Four ways of electing a president – ranked from worst to best

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 2nd November 2020

America’s presidential election is the most famous presidential election in the world. The antiquated American system of choosing a president via an electoral college is also one of the worst methods for choosing a national leader. Since 1788, many other methods have been tried – so I’ve put some of them in order from what I think are worst, to best.

Worst. System. Ever – Electoral College

Americans don’t actually vote for the president, they are voting on what to tell a group of ‘electors’. Each state has a set number of electors based on their representation in the US Congress, the votes cast by Americans tell these electors who to vote for when the electoral college elects the president.

Like much of the US constitution, this bizarre system came out of the compromises needed at the time to create a nation out of 13 disparate colonies. Southern states, with massive enslaved populations, didn’t want to be dominated by northern voters. The numbers of electors each state has was also a compromise between the states. Each state gets one elector for each member of the House of Representatives they have, plus one for each senator. As every state has two Senators, irrespective of their population, voters in smaller states have more power to decide the president than voters in larger states.

We’ve ranked the electoral college as the worst way to elect a president as…

  • While everyone has one vote they aren’t equal, votes cast in Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence than those from California. A basic element of fair elections is one person one vote and every vote being of equal value.
  • While voters in Wyoming have the equivalent of 3.6 votes each. Neither candidate has even visited the state. That’s because most states give all their electors to the winner of that state. Wyoming has voted republican since the 1960s, with large margins in recent years. The 20% of Wyomingite’s who voted for Hilary in 2016 saw their votes go nowhere. Millions of votes are wasted this way.
  • Sometimes the loser goes on to win the election. All first past the post elections have a risk that the team that get the most votes don’t win the election, it happens in America, the UK and New Zealand (before they ditched the system in favour of MMP).

Less terrible. First Past the Post

There is a campaign in America to scrap the electoral college and give the presidency to the popular vote winner. But while that may seem a simple solution, the experience of countries that have a straight first past the post contest for president has been mixed. As we know when using first past the post to elect MPs in the UK, while the loser won’t win, the winner doesn’t need a majority of the vote to win either. In fact, the majority of voters may be opposed to the president.

In the Philippines, their, shall we say, controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte only won 39% of the vote in 2016. In May 1992 Fidel Ramos was elected to be president of the Philippines with only 24 per cent of the popular vote. We’ve ranked first past the post as the second-worst system as…

  • Democracies should generally move in the direction the majority want. A minority of voters shouldn’t be able to steer the country off course.
  • Election results under first past the post are often more to do with electoral politics than voters’ preferences. Rather than trying to win voters round, candidates can try to split opposition voters between multiple candidates.

Presidential elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, the Comoros Islands, Equatorial Guinea, Guyana, Honduras, Iceland, Kiribati, South Korea, Malawi, Mexico, Palestine, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Rwanda, Singapore, Taiwan, Tunisia, Venezuela, and Zambia are all conducted via first past the post.

Getting Better. Two Round System

An easy way to stop candidates winning on less than half the vote is to have a second round of voting with just the top two candidates. France is the most famous country to use a two-round system. The first round of voting is similar to voting in the UK: electors vote for their preferred candidate.

If a candidate gets over half the votes, they are elected. If no candidate receives an overall majority, the second round of voting takes place two weeks later with the top two candidates from the first round.

Here’s why we only ranked the two-round system as the second-best method…

  • The first round has all the vote-splitting problems of first past the post. In 2017, Macron and Marine Le Pen got though to the runoff, which Macron won easily. Le Pen only made it through because the centre right was split between multiple candidates. Ifop-Fiducial polled a hypothetical second round where Macron was up against Fillon (who was 1.3% points behind Le Pen). Macron still won, but only beat Fillon by 52% to 48%. It seems a more popular candidate was excluded, and an extremist let through.
  • There is no guarantee that both candidates to go through will be from different sides of the political spectrum. In 2002 French voters had the choice between right-wing incumbent Jacques Chirac and the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen. The slogan “Vote for the crook not the fascist” became popular on the left…

Two-round systems are widely used around the world. 

Simply the Best. Preferential Vote

The problems with having two separate elections can be fixed with some clever ballot paper designs and counting methods.

Rather than asking people to vote, then come back and vote for a reduced set of candidates, with a preferential vote, voters are asked to complete a ballot paper with numbers next to each candidate. The numbers explain who they would vote for first with a 1, then who they would vote for if their favourite candidate didn’t get though with a 2, who they would vote for if neither got through with a 3 and so on.

When they count the ballots, anyone who has 50% of the first votes wins. If nobody gets 50% the person who came last is excluded and the ballots are recounted in a ‘virtual’ second round. If your favourite candidate is still in the race, you still vote for them. If your favourite has been excluded your vote goes to your second choice. This process continues until one candidate gets half the vote.

We think this is the best way to elect a president as…

  • You can’t split the vote. In 2011, seven people ran for president of Ireland – after four rounds of counting we know that, poet, politician and noted dog owner, Michael D Higgins was the candidate the majority of voters preferred. In 2018 he went on to win on the first round on a landslide.
  • As extremist candidates are unlikely to get second choices, the system tends to work against candidates who are polarising and help those who are broadly liked.
  • Candidates are also incentivised to run less divisive campaigns, as candidates will want to become their opponent’s voters second favourite candidate.

Badly designed electoral systems shape candidates, campaigns and countries. When extreme candidates can win on minorities of the vote under First Past the Post style systems, there is little incentive to appeal to a broader electorate. Instead, elections just become about snatching slim victories and playing the system. It’s not enough to just vote for better people, we need to stop the systems that let unpopular candidates win.

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