Maine example: the ranking system alternative

The preferential voting system ensures a truly representative winner

November 21, 2018 12:15 am | Updated November 24, 2018 03:40 pm IST

The recently concluded mid-term elections in the U.S. received a lot of attention as the opposition Democrats managed to decisively bring about a “blue wave” to capture the House of Representatives flipping at least 37 seats in the process from the Republicans. One such win in a tiny district in Maine was particularly significant. Democrat Jared Golden won 45.5% of the vote. He was runner-up to Republican Bruce Poliquin (46.2%). The rest was won by an independent. But Mr. Golden triumphed in the district after a run-off second round where second preference votes were tallied in his favour, helping him trump his Republican opponent.

The electoral system used exclusively in Maine in House polls features not just a choice of the candidates, but also a preferential ranking of them. A voter can choose just one candidate, but also rank candidates in an order of preference. If a candidate wins 50% of the mandate plus one vote, she is declared the winner. But if the candidate falls short of this threshold, the candidates are ranked again based on their second choices. And if this still falls below the threshold, the contest moves on to the third round, and so on.

Clearly, voters who supported the independent candidate felt that the Democrat was a better choice than the Republican and this helped Mr. Golden win. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had lauded the preferential voting system before it was implemented in Maine, as the ordered voting allows for a true majority choice to emerge, both in the form of the candidate chosen as well as the reflection of the views of the majority, unlike the simple first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. In the FPTP system, the leading candidate can win an election despite winning a minority of the votes. This happened in the U.S. in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency despite winning less than 50% of the vote, thanks largely due to the nature of the electoral college, but also due to third candidates acting as spoilers in several seats in swing States. If given a choice, it could be argued that the voters who chose the third candidates could have chosen Hillary Clinton over a more polarising figure like Mr. Trump.

India too follows an FPTP system. In several States with a high number of effective parties in particular (U.P. and Bihar, for instance), parties which secure less than 50% of the vote tend to win substantive majorities. In the past, this was mitigated at the Central level by the need for coalitions — even if the leading party in the election fell short in vote share terms, it had to get the support of regional parties to go past the halfway mark in seat terms. This rendered the system a truly representative one. In 2014, however, the NDA won the majority of seats despite a vote share of only 38.5% and little accretion of outside support after the election. Even if the preferential voting system is more complicated than the FPTP system, it is worth considering as a just alternative in the longer term.

The writer is Associate Editor of The Hindu

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