but for the wrong candidates, don’t have their votes count?

    I could do the same with every presidential election. If we only count the votes between Bill Clinton and Bush and then Dole, and discard the Perot votes, then Bill Clinton was a majority winner under that logic. If you discard valid votes to claim a majority, you don’t have a majority, regardless of whether its RCV or traditional voting.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/10/2019 - 07:29 pm.

      RCV does not discard votes; it redistributes them.
      Either Bush or Clinton could have won, depending upon how second and third place votes were distributed.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/11/2019 - 10:29 am.

        Incorrect. RCV both redistributes votes, if the ballot contains a lower choice who is still viable, and discards votes, if the ballot does not.

        Those votes are not really discarded – if people cast valid ballots, but vote for the “wrong” people, the votes are still valid votes. They are only discarded by people making the false claim that RCV ensures majority winners.

        For example, 104,522 people cast valid ballots in the Minneapolis mayor election. After redistribution, 46,716 went to Frey (44.7 percent). Ray Dehn got 34,971 (33.5 percent). The rest of the voters chose neither Frey nor Dehn on their ballots. Their votes could not be redistributed. That is how you get non-majority winners through RCV.

        The only way you can say RCV produces a majority is by discarding the non Frey/Dehn votes. Which is no different than discarding Perot votes and saying Bill Clinton had a majority.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/11/2019 - 12:01 pm.

          The system (like any voting system) is dependent upon most people being responsible enough to name a viable candidate someplace on their list. Otherwise they’re voting for anarchy.

    • Submitted by Marcia Wattson on 07/11/2019 - 04:42 pm.

      I’m tired of hearing this argument and other claims that RCV isn’t perfect. Neither is plurality voting. I believe RCV is a Better process than settling for plurality winners, for several logical reasons:
      1. It saves the cost of the primary.
      2. It opens up the field for more candidates, more ideas, more conversations, and more civic engagement.
      3. Candidates need to reach beyond base voters and learn about the whole district they want to represent.
      4. Negative campaigning is less effective and money is less important.

      Instead of trying to shoot down the proposed benefits of RCV, for once I’d like to hear someone give Honest reasons that plurality voting creates better outcomes than RCV. Realistically, the choice is between staying with a highly flawed election process or moving to a better way of choosing leaders who will work with diverse communities to find solutions that work better for the community as a whole, not just the privileged few. If you believe that each person’s vote should count, those preferences will be better reflected, efficiently and effectively, with RCV.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/10/2019 - 12:02 pm.

    The United States of America is a Republic with a Representative Democracy (a type of Democracy, but not a Pure Direct Democracy).

    Therefore, while technically a republic, it isn’t incorrect to refer to the U.S. as a democracy (or more specifically as a representative democracy) in most contexts.

    As Benjamin Franklin was exiting after writing the U.S. constitution, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic—if you can keep it

    I think we should keep it.

    TEC is a check and balance on a direct democracy that many are proposing.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/10/2019 - 12:17 pm.

    The reason why Minnesota Democrats like Ranked Choice Voting is that they were tired of losing to Pawlenty when he got considerably less than a majority vote. I don’t think it makes sense out of that context.

  8. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 07/10/2019 - 12:56 pm.

    RCV would most certainly stop all negative ads and turn the conversations forward to the candidates plans, goals and values. It’s one way to start cleaning up our elections.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/11/2019 - 10:38 am.

      Except it doesn’t do that at all in the real world.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/11/2019 - 04:30 pm.

      I’ve never understood that argument.

      First, what is “negative campaigning?” Is it negative to point out an opponent’s proven dishonesty, or the unworkability of his or her policy proposals? An electorate that has only competing positive claims put before it is not an informed electorate.

      Second, why would RCV eliminate negative campaigning? The strategy might be a little different – keep a candidate from being the first choice of too many people – but that would still call for what many would regard as negative campaigning.

  9. Submitted by Tim Milner on 07/10/2019 - 01:08 pm.

    A much simpler way. Eliminate the “win takes all” assignment of electoral votes.

    Follow the Maine and Nebraska model nationwide. An electoral vote is given to the candidate that obtains the majority of votes in each Congressional District. The 2 additional votes are awarded to the candidate that obtains the majority of votes in the state.

    In this way, all districts are equally worthy – and all states in play – verses the current system. It has even been postulated that this might even reduce the amount of gerrymandering.

    So rather than a new system, let’s just codify nationwide something that already is in place in a few states.

  10. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/11/2019 - 08:26 am.

    As to the electoral college, every candidate knows how it works. For fans of Hillary, many of us appalled by both candidates sat back and watched the fiasco from afar as it happened, and it was no secret well before Election Day that the Clinton campaign, so convinced that she deserved it, abandoned states like Wisconsin and Michigan, focusing almost entirely on those urban states she was practically guaranteed to win (as if to confirm her bias.)

    If we were to go straight to a popular vote, as elitist neoliberal economics has hollowed out the rural economy, eventually the president would effectively be decided by a few mega-urban areas. That is not representative of the people of America.

    For all the hand-wringing of Dems and Liberals about Trump’s election, and the talk about how to change the electoral system (and RussiaRussiaRussia), maybe talk instead about how Dem and Liberal policy might change to appeal less to corporation, bank and billionaire, and more to actual working people?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/11/2019 - 10:37 am.

      Why would making everyone’s vote equally valuable concentrate power in the big cities? It would literally make every single person’s vote exactly the same no matter where they live. And I’m at a loss as to how everyone’s vote carrying the same weight could possibly be construed as elitist.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/11/2019 - 02:05 pm.

        From the Census, in 2016, “Rural areas cover 97 percent of the nation’s land area but contain 19.3 percent of the population (about 60 million people),”

        Since the migration from the rural, the land and waters are more polluted than ever, pollinators are near extinction, and the rural economy in many places is in ruin. In the absence of people living in it to speak for it, it becomes prey to the market, the wealthy and corporations.

        So in a sense, urban votes mean much, much more than rural.

  11. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 07/11/2019 - 10:18 am.

    As for NPV, If you are not feeling represented now, start with your local representative.
    As for RCV, I’m having a hard time finding one candidate to vote for, let alone two:)
    A better system than we have now? Good luck selling your versions.

  12. Submitted by Tim Smith on 07/11/2019 - 03:49 pm.

    Show me a a voting scheme liberals love and I will show you one that is designed to get more liberals elected.

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/12/2019 - 06:36 am.

    RCV has a certain one size fits all quality. According to it’s supporters, it does everything they want it to do and nothing it doesn’t. It is a universal panacea, the solution to all that ails us. Put me down as dubious.

    In scanning the comments, one claim leaped out to me, that RCV would eliminate negative campaigning. Wow, that would be easy. But leaving aside the process arguments as to whether it could actually achieve such a miracle, not that what is being advocated is process being used to reach a substantive political goal, one that favors one group over another. The fact is, lots of people vote negatively. There is nothing wrong with that, because voters, unlike politicians and activists, are the bosses, and it’s up to those activists and politicians to serve the bosses, not tell them what to do or how to make the decisions they make.

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