Run Off Systems and The French Election

The recent French election was a fascinating example of how two-stage (“runoff”) election systems operate, one that ought to be paid attention to among reformers who may be pushing this system because it’s supposed tendency to produce moderate candidates.

The best treatment of election laws, candidates, and voters is Gary Cox’s Making Votes Count. While the text can be forbidding at points, if you persevere (and ignore the footnotes!), the basic lessons are pretty clear:

  1. Voting systems tend to produce M+1 viable candidates (where M=the number of seats in contention)
  2. Systems may not converge on M+1 candidates if the “second loser” (the candidate with the third highest predicted vote total) is “too close” to the second candidate.

That second statement can be confusing, but reason it through: voters are encouraged to abandon their most preferred candidate if there is another, more viable candidate, who is closer to them than the presumptive winner. For example, according to this logic, Nader voters ought to have abandoned Nader, and voted for Gore, the next most preferred alternative.

But if the difference between Nader and Gore (for example) was within the bounds of statistical error, then there is no “strategic” reason to abandon your most preferred candidate.

Let’s put the lecture aside and look at the recent French election results. A recent NY Times article captures the strategic choice faced by voters superbly: “Whether to vote with the heart of the head.” For leftists, the “head” says vote for Royal, even if the heart may say vote for a far left candidate. Similarly, for rightists, the “heart” may pine for le Pen, but the head says vote for Sarkozy.

And if French voters didn’t read Gary Cox, they knew what happened last time–too many leftists did not vote for Lionel Jospin, and the far right candidate, Le Pen, advanced to the second round.

The 2007 result seems to support Cox’s theory. For a long time, the centrist candidate, Bayrou, seemed to be in a dead heat with Royal, and pre-election polls were having a very difficult time predicting an outcome. But by election day, the leftists all lined up behind Royal, and it looks like more conservative leaning centrists voted for Sarkozy.

One final note: in my own state of Oregon, reformers are pushing for a two-stage election system similar to France’s because, according to the reformers, it will produce moderate candidates at the second stage. France’s last two elections seem to bely that prediction. In 2002, a far right and a rightist candidate advanced to the second stage. In 2007, a leftist and a rightist advanced to the second stage.

As my colleagues here will undoubtedly agree, election reform is a lot more complicated than just changing the ballot.