Michigan Primary Results Reveal Flaws in Winner-Take-All System

by Cathy Le // Published August 5, 2010

The August 3rd primary in Michigan had several competitive races. In nomination contests for 15 U.S. House seats and the governor’s race, six of the winners will advance despite falling short of a majority of the vote in the primary. The winners in these plurality elections– the Republican’s gubernatorial primary and House races in the 1st, 2nd, and 13th districts may have been the strongest candidates, but without a majority requirement, we’ll never know.

In the governor’s race, Rick Snyder, a moderate Republican and wealthy businessmen won the Republican primary against more traditional conservative office holders U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Attorney General Mike Cox, and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard. Snyder won only 36% of the votes, meaning 64% of primary voters backed someone else.

The House races in the 1st and 2nd district have not been decided yet, but the top two candidates in each district are only apart by less than 1 percentage point—even as thousands of voters backed other candidates and did not have a chance to indicate their choice between the top two. In addition, incumbent Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-13) lost in the primary by a plurality after holding her seat of 13 years.

What this demonstrates is that when more than two candidates compete in a plurality system, a winner can be decided with less than fifty percent of the vote. This allows outcomes that may not be truly representative of the electorate, as a majority of the voters did not prefer that candidate. Winning by a 1 percent vote difference does not legitimatize the candidacy, but winning by a decisive majority, which plurality systems cannot guarantee, is the only way to produce meaningful and democratic representation.

Primary elections occur in order to select the best qualified candidate to represent the respective party, but with these plurality wins, there is no why knowing if these candidates are the strongest nominee. If anything, Snyder won because of the conservative vote split between Hoekstra, Cox, and Bouchard.

That’s why a number of states require traditional runoff elections in primary elections. This year, such states as Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and South Carolina have held statewide runoff elections for top offices like U.S. Senate and governor. But runoff elections in primaries nearly always end with low turnout, along with taxpayers expenses and campaign finance demands. FairVote supports instant runoff voting as the most efficient means to uphold majority rule and provide genuine voter choice.

For now, though, Michigan voters will have to live with these nominees, and party leaders will have to hope they are the strongest nominees they have elected. But they can consider changes in the future, as should other states. Further examples that put a spotlight on the problems of plurality elections will be highlighted in FairVote’s upcoming plurality report to “Rule by the Non-Majority?”, updating past reports. The study will analyze American primary elections and general elections won with less than 50%. Stay tuned as the FairVote team updates the page with data and research from the 2004, 2006, 2008 U.S. Federal Elections.

Past FairVote's plurality reports:

"Rule by a the Non-Majority? Plurality Winners in American Elections"
"Majority and Plurality in U.S. Gubernatorial Elections"
"End Majority Rule"