Posted Sunday, January 15, 2017 11:33 am
By Rinaldo Del Gallo, III
PITTSFIELD — Having parked in downtown Pittsfield, I recently found a note placed under the windshield wiper of my car: “Thank you for still being a proud Bernie Supporter. We must stick together in these precarious times. Bless you and happy holidays. A fellow Bernie Supporter.” I still have a “Bernie Sanders 2016” bumper sticker on my car, and the writer was moved to reach out to a kindred soul. But “these precarious times” might have been avoided if our electoral system had two fundamental changes.
In this newspaper and the Taunton Gazette, I have written favorably about instant runoff voting (IRV) (articles at DelGalloColumns.Wordpress.Com, “A Better Method for Pittsfield Elections,” (9/25/15) and “Put Instant Runoff Voting on the Ballot,” (11/4/14)). To summarize instant runoff voting (or “ranked voting”) in four sentences: Instead of voting for a single candidate who wins with a plurality (the most votes, even if less than 50 percent), in instant runoff voting, a candidate must win with a majority (over 50 percent). At the ballot, voters rank the candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate reaches a majority, the candidate ranked in last place is crossed off; her/his votes are allocated to the second ranked choice of her/his voters — an “instant runoff.” This process repeats until a candidate has a majority. IRV allows voters to vote their conscience at no cost to the electoral process and other candidates.
The idea is starting to get traction: on Election Day, Maine voters approved instant runoff voting, which will now govern the elections of all state elected officials (legislature and governor) and congressmen and senators, but not the president. While many cities have adopted IRV already, Maine is the first state to do so.
Instant runoff voting prevents vote-splitting among like candidates. Had there been IRV in the Republican primary, I doubt Trump would have been the nominee. There were two main camps of Republican voters: those who supported Trump, and those who opposed him. Those who opposed Trump significantly outnumbered the supporters, which under instant runoff voting would have assured a non-Trump winner.
In those important early voting states, Trump probably would not have been able to attain a clear majority and he would have been ranked lowly by most Republicans that did not have Trump as a first choice. Someone else would have emerged, via IRV, and become the preferred candidate. But the non-Trump votes were instead divided among many candidates, which is fatal in our present plurality system. That, coupled with the fact that Republicans (unlike Democrats) have many winner-take-all primaries, helped make Trump victorious.
The abolition of the Electoral College is a second change that would have kept Trump from the presidency. Even as a child, I thought the system wherein candidates lost elections despite having won more votes was unfair and undemocratic. In 1876, the Democrat Samuel Tilden lost to Rutherford Hayes despite having won the popular vote. (Tilden was born and raised in New Lebanon, N.Y, within the readership of this newspaper.) The price paid for Republican Hayes’ Electoral College victory was the effective end of Reconstruction.
In 1888, Democrat Grover Cleveland lost to Republican Benjamin Harrison (who attended Williams College) despite beating Harrison in the popular vote. When Cleveland won against Harrison in an 1892 rematch, he became the only president to date to win two non-consecutive terms. As we all know, in 2000, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by the largest margin ever by a losing candidate, nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but still lost the Electoral College.
Popular vote compact
While the Electoral College is provided for in the United States Constitution, the effective end of the Electoral College might be achieved without actually amending the Constitution. This could be done through “The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” of which Massachusetts is a member. Under this Compact, member states would have their electors vote for the presidential candidate who won the popular vote. If enough states sign to reach the magical number of 270 electors (the majority), it would be enough to assure the winner of the popular vote the presidency. Enough states have now joined for 165 electoral votes, or 61 percent of what’s needed to override the undemocratic Electoral College.
Turning back to IRV, a requirement of a majority has precedence in the Electoral College itself. While a majority of votes is not needed to win a state’s electoral delegates (Bush took Florida in 2000 with only a plurality of 48.85 percent to Gore’s 48.84 percent), a candidate must actually get a majority of the electoral delegates to become president. Otherwise, the House of Representatives determines the president by choosing among the top three vote getters, with each state getting one vote, a majority yet again being required.
In 1824, Andrew Jackson lost the election to John Quincy Adams despite beating Adams by 38,221 votes nationwide. Jackson also had the most electoral delegates, but he only had a plurality of those votes (29.93 percent). The House chose Adams over Jackson.
So, in these “precarious times,” let’s work democratically together for these changes, to create a true democracy for us all.
Rinaldo Del Gallo is a local attorney whose columns have appeared in newspapers across the country.