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France's Presidential Election Method is Flawed

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By Steven Hill and Guillaume Serina

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

But a different specter hangs over France today -- that the wrong candidate
will win due to the use 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 really designed for when you have 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 you have three or four candidates winning significant support, the
two round system breaks down and can produce strange results. That is what
is occurring in France today.

Recent opinion polls show Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of his two main rivals,
hovering around the 30 percent mark. Ségolène Royal is at 25 percent and
François Bayrou at 19 percent, with another nine candidates together winning
the remaining 25 percent or so of the votes.

Under the current method, Sarkozy and Royal likely will face off in a
runoff, and polls show Sarkozy winning the presidency. That's the customary
French way.

Surprisingly, however, polls also show Bayrou beating either Sarkozy or
Royal in a head-to-head match. It appears that Bayrou's centrist brand of
consensus politics is the choice of a clear majority of the French. And yet
he will lose, 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 crude runoff
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. Jospins' center-left voters
split their initial support among six other candidates in the first round.
Divided, no single one 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.

Now, as baseball player Yogi Berra used to say, "It's déjà vu all over
again." Bayrou appears to have more overall support than any candidate in
the race. And yet, like Jospin, it's likely he won't make the runoff.

The unfortunate aspect is that Bayrou's 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 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California
co-governing with a Democratic legislature. French voters appear 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 will thwart that future.

It doesn't have to be this way. There's a better method that could be used
to elect the president. It's called "instant runoff voting," and it is used
by Ireland to elect its president because it elects a majority winner in a
single contest. Just as important, it allows voters to state their true
preferences by ranking a first, second, third choice and so on.

With instant runoff voting, if your first choice can't win due to lack of
support, your vote "instantly" 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 IRV.
Al Gore would have benefited from the second rankings of Ralph Nader voters
in 2000, and most likely would have been elected president.

Besides being used to elect Ireland's president, instant runoff voting has
been used in London to elect the mayor, 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 a candidate with a true majority of support to emerge as
the winner.

The real test of any majoritarian method is whether or not the correct
candidate wins, but France's antiquated method fails that test. French
voters deserve a process better-suited for the 21st century. It is time to
modernize.

Steven Hill is the director the Political Reform Program of the New America
Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy"
(www.10steps.net). Guillaume Serina is a contributor to
Le Monde and a
correspondent for
Le Point and other French medias on the West Coast.