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A better way to run US elections

by Gary J Tue Nov 13th, 2007 at 03:15:27 PM EST

I was looking through Daily Kos, when I came upon a thread about Michigan's attempt to move its Presidential primary into January.

Looking at US elections it seems to me that one of the causes of problems is the need to have both a primary and a general election.

Looking at the US Constitution, Congress has the power to legislate a uniform scheme for House and Senate elections. Arguably it could also determine how Presidential elections should be conducted, without needing a constitutional amendment, although the basis for this might not be upheld by the courts.

I would suggest that a proportional representation system for the House and Senate (such as the Single Transferable Vote or an unordered party list) would improve how state delegations to the House were selected. However as Americans do not seem sufficiently interested in this change I am proposing to address the problem of filling single places.

The main reform proposal which Americans seem interested in is Instant Runoff Voting. This seems to mean that all candidates except the first two (or the lead candidate of the first two parties on the list of first preference votes) are eliminated before preferences of the eliminated candidates voters are consulted to determine the final winner. This seems unfair to the candidates eliminated, who might conceivably have broader acceptability than the two who make it to the runoff stage (Chirac and Le Pen say in a comparable European example or crook Edwin Edwards and white supremacist David Duke in a Louisiana gubernatorial runoff).

Extracts from the US constitution and my suggestion is after the fold.

Constitutional provisions

Article I
Section 4
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof;
but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Choosing Senators.

Article II
Extracts from Section 1
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the
United States.

Proposal for Presidential Elections
Each team of Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates on the ballot (as many as care to run from all parties) presents a slate of electors.

The voters of the state rank each team in order of preference. The voter should be free to decide how many preferences to give (unlike the Australian system, which requires a preference for every candidate for a valid ballot paper).

If a team has 50% plus one of the valid votes their slate would be elected. If not the last placed team would be eliminated and any further preferences redistributed. The margin required for victory would be 50% plus one of the ballot papers with a preference for a continuing candidate.

The process would be repeated until a winning ticket emerged.

House and Senate Elections
The same basic system could be used, without needing the complications of a running mate or electoral college members.


  1. Collapses the primary and general election into one election.
  2. Eliminates the need for candidate selection conventions.
  3. Ensures maximum choice for the whole electorate.
  4. Discourages extremist candidates, who could no longer win just by appealing to a majority of strong partisans and becoming the only choice available to the majority of the electorate from their party.
  5. Gives a chance for a candidate with wide acceptability to overcome candidates with strong support from a minority of the electorate.

  1. Slightly more complex ballot paper. British experience suggests that this is not a major problem for the voter (although professional politicians will not like the added power of the voters, so they would probably allege the change would be too confusing).
  2. The need for increased precision in election counts. There are more opportunities for the result to turn upon a  small number of votes than in first past the post elections. I concede there might be practical difficulties in the states with larger populations, so the result might take longer to emerge. The question is does the US want an accurate result established over a few days or weeks or a fast one which recent experienced demonstrates may be inaccurate?

I don't see why they don't just hold the primaries on one day.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Tue Nov 13th, 2007 at 04:46:40 PM EST
That would seem sensible, but the argument used is that the best known candidate and the one with the most money for TV ads would win. There would not be the opportunity for a lesser known candidate to build up support.

There is also special pleading from the smaller states like New Hampshire, that a national primary would ensure that Presidential candidates paid them no attention at all.

by Gary J on Tue Nov 13th, 2007 at 05:04:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One could also hold the primaries in increasing order of state population, allowing for several primaries to take place simultaneously.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Nov 13th, 2007 at 05:13:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes. You would need laws about advertising spending limits and equal time.

Migeru's proposal might be more pragmatic.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Tue Nov 13th, 2007 at 07:42:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, first of all, I think funding of candidates by collective legal entities like corporations and foundations should be forbidden. There should also be a limit to the campaign spending. That would bring along great changes in the system.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Wed Nov 14th, 2007 at 05:56:14 AM EST
You should pass a constitutional amendment requiring all cast ballots to be manually verified and counted by at least two different election officials who can not be members of the same political party. Yes, this will also eliminate the possibility of using electronic voting devices. Yes, that's intentional. Very intentional.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Nov 14th, 2007 at 08:00:21 PM EST
Not "election officials". Volunteers, unpaid. Anyone can get in the room and oversee the counting (an open process). Hopefully these overseers include people from various parties.

Also, as it's done round here in France, two people look at each ballot, one announcing what is in it ; two other people each maintain a count of the votes.

I don't really see what you can take off that procedure and still maintain a fair amount of openness and security about the process.

I believe it's written in the French Electoral Code that people who make a living as magicians and prestidigitators aren't allowed near the ballots :).

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Wed Nov 14th, 2007 at 08:27:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course they should be volunteers! That's what I meant when I said 'election officials' :-P A case of "this is how it's done at home, so that's how it must be done everywhere" syndrome, I guess.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Nov 15th, 2007 at 01:29:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
France may be doing plenty wrong, but I never found much wrong with the way the physical process of voting and counting votes...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Nov 15th, 2007 at 02:36:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I used to be a fan of IRV, but it seems to me now that any voting system you can come up with is going to be manipulated by the various interests. For example, Australia has an IRV-type system with compulsory voting--the sorts of improvements frequently proposed in the U.S.--but also has had a long history of "rorting" in its elections, too.

It seems to me that pretty much any electoral system is going to give roughly the same results. It would be nice to get the money out of politics if you could, but that is not very likely...

by asdf on Wed Nov 14th, 2007 at 08:59:41 PM EST
Electoral rules do affect election outcomes. The exact effect of a change in a particular country may not be completely predictable, but some difference is likely.

A proportional system, with more than two significant parties, would give very different results to a first past the post system. It is up to the voters if there are more than two significant parties. Malta for example manages to combine a two party system with proportional representation.

The Australian system ensures that each electorate gives majority support to its representative. It is thus fairer at the the level of the individual seat. However the overall result may be more distorted than in a first past the post election.

In any non-proportional election system if party A wins large numbers of votes in its strong areas, whilst party B ekes out a lot of narrow victories; it is possible for the party with fewer votes to win control of the House. This happened in the UK in 1951.

The only reason I suggested a preferential system in single office elections was to keep as close as possible to the existing system.

I know that UK MPs are strongly attached to the idea of single member constituencies. This is a wrong end of the telescope effect. Because MPs like being the unchallenged local bigwig and the single member constituency is important to them, they think it is important to the electorate. Experience of multi-member local government wards and the additional member systems in Scotland and Wales strongly suggest the voters do not care.

by Gary J on Wed Nov 14th, 2007 at 10:07:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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