The results of the first stage of the French presidential election in April have been widely decried. In that election the anti-immigrant demagogue Jean le Pen scored an upset, beating out Socialist leader Lionel Jospin to enter the runoff against Gaullist candidate Jacques Chirac. Given the widespread loathing for Le Pen, he has essentially no chance to defeat Chirac and become France’s next president. But the election result does provide an important lesson for would-be reformers of the American electoral system.
In the wake of the Bush-Gore election controversy in Florida, numerous voices made themselves heard, as they periodically do, urging us to scrap the Electoral College and replace it with a system in which the president is directly elected on the basis of having to earn a majority of the national vote, without regard to its distribution among the states. Such a system, it is argued, would be more truly democratic. (After all, Gore partisans lament, their candidate received more votes than Bush did.)
What advocates of a system of direct election rarely confront are the potentially undemocratic consequences of the runoff system that their proposal would entail. Without the need to accrue a nationally dispersed voter base, a greater number of parties and candidates would be encouraged to run. The consequence would be an increased likelihood that no candidate would receive an absolute majority of the popular vote — with votes being divided instead among a number of minor as well as major parties, as just happened in France.
Given the need to insure that whoever is chosen as president is in some sense the choice of a true majority of voters, the necessary consequence would be the need of a runoff between the top two candidates. But as the French election demonstrates, there is no guarantee that the top two finishers in the initial election would be those most acceptable to the large majority of the electorate. (None of the three leaders in the election won as much as 20 percent of the vote.) Hence the likely possibility that the runoff election would either pit one major-party candidate against a rival representing a relatively small, extremist group (as just happened in France) — making a mockery of the notion of an election as a genuine competition for popular support — or else, even worse, the possibility that two extremist groups, in a field of a dozen or more parties, could manage to capture the top two spots and thus be the only contenders left in the runoff.
By favoring the two-party system through the need for presidential candidates to attract geographically dispersed support (as well as the “winner-take-all” system for allocating the electoral vote that most states have adopted), the American electoral system has generally served to ensure competitive elections in which the winner, whichever party he belongs to, holds reasonably moderate views and is broadly acceptable or at least tolerable to the vast majority of the electorate. Anyone who believes that direct election of the president would be preferable should take a second look at the results in France.
—David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross College.