Reasons to Reconsider Plurality Voting Connecticut and Minnesota in need of reform

by Cathy Le // Published August 18, 2010

Nominating contests for congressional and gubernatorial races often attract many candidates running to be the nominee for their respective party. When more than two candidates compete under a plurality voting system, elections can be won with only a minority percent of the vote and top contenders or ‘spoilers’ can end up splitting the vote, handing the election to a weak nominee. My recent blog on the Michigan primary further discusses the problems of potentially unrepresentative, low plurality winners.  

Michigan had 8 primaries races (7 Republicans and 1 Democratic) where more than 2 candidates ran, and 6 of the winners failed to capture a majority of the vote. In these six cases, a clear majority did not vote for the plurality winner, and with no majority requirement, there will always be the question of whether these winners are the strongest nominee. Was their victory a result of a vote split between top contenders or the affirmation of their candidacy and campaign?

The recent state primaries results, which were held on August 10th, give more reasons to reconsider plurality voting. The Republican primary results in both Connecticut and the governor’s race in Minnesota bear striking resemblance to Michigan’s controversies. In contrast, Georgia, one of the nine states that implement statewide runoffs in primary elections if candidates fall short of a certain percentage of the vote, had contests for governor on the Republican side and secretary of state on the Democratic side. Both winners were candidates who would have lost under plurality rules.   

In the Minnesota governor’s race, Mark Dayton captured the Democratic primary with only 41%, barely edging out Margaret Anderson Kelliher by 1%. On the other hand, 83,707 votes or 19% of the total vote for Matt Antenna and Peter Idusogie were ignored when instant runoff voting could have distributed their vote between the top two. In fact, the two frontrunners support IRV, which already is used in city elections in Minneapolis, where it is known as ‘ranked choice voting.’

Connecticut had 4 plurality winners in the Republican primaries for statewide and federal office: the Senator, Governor, and House race in the 2nd and 5th district. Outsider Linda McMahon, former WWE executive won the Republican endorsement for Senate, beating former U.S. Rep Rob Simmons and financial commenter Peter Schiff. McMahon self-financed her own campaign, spending $22 million, vowing to spend as much money needed in order to represent the people of Connecticut. Like McMahon, Tom Foley, winner of the GOP nomination for Governor had the financial advantage to outspend his opponents, but it was not enough for either to dominate their respective races, as both won with less than 50% of Republican voters.

Janet Peckinpaugh and Sam Caligiuri won in the 2nd and 5th district with the help of their other two opponents splitting the vote between them, however, it does not erase the fact that 57% and 60% of their party’s voters supported another candidate, respectively. Since Connecticut does not mandate runoff elections, the Republican Party will have to settle for these nominees regardless of their qualifications and ability to take on the their Democratic challengers, both of whom are incumbents.

 Connecticut should be an interesting election, given that the Governor and Senate seat are both open for the first time in a long time, but surprisingly, turnout during the primary was extremely low. Turnout was also low in the Georgia runoff compared to the primary, which almost always happens—take, for example the runoffs held in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Arkansas this year. Though FairVote prefers runoffs over plurality voting, FairVote ultimately sees instant runoff voting as the most effective solution to guaranteeing majority rule and increasing voter turnout. IRV combines the primary election and traditional primary runoff into one simple election, which indisputably is cost-effective and convenient to both the taxpayer and candidates. Taxpayers do not need to pay for a duplicate election while candidates do not need to rush to approach big donors in another round of campaigning and fundraising.

In the Georgia runoff, Nathan Deal has come back to be the Republican nominee for governor, while Georganna Sinkfield came back from a double digit deficit to win the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State. Both of these winners would have lost under plurality rules.

FairVote strongly urges states to reevaluate the pros and cons about plurality voting, because surely, there are too many potentially undemocratic outcomes that can result from single-winner races. More of this analysis on American primary elections and general elections can be found on FairVote’s upcoming plurality report to “Rule by the Non-Majority?”, updating past reports.

For more information:
“Comparing IRV with Plurality Voting”
"Do runoffs produce good governors?" by John Tures
Cathy Le’s blog on the Michigan Primary
Alec Slatky’s blog on “Primary runoffs show need for reform”
Amerisrael’s blog on ““Plurality Wins and Runoff Elections in US Congressional Primary Elections: 1994-2004”