Of Campaigns and Crosswords: Pluralities as Poor Political Reflections

by Paul Fidalgo // Published October 4, 2007
A FairVote Innovative Analysis

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Facts in the Spotlight

Gubernatorial general elections won without a majority between 1990 and 2006: 44

Currently serving governors elected at one time without a majority: 16

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Elections are like Scrabble. Winning requires strategy, a command of language and a sense of your opponent's weaknesses, there are very often more than two players, and it doesn't hurt to pull a seven-letter bingo from out of nowhere for a 50-point bonus (wait, I think that last one is only in Scrabble).

But elections and Scrabble are also similar in what it takes to be declared the winner. In Scrabble, even when there are four players, there's no expectation that the winner should have a majority of all points, just more than anyone else. The same, very often, goes for elections. Officials can be elected with less than 50% of the vote, so long as they have more votes than their opponents. And hey, if it's good enough for Scrabble, it's good enough for government, right?

Minority rule and accountability - Of course, there are few leadership positions doled out to the winners of board games - in elections the stakes are very real. When an election can be won with a mere plurality (less than 50% of the vote) it stands to reason that more than half, a majority, voted against the winner and may not be happy with the results. In board games, we can accept "first past the post." In a democracy, the goal should be majority rule. Otherwise, the principle of accountability is lost: if more than 50% don't want an incumbent returned to office, that majority shouldn't lose just because it happened to divide its vote between two or more candidates.

Non-majority winners occur more often than you might think: Between 1990 and 2006, 44 gubernatorial elections have been won with mere pluralities. These pluralities can be relatively high, sometimes scraping the 49 percent mark. But often, and especially in the case of strong third party candidacies, governors take office with vote percentages in the 30s, such as the 2006 reelections of incumbents John Baldacci of Maine (with 38%) and Rick Perry of Texas (with 39%), whose lower pluralities were in part the result of two strong independent candidacies in both races.

Party nominations for governor are particularly vulnerable to plurality wins as multiple candidates are the norm. In Maine's close fought three-way race for the 2006 Republican gubernatorial nomination, for example, the primary was won with barely 39% by conservative State Senator Chandler Woodcock, who many believed was a weaker general election candidate than would have otherwise been nominated had the vote not been split three ways.

A means to consensus - Candidates taking office with less than a majority begin their terms with far less political capital with which to pursue an agenda than if the majority had supported them. Very often, plurality winners may well have been the consensus choice of the majority, but the current system offers no way for voters to express an inclination for candidates other than their first choice. If states used instant runoff voting (IRV), however, voters would be able to rank candidates in order of preference. If their first choice (say, a strong independent candidate) did not have enough first-choice votes to compete, their second choice candidate (someone closer to their political viewpoint than the other remaining candidates) would automatically receive their vote. Using IRV, voters can rest assured that whomever does take office has the support of the majority.

Primary pluralities - Plurality winners do not pose a danger to gubernatorial legitimacy alone. Presidential primaries are a constant reminder that successful candidates are not always the consensus choice. Take the 1996 New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, where Pat Buchanan won the contest with a mere 26%, while an absolute majority almost certainly would have preferred Bob Dole or Lamar Alexander. If trends continue, the 2008 GOP Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will be won with a small plurality as well (with recent polls showing frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani in the mid-20s in Iowa). Even the Democrats' current battle over Iowa seems locked in a three-way tie between the front-runners, all in the low 20s. Can a win with such a small number ever truly reflect the will of the majority? And can we count on results truly reflecting voters' preference if they have decided their first choice can't win and don't want to "waste" their vote?

The power of preference - These problems are eliminated, however, when voters can rank their choices, expressing preferences for other candidates if their first choice doesn't make the cut. That kind of power can mean a lot to all sorts of voters, from those who back the Democrat who scores a close third place in Iowa, to the supporter of candidates, as Chris Dodd has put it, "competing with the margin of error."

One more difference between success in board games and elections: in Scrabble, it takes a seven-letter word to score a bingo. For elections, we need only three: I-R-V.

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To learn more about instant runoff voting, you might enjoy the recent Christian Science Monitor commentary by our chairman John Anderson, the 1980 independent presidential candidate.

You can also see a new video prepared for cities using instant runoff voting in North Carolina for the first time this fall.

For more general information on IRV visit fairvote.org/irv, and read more about plurality elections throughout US history right here.

Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.