Is 23% enough to be an Arizona Congressman? Non-majority rules in August 25 primaries in Arizona, Florida and Vermont

by Cathy Le, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published August 26, 2010

This month I have blogged on state primaries held on August 3rd and August 10th about a serious, if often overlooked problem in our politics: non-majority winners in primary elections held with plurality voting. Once again, state primaries on August 25 in Arizona, Florida, and Vermont showcased the problems of low plurality winners—most dramatically in Arizona, where former vice-president Dan Quayle’s son Ben won a fractured primary with just 22.7% of the vote despite controversies about his television ads and personal history. Here’s a recap. 

In Vermont, the Democratic primary for governor was the big story. Five candidates ran in double-digits, with three candidates hovering at 25% of the vote. Though it is too close to call, it looks like state senate president Peter Shumlin will win with a slim margin and take on Republican Brian Dubie in an open seat race. Shumlin is currently just 192 votes ahead of state senator Doug Racine and 493 votes ahead of Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz. In addition, Republicans nominated former radio talk show host Paul Beaudry to run for the U.S. House against two-term incumbent Peter Welch, although 55% of Republican voters backed other candidates. 

Florida’s primary had seven statewide and congressional elections that resulted in winners with less than 50% of the vote. In the Republican primary for governor, the frontrunners were healthcare executive Rick Scott and state attorney general Bill McCollum. Rick Scott ran a self-financed campaign, spending $50.2 million to win with 46%—three percent ahead of McCollum, who was endorsed by several Republicans, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Mike McCalister garnered 10% of the vote, leading one to wonder what would have happened if his 130,059 backers could have indicated their second choice between the top two to decide a more decisive winner. Ironically, McCallister is a supporter of instant runoff voting, which would have accomplished just that. 

The same situation happened in the Republican U.S. House race in the 20th district with the winner decided by fewer than 400 votes; Karen Harrington won with 40%, while Robert Lowry had 38% and Donna Milo had 22% of the total vote. 

In the 24th congressional district, it appears state representative Sandy Adams will narrowly beat Vice Mayor of Winter Park Karen Diebel and steakhouse chain CEO Craig Miller by one percent of each other with her low 30% level of support. Adams will face a potentially vulnerable Democrat incumbent Suzanne Kosmas in the general election and might have chance to win, but it is uncertain if party leaders have elected the strongest GOP nominee since two-thirds of Republicans voters preferred another candidate. 

Among other plurality wins, the Democratic congressional primary in the 17th district was particularly important, as the winner is nearly certain to win in November in this democratic-leaning district. Frederica Wilson won with 35% of the vote against several strong candidates.

U.S. candidates Kendrick Meek (D) and Marco Rubio (R) both won strong majorities in their respective primaries, but their electoral outlook appear more complicated in the future. In the November general election, they will face Governor Charlie Crist, who decided to run as an independent as it became clear he would lose the Republican primary when he fell behind Rubio in the polls. Positioned between the major party nominees, Crist currently is earning a strong share of the vote that usually would go either Republicans or Democrats, making a plurality win incredible likely. There are scenarios for any one of these candidates to claim victory with barely a third of vote to become Senator—and potentially only winning due to a split in the majority vote.  

Like Florida and Vermont, Arizona also encountered candidates who won primaries with less than 50% of the vote. The prime example occurred in the House race in the 3rd district. With John Shadegg (R-AZ) retiring, a crowded field of Republicans sought the GOP nomination. This was because the winner was seen as likely to win the seat since the district leans Republican.

The winner was Ben Quayle, the 33-year-old son of former Vice-President Dan Quayle. Quayle raised well over a million dollars, but his campaign was beset by controversies, including news that he had been involved in local porn websites and his campaign ad declaring Barack Obama to be the worst president in history. Quayle managed to win the primary with just 23%, the lowest winning total in a congressional primary since Congressman Michael Quigley won the Democratic primary in Illinois’s fifth congressional district special election last year.

Other low plurality primary winners in Arizona included Rodney Glassman in the U.S. Senate race with 35% and GOP nominations in the 1st, 5th, and 8th district, where winners were dentist Paul Gosar with 31%, real estate entrepreneur and former state representative David Schweikert with 38%, and military veteran Jesse Kelly with 49%.

The solution to these controversial primaries is simple. Instant run off voting (IRV) would never allow a candidate to win without a majority of the final round vote. IRV is a non-partisan way to ensure the most deserving candidate, one who achieves a majority will win without having to worry about any ‘spoilers’, split vote, or the number of candidates running. 

Stay tuned for FairVote’s upcoming report on low-plurality primaries. 


For more information:

short guide to the four primaries and one runoff held on August 25