Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

Majority Rule, Maximum Choice

The Case for Majority Preference Voting

by Carolyn Campbell, Arizona Green Party

1996 should prove to be an interesting year. Greens have known for a while that a large number of voters in the US have "had it" with the two major parties. And, because of the number of mainstream politicians who have expressed interest in running as Independent for President this year, national polling is being conducted that affirms this to the American public.

The article by Steven Hill in Synthesis/Regeneration 9 detailed the problems with our plurality or "winner-take-all" system in legislative bodies, and how true proportional systems can and do work in functioning democracies. With proportional systems, there are varying degrees of electing legislative bodies which reflect the wishes of the voting electorate.

Another avenue to change our electoral system is in electing our executive branches of government: the President, governors, and mayors. Although you cannot have a "proportional system" when only one person wins, there is an alternative in which our votes are not wasted. In addition, Americans can begin to become familiar with alternative voting systems to the one employed almost exclusively in the United States, which is the one who gets the most votes wins it all. Majority Preference Voting (MPV) is simply having voters rank their candidatesó1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice and so on.

Majority Preference Voting for Executive Offices

[Excerpted from Robert Richie & Cynthia Terrell's The End of Majority Rule? Prospects for the 1996 Presidential Elections.]

Most United States elections are held under plurality voting rules in which voters have one vote in a race to elect one person, and the candidate with most votes wins. If more than two people run in the race, then the winner can have less than a majority of the vote. Although not as fair as proportional representation, majority preference voting (also called the "alternative vote") is a sensible reform for single seat elections like the presidency and gubernatorial elections. Majority preference voting (MPV) is more likely to elect the voters' favorite choice than plurality voting and promotes increased voter choice in elections.

The 1990 Presidential Election in Ireland
CandidateFirst Choice % Currie's Redistribute
Ballots to Second Choice
Final Tally
Brian Lenihan44.1%3.1% 47.2%
Mary Robinson 38.9% 13.9% 52.8%
Austin Currie 17.0% -- --

What is wrong with our current system?

Let's look at the last presidential election. With a popular candidate, Ross Perot, running as an Independent, Bill Clinton received 43% of the vote. "All others" received 57%. He may have received more votes than any other candidate, but 57% of those who voted, voted against Clinton. Fifteen other US Presidents have also won without a majority of the vote.

Under the current plurality system (most votes wins), which was created to use with a two-party system, the irony is that the more candidates who enter the general election field, the more incentive there is for other candidates to run. Unlikely to win in a three-person race, some candidates could have a realistic chance to win by capturing big states with as little as 26% in a four-person race and 21% in a five-way race. Examining the electoral college is a job in itself, but suffice to say that MPV can work with or without reforming or eliminating the electoral college.

Majority preference voting, with its transferable ballot, has many attributes to recommend it for electing mayors, governors, presidents, etc. It is fair to all political sides, and prevents majorities from splitting their vote. It lets voters express their support for a favorite candidate, rather than being forced to choose the "lesser of two evils." And so voters who select a losing candidate can still see their vote transfer and help elect another candidate. This would dramatically increase our pathetic voter turnout, and, because runoffs and primaries or no longer necessary, elections would be much less expensive.

Why 1996 to introduce this concept?

With the near certainty of strong independent candidates for President this year, and of the greater-than-ever dislike of "politics as usual" and the two major parties, we can expect to see this year:

Obviously, we are not going to be able to institute this reform this year. However, there could not be a more opportune time to illustrate to the voting public how different things can be, and are, in many other countries.

Majority Preference Voting (MPV) is simply having voters rank their candidatesó1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice and so on.

A poll that was conducted in August 1995 for CNN/USA Today asked the following question: Would you favor or oppose the formation of a third political party (emphasis added) that would run candidates for President, Congress and state offices against the Republican and Democratic candidates. The response was 62% favored, and 29% opposed. In a similar poll by The Washington Post in November 1995, a similar question was asked: Would you support or oppose the formation of a third political party (emphasis added) that would run candidates for president, Congress and state offices against Democratic and Republican party candidates? Again, 63% favored, 32% opposed.

People want to have a real choice. If voters really understood what the alternatives have to offer, if they understood that there are simple and sensible structural changes that could be instituted, they would realize how easy it is to have a more effective democracy.

We need to educate the media to ask this question of the votersówould you like to have a variety of choices of candidates that were closer to reflecting your views, and have a realistic chance of electing them? The Reform Party is not for a majority of voters, nor is the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Socialist Party, the Natural Law Party. Nor, apparently, is either the Democratic or Republican party anymore. The questions by the pollsters for the media have posed a suggestive question that implies there is a magical "third party" that could attract a majority of voters. The only one that this could be is "None of the Above," and it is time to begin looking toward the future with hope and optimism. Proportional representation for legislative bodies and majority preference voting are systems whose time has come.

Sample Statutory Language for "Majority Preference Voting"

If there are more than two candidates for __________ {Office}, then the election shall be held by majority preference voting.

SECTION 1: Voting Instructions
Each voter shall place numbers beside the name of candidates to indicate the voter's preferences; that is, "1" for first choice, "2" for second choice and so on. The instructions on the ballot shall read as follows: "Mark you first choice by marking the number '1,' your second choice by '2,' and so on for as many choices as you wish. Use each number only once. Do not skip numbers.

SECTION 2: Ballot Counting
Ballots shall be counted initially according to the first preferences marked on each ballot. If one candidate receives a majority of the total valid votes cast, that candidate shall be declared elected. If at the end of any count, there is no candidate with a majority of the votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes shall be declared defeated and the ballots previously counted for that candidate shall be redistributed according to the next available preference marked on each ballot (that is, for any candidate who has not been eliminated). The count will end when a candidate wins by obtaining a majority of votes cast or is the sole remaining candidate.

If any ballot has no more available preferences, that ballot shall be declared void. Ballots with two of the same number shall be declared invalid when such double numbers are reached. Ballots skipping a number shall be declared invalid when the skipped number is reached.

Carolyn Campbell is Co-Chair of the Arizona Green Party and a Board Member of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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