Two-round electoral systems: a thought experiment

(AKA, today in anti-clickbait titles…)

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We’re just three weeks away from the first round of the 2017 French Presidential election and I’ve recently been trying to write a journal article about tactical voting, so various things have smashed together in my head to create an electoral system that would never be used but would make for interesting campaigns.

A quick recap for those who don’t know: the French electoral system has two rounds. In the first (taking place on April 23rd this year), all candidates that can get themselves nominated stand and all voters get to vote for one of them. The two leading candidates then advance to the second round (held two weeks later on May 7th) where all voters get to choose between them and the one with the most votes wins. (National Assembly elections, which will follow the Presidential election, follow similar rules, though any candidate with over 12.5% of the vote can remain in for the second round)

In theory, this allows people to vote in different ways in the two rounds. In the first, they can vote expressively for the candidate they want to win, then in the second they can vote instrumentally between the two candidates with the most support. In practice, of course, there’s a tactical element to any first round vote as voters have to consider who they want to see in the second round. For example, suppose there are 4 candidates in the election: A, B, C and D. You really like A, don’t mind B, don’t like C, and actively detest D. However, you also believe that D is very likely to finish in the top two accompanied by one of B or C and A will not have sufficient support to get into the top two. Do you vote for A, or choose to vote for B (who you don’t mind) in order to keep C (who you don’t like) out of the second round? What do you do if C is more likely to beat D in the second round than B, or vice versa? You can see how it gets complicated. (Now imagine having to do that and then choose your second round vote at the same time without knowing who the candidates are, and you’ve got the Supplementary vote system we in the UK use for mayoral elections)

So, my thought was how could you have an entirely expressive first round which would be a way to demonstrate the true level of support for a candidate or party? One way to do that would be to remove the compulsory elimination of candidates between the two rounds. There’d still be two rounds, separated by time, and whoever came top in the second round would be elected, it’s just that any withdrawal between the two rounds would be entirely voluntary on the part of the candidates, rather than enforced by the system. In the example above, you’d be able to cast your vote for A without concern about who made it to the second round as everyone would. In the gap between the two rounds, candidates and voters would be able to make decisions about whether to stay in and/or whether to endorse someone else with everyone aware of what their level of support actually is. The first round would be truly expressive, and the second very instrumental as people decided – based on their knowledge of the first round result – how they could best use their vote to get the result they preferred.

In the case of national parliamentary elections, it would also give people the chance to see how their constituency affects or is affected by the national picture. Imagine if we’d had a system like this in the 2015 UK general election, where a first round would have revealed that the Tories were much more likely to win a majority than Labour, that the SNP were surging and the Liberal Democrats had collapsed. The main campaign would have been entirely different, and people could have chosen their second round vote based on a much more accurate understanding of the national picture than they had from polling.

Now, there are plenty of problems with this as a practical solution, not least the difficulty of pitching ‘we’ll have an election, then we’ll repeat it a few weeks later’ as a practical and workable electoral reform, but for me it does solve an important issue of elections in that it gives voters both an opportunity to vote without tactical considerations and then the opportunity to have much more useful information when they cast their meaningful vote in the second round.

6 thoughts on “Two-round electoral systems: a thought experiment”

  1. I fear you rely too much on politicians being sensible and far-sighted. Second-round eliminations concentrate the mind.

    Imagine that the French presidential elections are held under your system, and Le Pen tops the ballot.

    “My second place shows I am the only contender,” says Macron.
    “My strong third place shows that my support is growing, whereas Macron’s is fading,” says Fillon.
    “My close fourth place in no way represents the true strength of the left in the country,” says Harmon.

    Nobody stands down and Le Pen wins the second round.

    1. “I fear you rely too much on politicians being sensible and far-sighted.”
      Like I said: thought experiment.

  2. I wrote a long comment but something ate it (at my end, I think).

    Anyway, the 12.5% rule in the French National Assembly elections works pretty similar to how you suggest. There are always pacts for parties to step down for each other, usually a big left pact (where left parties stand down for the locally leading leftie) and a big right pact (similar). Centre parties either stand alone and lose (MoDem) or join one of the pacts and lose all distinct identity (PRG on the left, UDF/UDI on the right). The communists are in and out of the left pact (currently out) and FN are never in the right pact.

    But I think the pacts are easier to achieve because they are across multiple seats, and each party is gaining in some places as well as stepping down in others. In an all-or-nothing Presidential election, I think that would be harder to get agreement for.

  3. Another way of doing this whilst still making the first vote ‘meaningful’ would be to have votes in the first round count for one point, and votes in the second round count for 2 points.

    I guess you could call that an ‘interrupted cumulative’ system…

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