A French citizens’ initiative – the ‘People’s Primary’ – aims to fix democracy

Issued on: 27/01/2022 – 09:24 (France24.com)

Text by:Romain BRUNET

French voters who signed up for an online People’s Primary will begin choosing their preferred presidential candidate in four days of voting starting Thursday via “majority judgement”, a voting system touted as a solution to mounting disillusion with the electoral process.

The Primaire Populaire (People’s Primary) is a citizens’ initiative with an ambitious objective: to unite France’s weak and divided leftist parties behind a single candidate for the April presidential elections. In the process, it will be testing a novel voting method designed to counter mounting voter apathy and disenchantment with an electoral system that leaves many voters feeling left out.

Nearly half a million people registered for the primary, surpassing the organisers’ own expectations. They will choose between seven candidates in a four-day online primary that runs from Thursday morning and wraps up at 5pm on Sunday.

Of those seven only one prominent candidate, Socialist former justice minister Christiane Taubira, is willingly taking part, along with environmental activist Anna Agueb-Porterie, public health expert Charlotte Marchandise and MEP Pierre Larrouturou. But the three other heavyweights – leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo and the Greens’ Yannick Jadot – have all said they will ignore the outcome of the primary, making its first objective – to unite the left – virtually unattainable.

Instead, the primary’s experimental nature could prove to be its most lasting contribution: bypassing the country’s fragmented and discredited political parties and introducing a new electoral system designed to tackle voter abstention and build consensus around candidates with the best shot at winning.  

Under majority judgement, voters express their opinions on each candidate by evaluating them individually instead of pitting them against each other from the start. The idea is to determine the candidate who has the best average grade and is therefore most acceptable to the wider electorate – while weeding out those who are deemed least palatable. 

The system was invented in the early 2000s by French researchers Michel Malinski and Rida Laraki, whose aim was to address growing dissatisfaction with France’s traditional two-round electoral system. At the time, the country was reeling from the shock of the 2002 presidential election, which saw far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen qualify for the second round after winning less than 17 percent in the first. Le Pen came second in a crowded field that had split the leftist vote, winning a place in the final despite being roundly ejected by an overwhelming majority of the French electorate. 

‘Tactical’ voting vs the will of the people

It had long been commonly assumed that France’s two-round voting system enabled voters to choose first “with their heart” (their favourite candidate) and then “with their head” (the candidate preferred between the two finalists). Since the Le Pen shocker, however, pollsters have registered a steady increase in “tactical voting” designed to preempt that type of outcome. As a result, it is increasingly common for voters to cast their ballots in favour of the “lesser evil” even as early as the first round.

“Our current system obliges voters to pick a single candidate who may or may not be their preferred choice,” says Chloé Ridel, a cofounder of advocacy group Mieux Voter (Vote Better), which champions majority judgement. “People end up voting against a candidate rather than for someone, and they can’t say what they think of other candidates,” she adds. “As a result, abstention and blank ballots (essentially, protest votes) are steadily increasing and the winner is elected without the backing of a majority of the public.” 

France’s two-round presidential elections were originally designed to keep fringe candidates at bay and build consensus around the future president, who must garner 50 percent of the vote in the second round to clinch the presidency. However, tactical voting makes the nature of that “consensus” highly debatable; when president Jacques Chirac took a staggering 82 percent of the ballot in the 2002 run-off, that landslide was as much a rejection of Le Pen as it was an endorsement of the conservative incumbent. 

>> French election history: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ‘thunderclap’ shocker

Advocates of majority judgement say it would have prevented such a distorted reading of the will of the electorate. For starters, it would have flagged Le Pen early on as the candidate with the highest likelihood of being rejected by voters. It would also have given a voice to the 42 percent of French voters who backed left-wing candidates in the first round but were left with none in the run-off.

Majority judgement might have prevented similar grievances after the 2017 election, in which Le Pen’s daughter Marine was also roundly beaten in a run-off – this time against newcomer Emmanuel Macron. As with Chirac’s landslide win, the 66 percent of votes that went for Macron in the second round hardly reflected his real level of support across the country. Nor did the electoral system take into account the more than 4 million blank votes cast in protest.

Under the proposed system, “there is no need to cast a protest vote since you can give all candidates a bad rating if you wish to”, Ridel explains. “Moreover, majority judgement obliges all candidates to reach out to the broader electorate, whereas the current electoral system encourages polarisation – since candidates only need to sway about 20 percent of voters to make it to the all-important second round.”

Game changer?

Voters taking part in the People’s Primary will rate each candidate using one of five grades: very good, good, fairly good, acceptable and bad. If the top candidates end up with the same average grade, calculating their “median rating” will determine the winner. For instance, if two candidates both have an “acceptable” average grade, the winner will be the one whose median rating is closest to “fairly good”.

A direct consequence of this voting method is the swift elimination of the most fringe candidates, who may have a small pool of dedicated supporters but are rejected by the broader electorate. Conversely, other candidates who are less divisive can see their fortunes improve dramatically under majority judgement.

Last month, pollster Opinion Way tested both methods with the same sample of voters and ended up with radically different outcomes for the April presidential elections. Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour scored rock bottom using majority judgement, despite winning 12 percent of the vote under current rules. In contrast, leftist Arnaud Montebourg – who has since dropped out of the presidential race – was ranked third out of 13 candidates using majority judgement, despite scoring a lowly 1 percent.

The survey found that Valérie Pécresse, the conservative Les Républicains candidate, and Macron both had the highest average grade (“acceptable”). But Pécresse topped the race thanks to her higher median rating, meaning she garnered more positive grades than Macron.

Comparable analyses have been done on other votes, including the 2016 race for the White House. Using data from the Pew Research Center, which asked voters to rate candidates from “great” to “terrible”, an article on the Open Democracy website noted that the respective frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, got more positive grades but also far more negative grades than their rivals, resulting in a poor “median rating”. The data led the author to conclude that “the US voting process failed because it designated the two ‘worst’ candidates for each party”.

The same article argued that majority judgement might also have resulted in a more nuanced and  informed outcome for the Brexit vote, replacing the binary choice between “Leave” or “Remain” with a series of options – such as “No Deal”, “Leave but with customs union” or “Leave but with single market membership”.

Back in France, Ridel’s advocacy group has recently been questioned by lawmakers tasked with finding ways to modernise the electoral system and boost turnout. In a report submitted to the lower house National Assembly last month, the lawmakers suggested experimenting with majority judgement in some local elections.

Other agencies have already tested the method, including Macron’s own ruling party, La République en Marche, which used majority judgement in an internal ballot to pick party delegates in 2019. Paris City Hall also experimented with majority judgement last year, allowing residents to choose between projects designed and submitted by fellow citizens. Just over 100,000 people took part in the latter vote; with more than four times as many participants, the People’s Primary will mark majority judgement’s biggest test to date.  

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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