Election Wonk: Growing trend of plurality wins in governors' races Can we counter plurality wins with ranked choice voting?

by Lindsey Needham, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published May 7, 2012

Mark Dayton of Minnesota won the governorship in 2010, despite winning only 44% of the vote.


In 2010-2011, a staggering 28% of the nation's 39 races for governor were awarded to a candidate who failed to win at least 50% of the vote. Though these candidates were able to win a plurality of the vote among a slate of candidates, it's possible that a second-place finisher would have won the election if a one-on-one runoff had been held. When so many state executives are placed in power without the expressed consent of the majority, we have to question whether our system successfully functions to deliver the will of the people.

In fact, FairVote's analysis of gubernatorial elections shows that this trend has increased steadily, decade by decade, since the post-World War II era. What used to be a rare occurrence in governor's races has now become common practice in a lot of states. While only 11% of gubernatorial elections since 1946 were won with less than a majority, that percentage has jumped from 5% of races in the late 1940s to over 20% in the past decade.  While no general election was won with less than 35% of the vote, we're getting closer: over the last 20 years, eight governors won with less than 40%.



States have varied significantly in the proportion of elections resulting in a non-majority winner. Alaska, for instance, has held 14 gubernatorial elections since it became a state in 1959, and eight of those elections (57%) awarded the governorship to a candidate lacking a majority of the vote. Eleven states, in contrast, have never sent a non-majority winner to the governor's mansion.

                            States with Most Non-Majority Wins                       States with No Plurality Wins          

Dividing the states into the four regional classifications designated by the Census (Northeast, South, Midwest, and West), there is another glaring disparity: northeastern (17%) and western (14%) states have a much higher occurrence of non-majority wins and make up a combined 65% of all gubernatorial plurality wins documented in this study. Meanwhile, the South, which accounts for 32% of states in the country, constitutes just 14% of the country's plurality wins since 1946, and only 5% of the state's gubernatorial elections ended in a non-majority winner.


Interestingly, fourteen sitting governors (28%) have been elected to a term in the state's highest office without a majority in a general election race - previous studies by FairVote show that governors also regularly win office with less than 50% of the vote in a primary. Nine gubernatorial candidates since 1946 won the governorship with a mere plurality not once but twice. Almost all of these governors won with a plurality in back-to-back elections, but Walter J. Hickel of Alaska has the distinction of winning two terms as governor without a majority in non-consecutive elections (1966 and decades later in 1990).



Will Problems in Maine and Minnesota Lead to a Solution?

Two states have fallen into a particular rut with regard to electing a governor without a majority. Minnesota's last four gubernatorial elections (and last five out of six) have resulted in a non-majority winner, while the last six of seven gubernatorial elections in Maine have ended in plurality wins. Maine is a frequent offender of non-majority winners, as 38% of the state's gubernatorial elections were delivered to a candidate with a plurality, and nearly a quarter of gubernatorial elections went to candidates with less than 40% of the vote. Winning percentages for Maine governors include 38% in 2010 and 2006, 47% in 2002, and 35% in 1994.

With so many high profile plurality elections in Maine and Minnesota, there is little surprise in all the talk surrounding the instant runoff voting form of ranked choice voting (RCV) in these states. RCV simulates series of runoff elections based on voters' preferences until a candidate receives a majority of the vote. Without forcing taxpayers to pay for multiple elections, RCV ensures that a candidate never takes office over the majority's strong opposition. It also alleviates concerns for the "spoiler effect," which often plagues states with significant independent voices, such as Maine and Minnesota - it is nearly certain that more than one governor in both states has been elected only because the majority vote was split between two or more like-minded candidates.

While RCV has yet to be implemented for the highest office in these states, there has been progress in these state's largest cities. Minneapolis first used RCV for municipal elections in 2009, and St. Paul voters used RCV for the first time in November of last year. When officials in Portland, Maine were considering a voting system to transition away from mayoral appointments, they opted for RCV for its first mayoral election in 88 years - and the system earned wide praise.

Non-majority wins in gubernatorial elections used to be an anomaly, but a growing trend demonstrates a need to reevaluate our electoral processes. Municipalities have shown that RCV works, and it behooves us to consider alternative systems to ensure majority victories for the state's highest office.