Presidential Elections, "Survivor"-style
Could the format of a television show solve the problem of partisan polarization and avoid presidential elections being a match between two candidates most voters would prefer not to be in contention?
Imagine an entirely different way of electing the president, one modeled on the TV show Survivor. You know the basic concept: individuals are eliminated one at a time until only the winner remains.
There might be better ways to elect the president—although not the one we currently use, which (as discussed previously in a Common Ground Democracy column) prevents voters from electing the candidate they most prefer. As we continue to watch this year’s election unfold, Common Ground Democracy will explore other alternatives besides this one. But a Survivor-style system for presidential elections has a couple of virtues worth considering. First, it’s a method that’s familiar to many Americans, and it makes intuitive sense: one sensible way of choosing the best option among several is to eliminate inferior options one at a time. Second, given the currently hyper-polarized nature of American politics in which voters often care more about defeating a candidate they intensely dislike rather than electing a candidate they admire, a Survivor-style electoral method is structured so that the candidate least objectionable to a majority of voters is the winner.
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You may have heard the aphorism about democracy often being about the need to choose the lesser of two evils. Well, a Survivor-style electoral method operationalizes this principle and applies it to situations where there are more than two candidates in the race.
Here’s how a Survivor-style system could work for presidential elections. Suppose, for example, there is a preliminary procedure to winnow the full field of presidential wannabes down to five finalists. We can defer considering the details of this preliminary procedure until later. Once the field is narrowed to these five finalists, after some more campaigning (and presumably at least one debate with these five on the stage) the Survivor-style method would have voters express their preferences among these candidates in a way that would eliminate them one at a time.
There are two ways that a Survivor-style system could have voters do this. The first would be to use ranked-choice ballots, which would make clear that voters should list the five candidates in the order they want them eliminated, not in the order in which they like them from most to least. This form of ranked-choice voting is called the Coombs method, after the scholar who proposed it, to distinguish it from other forms of ranked-choice voting (including the one currently used in Alaska, Maine, and elsewhere, also known as instant runoff voting). Mathematically, the Coombs method can be constructed to yield the same result whether voters rank candidates from best to worst or worst to best. Either way, the Coombs method eliminates the candidate who is ranked the worst by the most voters, and then redistributes the ballots that ranked that candidate the worst to whichever other candidate was ranked as next worst on the ballot, and then repeats this elimination-and-redistribution process until only one candidate remains (who is the winner). In this way, it replicates the Survivor process but does it all at one time by having voters cast a ranked-choice ballot. But if the basic goal of the electoral system is to emphasize the Survivor-style process of elimination, it would seem to make sense to design the ballot—including the instructions for voters when casting them—so that voters rank the candidates in the order they want candidates to be removed from consideration.
The other way would be even more like the Survivor show itself. In four separate electoral “episodes” between September and November, voters would cast a simple ballot indicating which candidate they most want eliminated from contention. Whichever candidate received the most of these elimination votes would be the one eliminated, and then the electoral “show” would move on to its next elimination episode with some more campaigning (and perhaps an additional debate with one fewer candidate on the stage) in between. After the first three of these electoral episodes, only two candidates would remain, and so in the fourth and finale episode, the voters would pick the winner between these two.
As already indicated, the Coombs method of ranked-choice voting is essentially the same as separate-episodes Survivor-style elimination process, except that by using ranked-choice ballots it is able to compress that process into a single round of voting. It is understandable why many voters—and likely all election administrators—would prefer using the single-event Coombs method than the separate-episode version of the Survivor-style process. Many voters would prefer not to have to go to the trouble of casting four separate ballots and, after the five finalists are announced, would know without needing any further information their order of preference among these five candidates. Election administrators undoubtedly would prefer not to conduct four separate elections when they could hold only one.
But there are countervailing considerations for why it might be desirable to let voters cast four separate elimination votes spaced a few weeks apart, rather than forcing them to cast a single ranked-choice elimination ballot. Many voters would benefit from seeing some more campaigning by the remaining candidates after each one is eliminated. The dynamic of the race changes after a candidate drops out. The remaining candidates come into focus more clearly for many voters, especially when there is a new debate with one fewer candidate on the stage. Having the field narrow from five, to four, to three, to two, to a single winner over the course of nine weeks from September to November would empower voters to update their views of the candidates as the race tightens down to the wire. It might also generate more enthusiasm, and thus higher turnout, as Americans enjoy the entertainment value of participating in a competitive process (as evidenced, for example, by the many who fill out March Madness brackets and follow along as teams are eliminated).
Moreover, vote-by-mail would make it possible for voters to cast each round of elimination votes from the comfort of their homes. Including prepaid postage for the return envelopes would assure that no voter is disenfranchised for financial reasons. In the future, a version of online voting might become sufficiently secure that voters could cast their ballots that way, without even relying upon the U.S. Postal Service. If a Survivor-style election were conducted entirely by mail or over the internet, it wouldn’t be significantly more burdensome for either voters or administrators if the elimination process occurred over several separate voting episodes rather than in a single round of ranked-choice voting.
In any event, there doesn’t need to be an either/or choice between these two different ways of conducting a Survivor-style presidential election. It could be both/and, meaning that voters could be permitted to cast either a single ranked-choice ballot or a series of one-by-one elimination votes spaced several weeks apart. Voters whose minds are made up in advance and who don’t want to bother with casting four separate ballots could employ the convenience of ranked-choice voting. (These voters could also be permitted to cast at the same time an early vote for other races on the ballot in November.) Other voters, who’d prefer to watch some more campaigning and debate before deciding which candidate they’d like to eliminate next can be given that option as well.
How would the five finalists be chosen? The simplest method would be to have the Federal Election Commission (or other government agency) administer an online signature-gathering process for all registered candidates, and any candidate who collects by July of a presidential year signatures from one percent of all registered voters in the United States would appear on a preliminary ballot in August. Second, all registered voters in the U.S. would be entitled to cast a single vote for whichever candidate on the preliminary ballot they most want to qualify for the fall’s Survivor-style competition, and the five candidates who receive the most votes nationwide would be the ones to qualify.
What about the role of political parties, their summertime nominating conventions, and the series of presidential primaries that contribute to determining the delegates at those nominating conventions? The parties could still hold their conventions and pick a nominee, but those party-based procedures would determine neither which candidates qualify for the August preliminary ballot, nor which five finalists advance from the vote in August to the fall’s Survivor-style election. Instead, a party’s nomination would be aimed at convincing voters to pick which single candidate the party hopes would survive to the end. Parties could continue to hold primaries as part of their internal nomination process, or not, as they so choose.
A key point here is that even if only one candidate in a party receives the party’s nomination, more than one candidate from the same party can be among the five finalists. This gives all voters, not just party members or whoever participates in the party’s nominating process, the opportunity to express their relative preferences among all the candidates in the running. Thus, the winner of a Survivor-style presidential election could very well be a candidate unable to win their own party’s nomination.
Consider how this year’s presidential election might have unfolded if a Survivor-style system had been in place. Trump and Biden surely would have been among the five finalists. So too, most likely, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The fifth is harder to predict, but it could have been another Democrat—like Gavin Newsom—who didn’t feel constrained against running in this more open system, since Biden would be on the ballot anyway (and undoubtedly his party’s nominee as well). Let’s assume that for the sake of illustration.
With these five finalists, we can imagine that Biden and Trump would be the first two candidates eliminated. Both have extremely high unfavorable ratings, even if they each have their strong supporters, and most Americans don’t want to see this year’s election come down to a choice between the two. We can also imagine that DeSantis would be the one eliminated next, since he too is a polarizing politician who provokes considerable opposition among voters on the left (even if not as much as Trump). Thus, the Survivor-style presidential election would come down to a choice between Haley and the non-Biden Democrat, which is exactly the kind of election most Americans would prefer instead of a Biden-Trump rematch.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to put in place a Survivor-style system for this year’s election, which is already underway. But maybe disappointment with the current process and the Biden-Trump rematch it forces upon voters despite their wishes to the contrary, when the Survivor-style system would do just the opposite, will spark an effort to adopt this kind of reform for future presidential elections. It wouldn’t take a constitutional amendment: if states that collectively have at least 270 Electoral College votes were to adopt this system among themselves, the winner of the Survivor-style election according to all the voters in these states would have a majority of Electoral College votes and thus win the presidency.
Some might instinctively resist the idea that television entertainment might provide the electoral method that eventually saves American politics from its current curse of hyper-polarization. But the current Electoral College system is so terrible, and crisis of American democracy is so dire, that we ought to consider any idea that has a chance to work.
The familiarity that Americans already have with the Survivor show and its procedure just might mean that it’s the most promising way to improve presidential elections in time for 2028.
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