Presidential election with distribution (or Even troubled democracies can offer us good ideas)

There may not seem to be much that Americans can learn from Nigeria about how to conduct elections and democracy, but even troubled democracies can offer valuable lessons. In fact, the more troubled democracies are precisely the ones where the political engineer’s craft is most likely to be applied, and from their efforts we may be able to draw more general propositions and political-reform ideas. Such is the case with Nigeria’s method of reconciling federalism and presidentialism.

Those in the USA who like the regional/federalist implications of the electoral college but who recognize the inferiority of the state-by-state winner-take-all method used here currently should take note of the “distribution requirement” used in Nigeria.

In addition to a nationwide plurality, to be elected president of Nigeria a candidate must have obtained a minimum of 25% of the votes in at least two thirds of the subnational units of the federation (there are 36 states and a capital territory).

Variants of distribution requirements can also be found in Indonesia and Kenya.

One aspect of Nigeria’s rule that should not be emulated is the requirement that the runoff be repeated if neither candidate has met the distribution in the second round.* If the distribution cannot be met in either of two rounds, it is unlikely to be met in a third, and thus the rule sensibly should allow the result to be definitive in two rounds. Indonesia and Kenya do not have this feature, meaning that they encourage distribution by requiring it in order for a candidate to be elected in the first round, but their runoffs are by simple majority.

A potentially useful innovation on this rule might be to permit a candidate ranked lower than second in overall national first-round votes to be the vote-leader’s runoff opponent if he or she had a better distribution (however defined) than the runner up.

If a distribution requirement were to be considered for future direct elections of the US President, what should the requirement be? The vote threshold in the minimum number of states would need to be much higher than the 25% (of whatever number of states) to have any effect. The idea would be to discourage candidates from campaigning primarily in a few big states that would be sufficient to secure a national plurality (the fear of opponents of reform**) while simultaneously eliminating the incentive to campaign primarily in a few “swing” states (one of the main flaws of the current system).

Despite the potential strategic and practical benefits of a reform proposal along these lines, I have never seen a distribution requirement even mentioned in debates on reforming/abolishing the US electoral college. Let the debate begin right here in this orchard!

* Thanks to Jonathan for correcting an earlier error here (and also for noting that the other African country with a distribution requirement is Kenya, as the revision here now states). The value of peer review!

** I do not believe it is a justified fear, only that it is expressed by proponents of the status quo. (As earlier plantings in the electoral college and national popular vote block have made clear, there is evidence that even in some smallish states, the legislatures are not buying that argument. Does that mean distribution is unnecessary, even strategically? Let’s see how many other small/medium states agree to pass NPV before answering that.)

Final remark on Nigeria: As I note in a separate planting earlier today, the distribution requirement is not likely to matter in this year’s election. In fact, the election could turn out to be a debacle, with the opposition divided and having faced alleged fraud in the recent state elections. The problems of this current electoral cycle in Nigeria are in no way connected to the distribution requirement, which was an innovation of those who engineered the country’s first presidential constitution (in the 1970s) and were looking for ways to alleviate the regional conflicts that had led to the collapse of the post-independence parliamentary system amid secession and civil war.

0 thoughts on “Presidential election with distribution (or Even troubled democracies can offer us good ideas)

  1. The number of rounds is limited to three. Under article 134(5), if neither of the candidates in the first runoff obtain the required distribution, the second runoff is by simple majority. This is probably an unnecessary exercise given that, absent extraordinary circumstances, whoever got the most votes in the first runoff will win the second.

    BTW, the other African country with a distribution requirement is Kenya, not Tanzania. The latter country uses a straight majority-runoff system.

    [Thanks, Jonathan. I will correct these matters.–MSS]

  2. I know it’s an unhappy precedent, but didn’t Calhoun argue for concurrent majorities in presidential elections in the 1830s?

  3. Calhoun argued for concurrent majorities in Congress as a means to protect the interests of slaveholders. This is the first I have seen of any possible Calhounian proposal for presidential elections.

    But note that a distribution requirement is not concurrent majorities (defined as a majority overall and majorities in one or more sub-constituencies).

    A distribution requirement need not require a majority in any constituency, and those in actual use require only a given threshold (not necessarily even a plurality) in a specified number of sub-constituencies.

  4. Towards the end of his life Calhoun argued for a dual executive:

    ‘How the constitution could best be modified, so as to effect the object, can only be authoritatively determined by the amending power. It may be done in various ways. Among others, it might be effected through a reorganization of the executive department; so that its powers, instead of being vested, as they now are, in a single officer, should be vested in two — to be so elected, as that the two should be constituted the special organs and representatives of the respective sections, in the executive department of the government; and requiring each to approve all the acts of Congress before they shall become laws.’

    Not quite a distribution requirement, but close.

  5. The Calhounian executive would be like that of Cyprus (though it has not been functional since the division of the island): Two “co-presidents,” one elected by the Greek community and the other by the Turkish. Technically, the latter was called the Vice President, symbolizing the Turkish minority status. However, either one had the authority to exercise a veto.

  6. As we discussed recently, I have been thinking about this since the Mexican election aftermath (and an associated paper of yours). Although one hesitates to use the terms “reform” and “realistic” in same sentence in the US, I tend to think (and F&V readers correct me if I’m wrong) that this is a rather practical idea to consider — at least in the long run. A distribution rule should provide greater assurance to EC supporters than NPV (by avoiding the urban dominance scenario) while still preventing the EC anomalies and the “swing state” phenomenon. In fact, the spirit of the pro-EC view seems even better embodied by the distribution requirement. From a perspective of institutional traditionalism, is its distance from the original rule greater than the shift to direct election of Senators?

  7. Given the actual distribution of voters among states would a distribution requirement be neutral between the two parties? If not (I’m assuming it would be more likely that a Republican candidate would succeed in the first round) wouldn’t a distribution requirement be in danger of questioning the legitimacy of future Democratic presidencies.

    When Bush was elected in 2000 the Republicans produced any number of talking points to the effect that the EC was not designed to reflect a popular majority, although it’s been reported they expected to win the popular vote and lose the college so their prepared talking points all ran the other way. I think it’s a real concern, in an already overheated politics with a constitution whose 200 year old drafting contains a lot of ambiguities (guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc etc), that you’d end up with people arguing that first round distributed (Republican) presidents were legitimate and second round undistributed (Democratic) presidents were not.

    If the distribution requirement is argued as window-dressing to make popular election palatable then it’s likely to backfire when someone picks up that it favours one party. If it’s being argued as a principle, then it cannot just confirm the biases of the current system.

  8. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  9. Northern Ireland has an echo of the Cypriot dyarchy, with its assembly being divided into two sections, and Members having to pick one when they first sit.

    Reading Calhoun, I find I always have to resist the temptation to scrawl sarcastic ad hominems in the margins (or type them using MS Word Comments). The fellow was a genius, and very perceptive if you take his words at the level of general principle, but when I remember he was concretely arguing to protect and preserve the institution of slavery, I feel like going a tu quoque on statements like “a democratic, federal republic […] excludes classes, orders, and all artificial distinctions” by adding “and slaves aren’t a ‘class’?”

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