You are here


What Happened and What We Can Do about It


A number of sophisticated explanations have been put forward for

explaining Trump’s 2016 electoral success.  But the simplest

explanation is straightforward.  First, Trump’s celebrity status and

willingness to be unabashedly politically incorrect gave him traction.

And, secondly, our faulty electoral system, which extends well beyond

the Electoral College problem,  gave him the Republican nomination

and the presidency.  The following piece focuses on the electoral

problem and what can be done in the future to help avoid a similar

electoral disaster.



                      WHAT DID AND DIDN’T HAPPEN


                           WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT


                                                             By John Howard Wilhelm


My late uncle, Casper Wilhelm, Jr,, argued that the two best men to rise to

the presidency in my lifetime were Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, precisely

the two who didn’t go through the normal process for getting to the office as

he pointed out.  The clear implication of his observation was that our system

of nominating and electing a president is seriously flawed as the 2016

presidential election process amply demonstrated.  Aside from our flawed

media and any foreign intervention, the nub of the problem in the 2016

presidential election was two fold.  First, a flawed voting system that extends

well beyond the Electoral College problem.  And second, a serious failure on

the part of our political elite.  It is my contention that we could have and can

do something about this.



                               The Voting System Issue


If we want to design the worst possible voting system we could do three things.

First, we could compel voters to just vote for one candidate thus giving them

the least say possible in our governance.  Second, we could design a system

that rewards voters for not voting for whom they really want but instead for the

better of two other choices.  And third, we could design it so that over time it

operates in such a way as to diminish the number of realistic choices to a

minimum, just two.  This, of course, describes our current system of plurality

voting in which the candidate with just the most votes, not necessarily a

majority, wins.  Plurality voting leads to vote splitting, the spoiler role and the

wasted vote all of which compel groups and voters to coalesce around and

vote for one of two major parties–The Duverger Effect.


This has two important consequences for the issue of having democratic

elections in the US.  First, in almost everywhere the system has existed

the system engenders two-party dominance, the primary reason why the US

has had no credible national third-party presence in over two hundred years

of American history.  And second, it all to frequently leads to poor outcomes

in not reflecting voters’ actual preferences as nearly everyone agrees occurred

in the 2000 Florida presidential election and surely now in the 2016 presidential



At the time of the July 2016 Republican Convention the attitude of most

Republican leaders seemed to be that “For us to try to undo what Republican

voters did in the primaries would be a betrayal to the Republican voters who

made their choices.”


The problem with that was several fold.  First in terms of total votes in the

Republican primaries Trump only had a plurality, not a majority.  Second,

under our system of plurality voting in a multi-candidate election vote

splitting by the electorate not infrequently leads to the election of a candidate

who is unacceptable to the majority voting.  Thirdly, Trump consistently did

much better in open primaries than the closed primaries in which only

Republicans could vote in part due to Democratic voters’ support as Trump

himself acknowledged.  And finally, there seems to have been a concerted

effort by Democratic Party officials to support Trump’s primary elections

which under our system of plurality voting with vote splitting in a field of 17

candidates or less can make a critical difference in the outcomes.


The Democratic primary elections were surely electorally fairer in that many

were not winner-take-all elections.  But under our system of plurality voting

in which a voter can cast only one vote, a credible challenge to a Hillary

Clinton by a Joe Biden could lead to a spoiler role that helps elect a Bernie

Sanders.  That may well have been one reason that Biden decided not to

run. Thus, the upshot of the two-party primaries was that our presidential

primary voting system presented the country with two choices that polls

consistently showed that an overwhelming proportion of the American

electorate regarded as grossly unfit to be the country’s next president.

In short, a choice between very bad and much worse in many people’s




                            Our Political Elite’s Failures


Given the hostile takeover of the Republican primary process by an outsider

and given the clearly unrepresentative results in 2016 of that process,

Republican leaders would surely have been justified in making changes to

assure a genuine open convention in July 2016.  But clearly they put partisan

considerations ahead of the national interest.  Similarly, it should have been

obvious by the time of the August Democratic Convention that Hillary Clinton

given her mendacity about her e-mail issues was a deeply flawed candidate.

That a popular Democratic president who surely could have justifiably raised

the issue of Clinton’s suitability at the time of the Democratic Convention did

not represents another political elite failure.


Even after the conventions it is hard to believe that the political elites in both

parties, members of the administration and members of Congress, couldn’t

have come up with something to give the American people better choices for

president in November 2016 than we had.  That’s because Congress clearly

has the constitutional authority to mandate fairer federal elections.

To get a discussion of that issue I tried to raise it with the then Senator Mark

Kirk and our Michigan junior senator, Gary Peters.  I attempted to contact

Senator Kirk through his reelection staff and Senator Peters as a constituent

through his senatorial staff, to no avail.  It simply was not possible to get

through their staffs to them.  Had I been able to and had they decided to

make a bipartisan effort in the Senate along the lines of the following August

31, 2016 e-mail to an assistant of Senator Peters, it might have made a

difference in November 2016.



       Can a Gary Peters Do Something about Our Political Mess?


Following is the text of an unpublished op-ed which I wish to bring

to Senator Peters’s attention.  In the second paragraph, I allude to

Black’s dicta in Oregon v Mitchell 1970.  I believe that his position

on that is constitutionally correct.  Should the courts agree, it is

clear that we can change the voting system in presidential elections

along the lines suggested in the text below.  I would greatly appreciate

it if you could show this to the Senator with a request to discuss this

with him by phone.  Regards John Howard Wilhelm, Tel. 734/477-9942





Given the Director of the FBI’s statement on Hillary Clinton’s e-mail

situation, isn’t it clear that while she may be less undesirable than

Trump both are grossly unfit to be our next president?  In this

situation, wouldn’t it be appropriate to call upon Congress to pass

legislation this year that would give us more and, likely, better

feasible choices in November?


If they wanted to use it, concerned members of both parties in Congress

have the constitutional authority (see Justice Black in OR v Mitchell 1970)

to give the country better presidential choices without splitting votes and

engendering a spoiler role.  A simple statutory act to institute approval

voting in our presidential election this year would accomplish this.

Under approval voting in multi-candidate elections voters are allowed to

give one vote each to that presidential candidate or candidates they support

with the candidate having the most votes winning in each state.  This essentially

costless voting reform, which could be instituted this year, would eliminate

the wasted vote, the spoiler role, the necessity of vote splitting and give fairer

outcomes in a multi-candidate presidential election.


As part of such a statutory act, Congress could give ballot access to two

candidates nominated by each caucus in the Senate and one candidate

nominated by a group of eminent retired politicians such as former Senators

Boren, Lieberman, Nunn and Snowe and former governors Ridge and Whitman.

The latter could form the basis for establishing a centrist National Renewal

Party which could participate along with other political parties under a fairer

voting system in future elections.  On this, see the latter part of Appendix 7

of the electronic book “Third Parties and Voting Reform: The American

Dilemma” on the website

Voters can assist on this by bringing this possibility to their representatives’

attention.  And they can also help by making a commitment not to vote

for any congressional candidate who cannot support this.



              Institutional Changes Can Make a Difference


It is surely obvious that the current US political mess is very much the result

of its dysfunctional two-party system that is dumbing down the American

people and harming the country.  It is high time for US political leaders in

both parties to do something about this.  Institutional changes in political

structures can have a significant impact on a country’s political system and

its behavior.  De Gaulle’s 1958 French constitution was certainly a case in

point.  It greatly changes the stability and effectiveness of the French

national government with the same French electorate.


If the most important change we can make in our political system is to open

it up to third parties at the federal level, and I believe it is, there is a simple

solution that could be achieved by a simple statutory act by Congress.

Opening up our politics to responsible third parties has three important

advantages.  First, it would give us more, and likely better, choices especially

in presidential elections.  Second, having  more credible parties in our federal

elections would surely lead to more and better policy discussions.  It would

allow us to move away from the type of binary choices our two-party system

seems to engender in a world in which most choices are rarely binary ones.

And finally, such a change would probably avoid  majority control by any

single party in either house of Congress which would surely compel our

current major parties to change their behavior in those bodies for the better.



                How Not to Change our Voting System


Given Duverger’s Law which points out that the system of plurality voting

engenders two-party dominance in a national political market, it is clear

that if we wish to move away from our dysfunctional two-party system we

need to change our voting system in federal elections.  A number of politicians,

even prominent ones, have recognized this but frequently have proposed

very poor alternatives to our system of plurality voting.

Senator Charles Schumer, for instance, had an op-ed piece in the New

York Times on July 22, 2014 titled “End Partisan Primaries, Save America”

in which he advocated using the top-two voting system adopted in California

in 2010.  In his piece Senator Schumer asserted that that system would “undo

tendencies towards default extremism.”  That statement simply ignored both

theoretical and empirical evidence which suggests otherwise.  The top-two

runoff system is notorious, as William Poundstone demonstrates in the

Prologue to his book “Gaming the Vote,” for voting splitting among centrist

(i.e., representative) candidates leading all too often to candidates on the

two extremes getting to the runoff.  The 2012 Egyptian presidential election

with its bloody aftermath is the latest example of this.


Another example of a poor alternative to our current voting system supposedly

endorsed by a number of politicians including John McCain, Barack Obama

and Bernie Sanders is instant runoff voting (IRV) also known as ranked-choice

voting (RCV).  Howard Dean, former Democratic National Committee Party

Chairman and presidential primary candidate had an op-ed in the October 7,

2016 New York Times titled “How to Move Beyond the Two-Party System” in

which he endorsed the Maine 2016 proposition to institute IRV in its state and

congressional elections..  The assertion that IRV will move us beyond the

two-party system is bizarre in the extreme.  Australia has used IRV in its House

of Representatives elections since 1918.  The introduction of IRV in Australian

House of Representative elections in 1918 has done nothing to change two-

party domination at the expense of third parties as the data on elections since

then clearly show.  As far as I can determine that has been the experience of

other countries which use IRV as well.


Instant runoff voting which involves ranking candidates by order of preference,

is opaque, potentially complex and does a poor job of reflecting voters’

preferences in the outcome.  It can exclude the candidate preferred to every

other candidate by a majority of voters early on in the runoff process.


Worse, a candidate who would have won could wind up losing if he or she

garners more first place support in the course of a campaign.  This would

happen because the increased support the candidate receives in a campaign

can change the order in which candidates will be dropped and votes reallocated

in arriving at a result.  In the technical literature, this is referred  to as a violation

of the monotonicity  condition–the idea that if a candidate wins more support

this should not adversely affect his or her prospects.  Work done by Professor

Robert Norman and Joe Ornstein at Dartmouth College suggests that this

pathology can occur in up to a fifth of elections in close contests, precisely

those contests for which IRV is purported to be the most suitable.


The claim that IRV gets rid of the spoiler role is not substantiated by the

extensive study of that system by Sir Michael Dummett in his very fine

book “Principles of Electoral Reform” (Oxford University Press, 1997).

From real world date of ranked-choice elections that Dummett used in

his analysis, it is clear that in IRV elections with a large number of

candidates you could have a number of spoilers without that fact being

transparent.  Worse yet as Dummett has shown in the case of ranked-

choice voting systems like IRV, small changes in preferences between

minor candidates, can, by changing the order in which candidates are

dropped and votes reallocated, lead to dramatic changes in the outcomes,

or as Dummett also put it in commenting on this:


     [IRV] is erratic because, at later stages in the assessment

     process, it gives the same weight to some voters’ second,

     third, or (when there are more than four candidates) fourth

     choices, while never giving any weight at all to some voters’

     second or later choices, according to the accident of which

     candidates are eliminated and in which order.  Dummett, p. 105.


It goes without saying that the results in our system of plurality voting, in

Condorcet elections, in Borda elections or in approval voting elections are

not impacted by such shifts in preferences among minor candidates.  Nor

are these systems, including approval voting, subject to monotonicity



Given the above considerations it ought to be clear, despite some

politicians’ beliefs, that the top-two system and IRV are not workable

alternatives to our current system of plurality voting, especially if we wish

to level the voting field for third-party and independent candidates and

have more representative results in our elections.



                      A Much Better Voting Alternative


If we want to move away from our increasingly dysfunctional political

system, changing our voting system is a necessary, though surely not

sufficient, condition for doing so.  In thinking about voting systems there

are two important considerations to take into account.  First, does a voting

system level the voting field for third-party and independent candidates?

And second, does it have a strong tendency to elect the most representative

candidate given voters’ preferences?  It is my contention that there is a

simple solution for achieving this in our national elections.


A better alternative to our current voting system at the national level could

be enacted by a simple statutory act mandating approval voting in federal

elections.  Under approval voting in multi-candidate elections, voters are

allowed to give one vote each to that candidate or candidates they support

with the candidate having the most votes winning.  This essentially costless

voting reform would eliminate the wasted vote, the spoiler role, the necessity

of vote splitting and give fairer outcomes in multi-candidate elections for

third-party and independent candidates.



                                A Proposed Voting Act


Under the First Amendment to the Constitution Americans have the right to

petition Congress to pass laws.  In the case of improving our political system

a national petition could be circulated to ask Congress to pass an Equitable

Voting Act along the following lines.



                                     THE PETITION


We the undersigned ask Congress to pass the Equitable Voting Act as

proposed by the American Coalition for Election Reform.  We further

state that we intend to take into account our representatives’ actions

on this request in our voting in future elections for the House and





GIVEN the need of the American people for a more equitable voting system

and given Article 1 Section 4 and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution

and the precedent in Oregon v. Mitchell, Congress hereby mandates the

following for all federal elections:


1.  Henceforth, federal elections for president and vice-president and

for members of Congress shall be conducted by approval voting.  Under

approval voting, voters can give one vote each to the candidate or

candidates they support with the candidate having the most votes



2.  Henceforth, five political parties shall be present on the federal

ballot, four occupied by the top four in terms of the number of votes

cast for their candidates for president in the previous election for that

office or by the number of votes cast for party candidates in the previous

congressional mid-term election and the fifth position filled by a nation

wide competition open to other parties and groups.  In addition, no

state shall deny the right of three write-in votes for each office on the

federal ballot.


a.  Following the passage of this act, the Democratic Party, the

Republican Party, the Green Party, the Modern Whig Party, and

the National Renewal Party shall initially appear on the federal



3.  The Federal Election Commission shall be responsible for

administering the nation wide competition for fifth place according to

the number of legitimate signatures on petitions for ballot access.


a.  To assure that access is for a party of national importance,

no signatures from a single state in excess of 20% of the total

collected shall be used in calculating the valid totals for each

petition effort.  The party with the highest number of legitimate

signatures so calculated shall be on the federal ballot.


b.  In carrying this out, the Federal Election Commission shall

set reasonable conditions and a reasonable time period and

deadline for the petition process which are fair to parties and

groups in terms of organizing their efforts and fairly allows the

winning party to effectively participate in the following federal



c.  The Federal Election Commission shall be compensated by the US

Treasury for the costs entailed in carrying this out.


4.  No nominee for president and vice-president of the five political

parties on the federal ballot shall be denied the right to

participate in the national debates held under the aegis of the

Commission on Presidential Debates or any other appropriate entity.


5.  The procedures for nomination of party candidates for federal

office whether by primary elections, by caucuses, or by party

conventions or rules shall, consistent with the observation of

democratic norms, be determined by the political parties themselves.

But in the case of public primary elections for congressional

candidates, the voting shall be by approval voting on each party’s



   a.  All federal incumbents not on any of the official party ballot

lines but eligible for reelection shall be guaranteed their own

ballot line for reelection unless they inform the U.S. Secretary of

State of their intention not to run.  In the latter case, no tallies

shall be made for them nor considered for them in the election results.

The rights of representatives in this matter shall not be prejudiced

due to redistricting following the decennial census.


GIVEN the desire of the American people to elect their president and

vice-president by popular vote and given Article 1 Section 10 of the

Constitution, Congress authorizes the creation of an interstate

compact to allow the allocation of state electors to those of the

candidate with the most popular votes nationwide as long as that

candidate has at least a 50% approval rate nationally.


Could such a petition effort give the American people the tools to get

a less partisan and more ethical political elite in our federal elected

offices?  We won’t know without trying, something that has not been

tried but clearly is sorely needed as the 2016 election well illustrates.