Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Two ways to improve our presidential elections: RCV, NPV

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.

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

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.)

Article continues after advertisement

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.)

Article continues after advertisement

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.