The U.S. is the only democracy in the world where a presidential candidate can get the most popular votes and still lose the election. Thanks to the Electoral College, this has happened five times, including in 2000 and 2016.
If the U.S. decided to change its electoral system, what are some alternatives?
A common method of electing a president is plurality voting. This is used in Mexico, among many other countries. Using this method, whichever candidate has the most votes after a single round wins.
Plurality voting has the benefit of simplicity. One problem arises, however, when there are several people running for president. If the vote is split too many ways, the overall winner may not actually be very popular.
Another method of electing a president is runoff voting, in which there are potentially two rounds of voting. If someone wins more than half the votes in the first round, that candidate is declared the winner. If not, the two candidates with the most first-round votes face off in a second round of voting.
France uses runoff voting to elect its presidents. A variation of this rule is used in many other countries, particularly former French colonies.
In order to win under runoff voting, candidates need to be broadly popular because during one of the potentially two rounds they need to obtain at least a majority. Consequently, eventual winners are more likely to be responsive to the concerns of a broader segment of the population. In my own research, I find that presidents elected by runoff voting are more likely than plurality-elected presidents to lead governments that respect human rights.
One of the downsides of runoff voting is that it can be expensive, as voters must return to the ballot box a second time. To save money with its presidential elections, Sri Lanka compresses two rounds of voting onto a single ballot, in what is called contingent voting.
On that single ballot, voters rank their top three choices in order. A candidate wins by receiving a majority of first-preference votes. If nobody gets more than half the first-round votes, all but the top two candidates are eliminated.
Then, the ballots expressing a first preference for the eliminated candidates are reallocated according to their second preferences. If a ballot’s second choice was also eliminated, then the third choice is counted.
Like runoff voting, contingent voting ensures the eventual winner is broadly popular, which is important to an ethnically and religiously diverse Sri Lanka.
A downside of contingent voting, however, is that in races with large numbers of candidates, it’s possible for all three of a voter’s choices to be eliminated after the first round. At that point, their ballot would be ignored — as if they had never voted at all.
To allow voters to express preferences without potentially wasting their votes, Ireland elects its president by preferential voting, in which voters are instructed to rank each of the candidates. This method is sometimes referred to as ranked-choice voting.
Like in contingent voting, a candidate can win outright by receiving the majority of first-preference votes. If that doesn’t happen, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, and the ballots with that person listed first are reallocated according to the voter’s second preference.
If there still is not a winner, then the candidate with the next fewest votes is also eliminated. This process continues with candidates eliminated one-by-one until one candidate has obtained a majority.
One downside of preferential voting is that it is much more complicated than other methods. Ballots filled out incorrectly — marking the same preference twice or failing to rank every single candidate, for instance — can be considered invalid, which deprives voters of influence.
A ‘popular’ alternative?
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, currently passed in 15 U.S. states and D.C., is an agreement to award all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the nationwide popular vote. This compact, which Missouri has not yet joined, is designed to only go into effect once enough participating states collectively represent a majority of electoral votes.
Setting aside its legality, if implemented, this agreement would effectively apply plurality rule to U.S. presidential elections. Notably, however, unpopular candidates rejected by a majority of voters could still win.
There are a variety of ways the U.S. could elect its president if it sought to replace the Electoral College. Plurality rule isn’t the only alternative.
Joshua Holzer is an assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Fulton and a resident of Columbia.