From the "Non-Majority Rule" Desk: Post-Election Wrap-Up, IRV in Oakland, and Looking to 2012

by Chris Marchsteiner, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published November 23, 2010

The counting and recounting of ballots in the 2010 elections is nearly over. In a final wrap-up blog from the Non-Majority Rule desk, we review the role of so-called “spoilers” in a few more very close elections. We also offer a preview of what’s in store in 2012, starting with the wide-open contest for the Republican nomination, and highlight media attention to a city offering a better means to elect winners: Oakland, with its ranked choice system of instant runoff voting.

We can now say definitively how many U. S. Senate and governor’s races were won with less than 50% without a runoff or instant runoff: 14.

U.S. Senate
• Alaska: McAdams (D) 23%; Miller (R) 36%; Write-In 40%
• Colorado: Bennet (D) 48%; Buck (R) 47%
• Florida: Meek (D) 20%; Rubio (R) 49%; Crist (I) 30%
• Illinois: Giannoulias (D) 46%; Kirk (R) 48%

• Connecticut: Malloy (D) 49%; Foley (R) 48%
• Florida: Sink (D) 48%; Scott (R) 49%
• Illinois: Quinn (D) 47%; Brady (R) 46%
• Maine: Mitchell (D) 19%; LePage (R) 38%; Cutler (I) 37%
• Massachusetts: Patrick (D) 48%; Baker(R) 42%; Cahill (I) 8%
• Minnesota: Dayton (D) 44%; Emmer (R) 43%; Horner (I) 12%
• Ohio: Strickland (D) 47%; Kasich (R) 49%
• Oregon: Kitzhaber (D) 49%; Dudley (R) 48%
• Rhode Island: Caprio (D) 23%; Robitaille (R) 34%; Chafee (I) 36%
• Vermont: Shumlin (D) 49%; Dubie (R) 47%

Our last blog  reviewed most of these races. Two additional narrowly decided governor’s races where third parties may have played the decisive role are in Oregon and Connecticut. In Oregon, Democrat John Kitzhaber beat Republican Chris Dudley by 1.5% even as Constitution Party candidate Greg Kord and Libertarian candidate Wes Wagner secured 1.4% and 1.3% respectively.  In Connecticut, Democrat Dan Malloy earned a 0.7% victory over Republican Tom Foley, with 1.5% going to, independent Thomas Marsh. Meanwhile, Alaska’s U.S. Senate race showed that many of its voters were up to the challenges of a write-in candidacy (a throwback to our nation’s first century of elections, when the government did not print ballots): Sen. Lisa Murkowski came back from her Republican primary defeat to earn defeat her party’s nominee  Joe Miller by 4% -- earning 98% of the write-ins that were cast, although Miller is contesting the results.

Among the House races won by plurality, New York’s 23rd District House race deserves special attention given its history over the past year; Democrat Bill Owens again won a narrow plurality victory, with the Republican vote again split due to a candidate who had dropped out, but still won a significant share of votes. Here’s the background. As reported at the Non-Majority Rule desk last month, Doug Hoffman again was denied the Republican nomination, as had occurred in the 2009 special elections, and again ran on the Conservative Party line. In 2009, Hoffman ultimately displaced Republican Dede Scozzafava, who dropped out – but still earned 5.7% of the vote even as Owens won by just 2.3%. This year, however, Hoffman’s candidacy sputtered, and he dropped out of the race explicitly to avoid splitting the vote. However, his name stayed on the ballot. Almost exactly duplicating the 2009 race, Owens again earned a 2.3% victory, with 6% going to Hoffman.

Down ballot, California Republicans’ one remaining chance to win a statewide race looks likely to fall short in the election for Attorney General. Even though it’s three weeks after the election, California still hasn’t finished counting all the absentee and provisional ballots that arrived by Election Day. After exchanging leads in the early days of counting, Democrat Kamala Harris now consistently leads Republican Steve Colley, although nearly a half million ballots remain uncounted. The latest results shows Harris with 46%, Colley with 45%, and 8.5% scattered among four third party candidates. 

As 2012 approaches, the importance of voting reform to replace plurality voting should be clear. A sometimes overlooked phenomenon, however, is how undemocratic voting systems can skew presidential primary results too. A forthcoming report by FairVote illustrates the dangers of undemocratic outcomes on the Republican side due to how most states allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis to the plurality winner. Newly adopted Republican rules ban winner-take-all allocation before April 1st, but due to the likely fractured results in this wide-open race, that may not prevent a winner who isn’t truly reflective of what most Republican voters want. In 2008, Sen. John McCain’s share of delegates was grossly exaggerated when compared to his actual share of the vote – indeed, he earned his frontrunner status in the key January 2008 contests without ever winning two-fifths of the Republican vote. A passionately-supported, but potentially polarizing candidate like Sarah Palin could win the nomination without earning majorities in many states. Stay tuned for our report.

Finally, not all states relied on plurality voting rules – and not all states want to in the future. The governor’s races in Maine and Minnesota spurred those states’ largest newspapers to propose the instant runoff voting (IRV) form of ranked choice voting , citing its adoption in their local mayoral races– see editorials Minneapolis Star Tribune and Portland Press Herald . As detailed at North Carolina Votes 123, North Carolina held the first statewide general election with IRV in U.S. history. More than 1.9 million voters cast ballots in a 13-candidate vacancy election for a seat on the Court of Appeals. The leader in first choice rankings had only 20% of the vote. The instant runoff count will start next week, with the delay due to North Carolina lacking voting equipment ready for an instant tally. IRV backers highlighted that despite the system’s novelty, more voters cast ballots in the IRV contest than in three of the four remaining races for Court of Appeals. Finally, here’s a link to a can’t-miss PBS Evening News Hour segment on the remarkable race for mayor of Oakland, where councilwoman Jean Quan won the final instant runoff over former state senate majority leader Don Perata.