Let Americans decide the next president in a runoff

In 2016, President Trump won the Electoral College, while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.
In 2016, President Trump won the Electoral College, while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Getty Images

The National Popular Vote Bill (“the NPV”) is touted as the way to make the popular vote elect the U.S. president without a constitutional amendment. It is a compact among states to allocate all their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate getting the most national popular votes. It would go into effect once enough states joined to capture the majority of Electoral College votes, today 270.

Since 2007, 10 states and the District of Columbia have signed up, accounting for 165 college votes. Some want Florida to join the NPV, and a bill, which died earlier, has been reintroduced (House Bill 367) in the state Legislature to make that happen.

The NPV is a creative, but misguided, effort.

John Koza, the NPV creator, explained the NPV to the host of MSNBC’s “Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell. “So,” O’Donnell responded, “one of the beauties of this is that you do not need all 50 states or even necessarily a majority of states to approve this. You just need enough states to get to 270 electoral votes?” Is making the popular vote determine the winner in this manner when most states haven’t joined the NPV a wise way to mend a divided nation?

I think not.

It would seed more instability in our body politic, not less. For one, the NPV could come unglued after the very first presidential election it was in effect. Some participating states likely would be awarding Electoral College votes to the candidate winning the national but not state popular vote. Voters’ discontent could result in states dropping out of the NPV.

Yes, if the NPV were in effect in 2016, Hillary Clinton would now be president, awarded the majority of Electoral College votes for getting the most, 48 percent, of the national popular votes. But Trump got 46 percent with third-party candidates getting 6 percent. So no one got over 50 percent of the popular votes — that is, the majority. I imagine, having turned the tables, Trump voters (and, surely, Trump) would cry foul saying third-party candidates robbed him of his due victory.

A constructive fix to our presidential election system, I submit, requires making third parties viable rather than spoilers. Only a constitutional amendment instituting a two-round presidential election with a runoff between the top two candidates on the first ballot does that.

Recognizing opposition to relying solely on the national popular vote — some states married (rightly or wrongly) perceive benefits from the Electoral College system — a reasonable compromise is proportional allocation of Electoral College votes within states vis-à-vis state popular voting. This has been proposed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and professors Arnold Barnett and Edward Kaplan. It, at least, better represents popular votes within each state than the current winner-takes-all system.

With proportional allocation in a state with 20 total Electoral College votes, if the Republican candidate got 60 percent of the state popular vote, the Democrat 30 percent, and a third-party candidate 10 percent, then the Republican would get 12 Electoral College votes, the Democrat, 6, and the third-party candidate the remaining 2 votes.

But a constitutional amendment establishing such proportional allocation should also establish a runoff system. With only a single ballot, the presidency would likely be determined only by a plurality (getting the most proportionally allocated Electoral College votes but not the majority) given votes for third-party candidates. A runoff requires getting over 50 percent.

In France’s last two-round presidential election, Emmanuel Macron (spearheading a newly formed party) and Marine Le Pen were the top two candidates after the first round of voting. And the leader of the new party, now President Macron, won in a landslide victory in the runoff. Maybe there is a lesson in there for the United States.

In 2000, we waited five weeks after the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore to reach a final result (after the Supreme Court ruled on Florida’s mess).

Waiting for the results of a runoff election seems preferable.

Frederic Decker is a sociologist, earning his Ph.D. from Florida State University.