A Better Way to Choose Presidents

Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Supporters of Emmanuel Macron celebrating his victory in the French presidential election, Paris, May 2017

Our recent essay “The Rules of the Game: A New Electoral System” [NYR, January 19] provoked thoughtful responses from many readers—in letters to The New York Review, in blog postings and columns, and in private communications. We are grateful to the Review for giving us the chance to reflect on some of the ideas that came up, and also to say something about the French presidential election.

Our essay proposed two improvements to US presidential elections. First, in both presidential primaries and the general election, we would replace plurality rule (in which each voter chooses a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he or she falls short of 50 percent) with majority rule (in which voters rank candidates, and the candidate preferred by a majority to each opponent wins). Second, we would reform the Electoral College so that nationwide vote totals rather than statewide totals determine the winner.

Currently, all but two states rely on both plurality-rule voting and a winner-take-all system to award Electoral College votes: the candidate with the most votes, no matter how far short of a majority, wins the state and gets all of its electoral votes. By contrast, two states, Maine and Nebraska, use plurality-rule voting but a proportional system to award Electoral College votes. In either case, however, plurality-rule voting is seriously vulnerable to vote-splitting, which arises when candidate A would defeat candidate B in a one-on-one contest, but if candidate C (who appeals to some of the same voters as A) also runs, then A splits the vote with C, giving B the victory.

Vote-splitting has had a profound influence on many presidential elections, for example, in 2000, when Ralph Nader took votes from Al Gore, enabling George W. Bush to win; in 1992, when Ross Perot cut into George H.W. Bush’s support, allowing Bill Clinton to prevail; and in 2016, when Republican candidates such as Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz divided the mainstream Republican vote in the early primaries and thus gave outsider Donald Trump a path to the nomination.

In view of the unhappy history of plurality rule, some readers have suggested instead using runoff voting, another well-known voting system. Under runoff voting, each voter again chooses a single candidate, but if no candidate gets a majority, the two top vote-getters face each other in a second round. This is the method used for electing presidents in France, but as French history shows, it too is highly subject to vote-splitting.

On April 23, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen finished first and second in the first round of the French election, and as a result faced each other in the May 7 runoff. However, most available evidence shows that if…


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