Virginia Primary Winner May Not Have Majority Support Among State Dems

Released June 5, 2009

For Immediate Release:
June 5, 2009

Paul Fidalgo, communications director
(301) 270-4616

This Tuesday, June 9th, Virginia Democrats will hold a primary to nominate the candidate for governor that they hope will best reflect the will of the state party's voters. But with three strong candidates essentially tied in the polls, no candidate may come close to winning a majority. The instant runoff system backed by President Barack Obama and used on May 9th in Charlottesville in its "firehouse primary" would better determine which candidate best represents the will of Virginia Democrats.

Public Policy Polling (PPP) recently asked questions that speculated as to who that consensus candidate might be by using the candidates' favorability numbers among their opponents' supporters. Taking into consideration the animosity purportedly felt between the camps of Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran, PPP's Tom Jensen concludes, "It appears for most McAuliffe and Moran voters [Creigh] Deeds would be their second choice…but in a state without runoffs that's not going to do him much good."

"The point is not whether Deeds or anyone else in particular ought to wind up the winner," said FairVote's executive director Rob Richie. "With a plurality-based system, in which the eventual nominee could potentially be elected with a little over one-third of the votes, there is no way to determine who might truly be the consensus choice of Virginia Democrats. Since voter preferences are not taken into account, two-thirds of the party faithful may oppose the winner."

This would not be the case if Virginia Democrats had a majority requirement, as is the case with primaries in many southern states. But due to the typically big drop in turnout for runoffs and extra costs to candidates and taxpayers, a better option is following Charlottesville Democrats' lead in using instant runoff voting (IRV). With IRV, primary voters could indicate on their ballot their second choice. The candidate in third place after tallying first choices would be eliminated, and his supporters' ballots would be divvied up between the two remaining candidates based on who was listed second, producing a winner who had majority support among the voters with a preference between those two candidates -- in other words, someone whom more primary voters could live with. No one would have to come back to the polls for a separate, expensive runoff election.

In addition to Charlottesville's firehouse primary with IRV, the Iowa presidential caucuses use a system similar to IRV in that voters' preferences are taken into account when their first choices are not viable. Those caucuses' winner in 2008, President Barack Obama, was a prime sponsor in 2002 of legislation to establish IRV for Illinois primaries. Many private organizations in fact see the benefit of using IRV to elect their leadership (see a list of highlights here). IRV is also recommended by Robert's Rules of Order for elections in which repeated, in-person voting isn't possible.

This year, Virginia Democrats will have to do without the opportunity to express their preferences beyond their first choice. Without a ranked voting system like IRV in place, the true consensus choice of Virginia's Democratic voters will likely remain a mystery long after the polls have closed.
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Established in 1992, FairVote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates and enlivens discourse on how best to achieve a democracy that respects every voice and every vote. We pursue innovative research, strategic outreach and civic education in order to promote fair access to political participation, fair elections with transparent election administration and meaningful choices, and fair representation grounded in majority rule and proportional representation for all. For more information, visit