By Steven Hill
Egypt is about to enter another period in which it will attempt to push past its political crisis through democratic elections. A 50 member committee recently drafted a new constitution, and a referendum will be held on January 14-15 as a first step toward holding new presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014. But election experts are concerned that Egypt may be about to repeat the same mistakes as the last presidential election.
“The electoral method used by Egypt in the last presidential election was problematic and led to undemocratic results,” says Rob Richie, executive director of the Washington DC-based FairVote. “In fact, that method may have resulted in the wrong candidate, Mohamed Morsi, winning.”
Lessons from around the world show clearly that the wrong election method can lead to disastrous results. In the United States in the 2000 presidential election, Democratic candidate Al Gore won more votes nationwide than the winner, Republican George W. Bush, but lost the key state of Florida by 537 votes (out of 6 million cast) when candidate Ralph Nader won nearly 100,000 Florida voters (most of whom preferred Gore over Bush). So both the electoral college method as well as splitting the centre-left vote in Florida cost Gore the presidency.
And in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, Hamas won a lopsided number of legislative seats, but closer scrutiny of those election results reveals that Hamas only won their majority because the defective electoral system yielded grossly unrepresentative results. The popular vote was close, with Hamas winning about 44.5% and Fatah winning about 41.5%. Yet Hamas won 56% of the legislative seats and Fatah only 34%. It was a tragic breakdown of the electoral system. If a proportional representation method had been used, Hamas would not have won a majority and would have needed to form a coalition, most likely forming a grand coalition with Fatah, which would have provided a more stable transition.
“These sorts of details matter a lot,” says Richie. “Just as important as the timetable are the rules for how to conduct these elections. Yet, unfortunately, these details are frequently overlooked. That caused real problems in the last presidential race in Egypt.”
In Egypt’s case, during the 2012 presidential election the plurality method used in the first round broke down. There were five top candidates: Mohamed Morsi (who finished with 25% of the vote), Ahmed Shafik (24%), Hamdeen Sabahi (21%), Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (18%) and Amr Moussa (11%). The top two candidates who advanced to the second round runoff were polarising ones, namely hardliner Islamist Morsi and Mubarak regime holdover Shafik. Yet half of the first-round votes went to the other three candidates who were more in the middle of Egypt’s political spectrum.
So the runoff became an agonising dilemma for many of Egypt’s 50 million voters, who were equally wary of Islamist rule or a return to a military-backed authoritarian system. The middle did not hold because, in effect, too many moderate candidates ran and split the moderate vote. Just like Nader spoiled Gore, the moderates all spoiled each other, resulting in none of them advancing to the runoff. Yet if Sabahi or Abouel Fotouh had made the runoff, there is a good chance that either of them would have beaten Morsi or Shafik.
The two-round runoff system is supposed to ensure that the winner has majority support, but it can easily break down in the first round with a large multi-candidate field. Voters are asked to guess which of the multiple candidates might have the best chance to win, which candidate is the “lesser evil,” and to vote strategically for that candidate. But most voters would rather vote with their hearts than their heads, and in any case they could easily guess wrong in a close race.
To avoid those kinds of scenarios, often certain candidates are pressured to drop out of the race so as to avoid splitting the vote. Had either Sabahi, Abouel Fotouh or Moussa dropped out of the race, it’s likely that one of the other moderate candidates would have advanced to the runoff. But pressuring candidates has its own downsides, breeding machine politics and losing the vibrancy and excitement of an inclusive multi-candidate field.
“Fortunately there is a better way than strong-arming candidates or asking voters to guess which candidates have the best chance,” says Fairvote’s Richie. “The solution is to do what the Irish, Sri Lankans and Australians do – adopt a better majoritarian method, such as instant runoff voting.”
With instant runoff voting (IRV), says Richie, the goal is to elect majority winners without worrying about spoiler candidates or split votes resulting in the wrong candidates winning or making it into the final round. And you do that by allowing voters to rank their first, second and third choices. If a voter’s first choice is in last place and gets eliminated, then that voter hasn’t lost her or his vote – their vote now moves to their second-ranked choice.
So voters for fifth-place Moussa could have indicated which candidate they preferred as their runoff choice in case Moussa was eliminated. Those votes then would have counted for those voters’ second ranked candidate, which most likely would have gone to one of the other moderate candidates. The same would apply for Sabahi or Abouel Fotouh voters.
This “instant runoff” method could be used either to finish the presidential election in a single election without a second round, or if a runoff between the top two candidates is desirable to hear those candidates debate their views and policies, it could be used to ensure that the top two finishers in the first round really are those most preferred by all the voters. The goal is to use a method that accurately reflects voters’ true preferences, and elects a candidate with real majority support.
Ireland, Malta, Sri Lanka and India use some form of instant runoff voting (also known as ranked choice voting) to elect their presidents, and London uses it to elect its mayor. Australia uses it to elect its House of Representatives, and some cities in the United States also use it for local elections.
Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself: “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It will be both tragedy and farce if Egypt uses the same defective method for its next presidential election and ends up once again with polarising candidates in the runoff, or a president that lacks broad support.
Richie said: “Using instant runoff voting would ensure that the next president enjoys maximum popular backing, and that voters are liberated to vote for the candidates they really like without worrying about spoilers or split votes.”
Egyptians have fought hard and paid a price for their democracy, and instant runoff voting is a method that has potential to reduce unintended consequences and undemocratic results. It is the electoral method that Egyptians deserve.
Steven Hill is a political writer whose books include 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy and Europe’s Promise. He is the former director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation.