France's election flaw

April 25, 2007|By Steven Hill and Guillaume Serina

What if the wrong candidate wins France's presidential election? If the wrong candidate were to win because of electoral fraud - stuffing of ballot boxes or rigging of votes - all of France would be up in arms, and the international media would shine a glaring spotlight.

But a different specter hangs over French voters today: that the wrong candidate will win because of an antiquated method for electing their president.

The current method, a first-round free-for-all followed by a second round between the top two finishers, is designed for when there are two major candidates who are far ahead of the pack. Those two face off in the second round to elect a president with a majority of the vote. But when three or four candidates are winning significant support, the two-round system breaks down and can produce strange results. That is what is occurring in France today.

Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy came in first in Sunday's opening-round vote, and Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, came in second. The two will face off in a runoff May 6, and polls show Mr. Sarkozy winning the presidency. That's the customary French way. Surprisingly, however, pre-election polls showed Francois Bayrou - the third-place finisher - beating either Mr. Sarkozy or Ms. Royal in a head-to-head match. It appears that Mr. Bayrou's centrist brand of consensus politics is the choice of a clear majority of the French. And yet he lost, because France's crude runoff method does not allow voters supporting eliminated candidates to give their runoff vote to their true second choice. Instead, they are stuck voting for one of the top two finishers.

This is not the first time that France has been tricked by its voting method. In the 2002 presidential election, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin placed third and failed to make the runoff, even though he probably was the candidate preferred by a majority of voters. Mr. Jospin's center-left voters split their initial support among six other candidates in the first round. Divided, none of the left candidates could make the runoff, and the reactionary Jean-Marie Le Pen backed into the runoff with only 17 percent of the vote.

The most unfortunate aspect of Mr. Bayrou's loss is that his politics may be just what France needs. Centrism seems to be on the rise all over the world, from the grand coalition in Germany to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's co-governing with a Democratic legislature. French voters appeared ready to make the leap for a candidate who can bridge left and right, creating a new consensus politics. And yet the defective method used to elect the president has thwarted that future.

There's a better method that could be used to elect the president. It's called instant runoff voting, and it elects a majority winner in a single contest. Just as important, it allows voters to state their true preferences by ranking a first choice, second, third, and so on.

With instant runoff voting, if your first choice can't win because of lack of support, your vote immediately goes to your second choice as your runoff candidate. Voters are liberated to vote for the candidates they really like without worrying about "split votes" or "spoiler" candidates. Voters don't have to be frustrated that a vote for their favorite candidate may help elect their least-favorite candidate.

France isn't the only country whose elections would benefit from using instant runoff voting. Al Gore would have benefited from the second rankings of Ralph Nader voters in 2000, and most likely would have been elected president.

Instant runoff voting has been used to elect Ireland's president, in London to elect the mayor, in Australia to elect the national legislature, and in various American cities, including San Francisco. It is a more modern runoff method than the primitive method used in France today because it allows the most popular candidate to emerge as the winner.

The real test of any majoritarian method is whether the correct candidate wins, but France's antiquated method fails that test. Its voters deserve a process better-suited for the 21st century. It is time to modernize.

Steven Hill, director the political reform program of the New America Foundation, is author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy." His e-mail is Guillaume Serina is a contributor to Le Monde and a correspondent for Le Point and other French media. His e-mail is

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