America’s Obsolete Election Laws Could Easily Produce President Trump

America is in serious danger because of our continued reliance on 18th Century voting methods.

Thanks to our “first past the post” election laws that only allow voters to express one choice in the ballot box, there is a significant chance that a grossly unqualified narcissist, Donald J. Trump, will be the Republican Party nominee for President in 2016. And, thanks to the same rickety election methods — coupled with Electoral College, which creates a strong bias in favor of GOP candidates, allowing them to win the election despite losing the popular vote — nominee Trump will be a serious threat to win the White House.

Rob Richie, longtime Executive Director of the invaluable organization “Fairvote.org” (formerly “Center for Voting and Democracy”), shows how our failure to let voters vote by ranking their choices is winnowing the GOP field to Trump’s advantage.

OregonPEN readers who want to better understand how RCV (ranked choice voting) works can find sample elections or even create and experiment with their own at the Fairvote site.

Below Richie’s essay is a round-by-round breakdown of how the GOP nomination fight would change if GOP voters could have ranked their choices instead of being restricted to just on. Based on surveys of 1,000 GOP and independent voters, the survey shows just how different election results are when voters can rank their choices instead of being limited to just one.

This fact is especially important for Oregon, where the Oregon Constitution in Article II already expressly permits use of ranked choice voting:

Section 16. Election by plurality; proportional representation. In all elections authorized by this constitution until otherwise provided by law, the person or persons receiving the highest number of votes shall be declared elected, but provision may be made by law for elections by equal proportional representation of all the voters for every office which is filled by the election of two or more persons whose official duties, rights and powers are equal and concurrent. Every qualified elector resident in his precinct and registered as may be required by law, may vote for one person under the title for each office. Provision may be made by law for the voter’s direct or indirect expression of his first, second or additional choices among the candidates for any office. For an office which is filled by the election of one person it may be required by law that the person elected shall be the final choice of a majority of the electors voting for candidates for that office. These principles may be applied by law to nominations by political parties and organizations.

 Without an Instant Runoff, Trump Favored to Win GOP Nomination

Posted by Rob Richie, Executive Director, Fairvote.org

Last night Donald Trump received harder body blows than ever before in a Republican presidential debate, but it may be too late for those seeking to stop his run to the GOP nomination.

After Trump’s lopsided victory in the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday – following his big wins in primaries in the diverse states of New Hampshire and South Carolina – only three scenarios could possibly deny him the nomination: 1) an unlikely sea-change in the preferences of his supporters; 2) an even more unlikely reduction in the Republican field to just one opponent before March 15; or 3) an impossible entry into an alternate universe where ranked choice voting was being used in this year’s primaries.

As far as changes in the minds of the voters, tonight’s GOP debate was likely the last big chance for that to happen. Polls consistently show that Trump’s voters are by far the most loyal and sure of their choice. Absent a bigger stumble than any last night or fresh information that affects voter opinion, at least a third of the GOP primary electorate is likely to keep backing Trump.


The second and third scenarios, based on when the field might be reduced to only two candidates in lieu of having an instant runoff with ranked choice voting ballots, are the most problematic for our representative democracy. With our current plurality voting rules, Trump’s success depends less on what most voters want than on the vagaries of whether certain candidates drop out. It also means that representative outcomes depend on forcing out candidates who often have important perspectives and loyal supporters.


By the Numbers

Want some evidence? See this review of every poll we found where the pollster asked questions that allowed head-to-head comparisons and often asked who people would prefer if the field were reduced to the three frontrunners (Trump and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz). Keep an eye on a few facts:

  • Trump leads in the plurality choice by at least 10% in 11 of the 13 non-Iowa polls, yet trails in the head-to-head comparison to Cruz and/or Rubio in nine of those polls.
  • Trump wins the head-to-head contest in just four of the 16 polls, but leads in the three-way contests in 12 polls, including all in which he starts out at least 10% head and all but two outside of Iowa.
  • In all 16 polls, Rubio and Cruz close the gap between the plurality choice and the head-to-head comparison, and they close the gap between the plurality vote and the three-way comparison in all but one poll.
  • Outside of New Hampshire, Cruz generally leads Rubio in head-to-head before February but since Iowa Rubio generally has done better.

Review of PollsText is bolded when Trump trails
Feb. 24-25, 2016, Florida poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump leads Rubio (52% – 38%) and Cruz (62% – 30%)
[Rubio defeats Cruz 60%-26%]

Three Way
Trump 51%, Rubio 33%, Cruz 11%

Plurality Vote
Trump 45% , Rubio 25%, Cruz 10%

Feb. 14-16, North Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Rubio (43% – 49%) and leads Cruz (43% – 42%)
[Rubio defeats Cruz 42%-29%]

Three Way
Trump 37%, Rubio 26%, Cruz 26%

Plurality Vote
Trump 29% , Cruz 19%, Rubio 16%

Feb. 14-16, national poll (NBC/WSJ)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (40% – 56%) and Rubio (41% – 57%)
[No Rubio-Cruz comparison]

Three Way
(Based on 2nd choice allocation) Cruz 32%, Trump 30%, Rubio 26%

Plurality Vote
Trump 26% , Cruz 28%, Rubio 17%

Feb. 14-15, South Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump leads Cruz (48% – 38%) and Rubio (46% – 45%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 47% – 37%]

Three Way
Trump 40%,  Rubio 28%, Cruz 22%

Plurality Vote
Trump 35%, Rubio 18%, Cruz 1%

Feb 4-8 and Jan. 21-25, national poll (FairVote/College of William and Mary/YouGov)
Note: Comparisons rely on rankings – more than 90% ranked all 11 candidates

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (49% – 51%) and leads Rubio (54% – 46%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 57% -43%]

Three Way
Trump 43%, Cruz 32%, Rubio 25%

Plurality Vote
Trump 35%, Cruz 22%, Rubio 13%

Feb 2-3, national poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (41% – 47%) and Rubio (40% – 52%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 46% – 40%]

Three Way
Trump 33%, Rubio 34%, Cruz 25%

Plurality Vote
Trump 25%, Rubio 21%, Cruz 21%

Jan 26-27, Iowa poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (47% – 40%) (no Trump-Rubio comparison)
[No Cruz-Rubio comparison]

Three Way
Trump 36%,  Rubio 25%, Cruz 31%

Plurality Vote
Trump 31%, Rubio 14%, Cruz 23%

Jan 18-19, North Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling

Head-to-Head
Trump leads Cruz (49% – 41%) and Rubio (52% – 37%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 47% – 32%]

Three Way
Trump 43%, Cruz 27%, Rubio 18%

Plurality Vote
Trump 38%, Cruz 16%, Rubio 11%

Jan 9-13, national poll (NBC/WSJ)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (43% – 51%) and leads Rubio (52% – 45%)
[No Cruz-Rubio comparison]

Three Way
Trump 40%, Cruz 31%,  Rubio 26%

Plurality Vote
Trump 33%, Cruz 20%, Rubio 13%

Jan. 8-10 Iowa poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (37% – 54%) and Rubio (45% – 46%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 59% – 26%]

Three Way
Trump 32%, Cruz 38%, Rubio 22%

Plurality Vote
Trump 28%, Cruz 26%, Rubio 13%

Jan. 4-6 New Hampshire poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (39% – 46%) and Rubio (40% – 52%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 42% – 35%]

Three Way
Trump 36%, Rubio 34%, Cruz 19%

Plurality Vote
Trump 29%, Rubio 15%, Cruz 10%

Dec. 15-16 national poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump leads Cruz (45% – 44%) and Rubio (54% – 38%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 48% – 34%]

Three Way
Trump 42%, Cruz 26%, Rubio 22%

Plurality Vote
Trump 34%, Cruz 18%, Rubio 13%

Dec 10-13 Iowa poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (34% – 55%) and Rubio (45% – 49%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 59% – 30%]

Three Way
Trump 31%, Cruz 39%,  Rubio 24%

Plurality Vote
Trump 28%, Cruz 25%, Cruz 14%

Dec. 4-9, 2015, national poll (Economist/YouGov)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (47% – 53%) and Rubio (47% – 53%)
[No Rubio-Cruz comparison]

Three Way
No 3-way poll question

Plurality Vote
Trump 35%, Rubio 18%, Cruz 13%

Dec. 5-7 North Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump leads Cruz (48% – 41%) and Rubio (53% – 42%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 48% -35%]

Three Way
Trump 41%, Cruz 27%, Rubio 24%

Plurality Vote
Trump 33%, Cruz 16%, Rubio 14%

Nov. 30-Dec 2, New Hampshire poll (Public Policy Polling)

Head-to-Head
Trump trails Cruz (41% – 44%) and ties Rubio (45% – 45%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 43% – 37%]

Three Way
Trump 35%, Rubio 32%, Cruz 22%

Plurality Vote
Trump 27%, Cruz 13%, Rubio 11%

Polls Reinforce Trump’s Perception as a Winner

Reviewing this history, it’s crystal clear that the 2016 nomination contest would have been dramatically different if pollsters had regularly asked and touted head-to-head comparisons and contests had been held with ranked choice voting. Even those polls would have been different, as part of Trump’s appeal has been the perception that he’s a winner – and polls showing his plurality lead reinforced that image, and have led Republican voters to say (including in FairVote’s YouGov survey) that Trump was the strongest, most viable candidate. Trump’s loss in Iowa quite possibly would have been followed by defeats in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the whole trajectory of the race would have been different. 

This is not to badmouth Trump. He’s playing by the rules of the game, and his tactics might well have been different with different rules. But is a warning shot to the major parties and state legislators that our current primary voting rules make fair outcomes far too dependent on individual egos – both those of the candidates and of the funders of Super PAC donors who can single-handedly sustain a candidate.


Give Voters More Choice, Stronger Voice in Elections

It doesn’t have to be this way. This Sunday, the Oscar for Best Picture will be chosen by ranked choice voting – an “instant runoff” ballot that avoids vote-splitting and ensures that the majority choice wins once the field is reduced to two. Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for elections by mail, ranked choice voting is used in a growing number of elections, including in American cities like Minneapolis (MN) and Oakland (CA) and in other nations like Ireland (for president), Canada (for leaders of the major parties), New Zealand (mayor of Wellington and choice of flag in a recent national referendum) and United Kingdom (for mayor of London and party leaders). In fact, several Republican members of the Utah legislature were selected in ranked choice voting elections to fill vacancies.

Republican primary voters are ready for it as well. In our collaboration with the College of William and Mary on a national YouGov sample of 1,000 likely Republican and independent voters, we found that more than nine in ten chose to rank all 11 Republican candidates, which helped provide a clear insight into the dynamics of the race. Not only that, but 57% said they would like to see RCV for presidential primaries, including 72% of those with an opinion, including more than four in five millennials.

For the moment, though, the race is Donald’s Trump’s to lose – even if he continues to often fall short of majority support.