Fixing how we choose our president

The presidential campaigns during 2016 brought to public attention many flaws in the American electoral system.  During the winter and spring, we witnessed and tried to make sense of primary elections and caucuses conducted by various state-level Democratic and Republic parties.  We wondered why voters in such states as Iowa and New Hampshire should have such disproportionate influence, and we wondered why national party leaders had so little control over their party nominees, as most Republican leaders opposed Donald Trump and many Democratic leaders took Bernie Sanders at his own word that he was more a socialist than a Democrat.  The primaries revealed how America’s two major parties have little capacity to perform their most basic function: to nominate candidates who are well qualified to be president and have broad public appeal.  Even Republicans questioned Trump’s presidential temperament and Democrats were dismayed that public dislike of Hillary Clinton made her vulnerable to losing to a charlatan like Trump.

As we move toward the general election on November 8, most Americans are resigned to having to choose among “the lesser of two evils,” – or not voting at all or perhaps “wasting their vote” on a third party candidate like Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or the Green candidate Jill Stein (who have no chance of winning given how our electoral system has created a two-party duopoly).  Indeed, there is no certainty that the candidate who emerges with the most votes from this process will become our president, given the role that our archaic Electoral College plays in the process.  As in 2000, the person getting the most popular votes could lose in the Electoral College.

Under the Electoral College system, the third party candidates could also complicate determination of who is the least disliked candidate in two ways.  If enough voters in swing states vote for Johnson or Stein, even though they dislike Hillary much less than they dislike Donald, Trump could prevail in these states and ultimately in the Electoral College.  If Johnson (or Stein) could squeak out a victory in one or two states, perhaps neither Hillary nor Donald could capture a majority of electors in the College, and a Constitutionally-mandated “House Contingency” selection process would be required.  Even if Republicans retain control of the House, the high distrust of Trump among Republican leaders would make his selection uncertain.

In short, both the primary and general election system that is currently in place makes it highly questionable that our next President will be “acceptable” to most citizens; his or her legitimacy will be problematic.  Even if Hillary survives and is an effective president, our polarized politics and electoral rules mean that future elections are likely to be at least as troublesome as the current one.  While its too late to fix our system for this year’s election, its time to deliberate seriously about the changes that are needed to avoid future problems.

As November 8 approaches,  the possibility of an Electoral College outcome at odds with the popular vote will prompt many reformers to urge our adoption of the popular-plurality system used in most other American elections.  Whatever the merits of that reform, it has two major deficiencies.  It would apply only to the general election and do nothing to fix the problems with the party primaries.  And it would increase the chances of electing extremists and demagogues who could be despised by most citizens but could get more votes than mainstream candidates from angry citizens fed up with the failures of the major parties.

A better solution would be a two-stage national popular election.  In the first (primary) election, voters would cast approval ballots for any and all candidates that they found acceptable.  In the second (general) election, voters would rank-order their preferences  among the surviving candidates.

During the first stage, the ballot could be very long, as minimal rules could be established to qualify for listing on a single “primary” ballot, administered nationally rather than by the two parties in various states.  A wide variety of parties (the Republicans, the Democrats, the Libertarians,  the Greens, the America Firsters, the Tea Partiers, the Democratic Socialists, etc.) could organize and nominate whoever they wanted by whatever process they adopted,  and others who wanted to run but were not nominees of a party could organize and compete as well.  In this round, voters would cast an “approval ballot” in which they checked all acceptable candidates. The four or five candidates who were most approved would then participate in debates – presumably more civil and enlightening than those we have witnessed this year – prior to the general election.

In the second stage or general election, voters would rank-order those candidates who survived the first round and participated in the debates.   Voters could rank their genuine preferences above those who they might accept but did not really prefer.   If no candidate was the first choice of the majority of voters, the least popular nominees would be dropped and the lower-ranked preferences of their supporters would have their votes transferred instantly by computers programed to transfer votes to their most preferred remaining nominee until someone achieved a majority.  For example, if Johnson were your preferred candidate, but he came in third or forth in the initial tabulation of votes, your vote (along with the votes of other supporters of candidates getting lower initial support) would be transferred to your second (or perhaps third) choice. By this method, the winning candidate would acquire a majority and thus have a greater claim to legitimacy than a candidate getting a mere plurality. A candidate who had greater disapproval than approval ratings would have no chance of being selected, as voters need only rank-order those candidates acceptable to them.

Such a reform would require a constitutional amendment. Most incumbent Republicans and Democrats would oppose this method, because it would subject them to more competition. But it’s a reform that could have a great deal of public support.  The candidacies of Trump, Cruz, and Sanders have revealed widespread voter frustration and anger with the dysfunction of our two-party system. And moderate Democrats and Republicans now have good reasons to fear that their parties are being taken over by ideological radicals. The ranked-choice system would give parties and candidates incentives to run for office and act in office in ways that are acceptable to the principles and preferences of most voters, and it would give voters an opportunity to express their sincere preferences.

Although it’s too late for this electoral cycle, we ought to begin thinking about reforms that address the serious problems with both our primary and general elections.  An extended public conversation involving both experts in electoral systems and voters fed up with the current system could well lead to consensus on selecting the president using approval ballots in primary and rank-order voting in the general elections.