Richie's May 5th Democracy Minute: Pluralities, Majorities and Fair Representation

by Rob Richie // Published May 5, 2011

Video of the day:  Fair voting according to cats. Clever video compares the alternative vote (instant runoff voting) and first past the post (plurality voting).  

Voting thumbnails of the day:  California Top Two race on Tuesday reverses first-round outcome – a more democratic result that won’t be possible in Sept. 13th special election for U.S. House in Nevada. ..UK to vote for regional and local government with non winner-take-all voting methods, and could change method of election for House of Commons. ..Canadian elections remain under microscope. .. Redistricting and recount wars continue.

The (long) minute: What is the goal of an election? To elect representatives to fairly reflect views? To provide a means for people to come together and debate how best to achieve the common good? To establish a government that can make decisions and be held accountable in the next election? To have losers accept that they’ve lost?

It’s a combination of all of these, but voting rules can provide very different weighting to these values.  Classically, the debate has been between backers of winner-take-all elections in which 51% of voters can represent 100% of power and of proportional representation in which 51% elects a majority, but like-minded voters in the minority can earn a seat at the table.

Within winner-take-all elections and one winner, there are three basic options that are workable in contested elections: plurality voting (the most commonly used system in the United States and one that oddly is also called “first past the post” --odd in that there is no post, and the winner can have a very small percentage of the vote); variations of two-round runoff elections, where typically the top two face off and the final round winner is sure to win a majority of those who show up; and variations of instant runoff voting that seek to simulate a traditional runoff in one trip to the polls. Today’s minute reviews news that shows how these differences can play out.

In California, a special election to fill the Assembly District 4 vacancy was won this week by Republican Beth Gaines over Democrat Dennis Campanale, 55% to 45%. The race was a top two runoff. In the first round, Campanale had been the only Democrat running and had led the field with 31.3%, nearly 9% ahead of Gaines with 22.7%. In that first round, seven Republicans ran and together won 69% in this Republican-leaning district, but if the election had been by plurality, Campanale would have won.

With a runoff, however, Campanale lost, as expected. The fact that he made it relatively close speaks to the fact that Gaines is seen as very conservative. She had earned a spot in the runoff with less than 23%, just 1% ahead of another Republican, with five other Republicans trailing them. Was she really the most representative Republican? We don’t know because the system didn’t provide a clear answer – one that instant runoff voting would have answered better. But she was more representative of the district than Campanale, as proven in the runoff.

Contrast California's majority runoff with Nevada, where special election rules for the upcoming U.S. House vacancy election on September 13th are drawing controversy because the election will be a one-round plurality vote. The outcome easily could be like the first round in California's District 4 race– a low-plurality winner who would lose if matched against his or her top opponent. Some theorize the plurality voting rules may help conservative Republican Sharron Angle, but it also might help a liberal Democrat in this Republican-leaning district – just as the same rules helped boost a Republican candidate win in Hawaii's U.S. House vacancy election a year ago (who then lost under more democratic rules in November with the Democratic Party vote no longer split). The roll of the plurality voting dice in September will decide.

This week's elections in Denver also showcase limitations with top two runoffs: runoff elections protect majority rule between the top two and give voters more freedom from "spoilers" in an admirable way, but the abrupt elimination of all but the top two is not as fair as a more gradual elimination that can be done with instant runoff voting. In Denver's city elections this week, the top two candidates in the races for mayor and for clerk and recorder together earned about 60%, with in each race a third candidate narrowly behind the top two. That third-place finisher was potentially “spoiled” by candidates who trailed behind the top three candidates.

California has tried to deal with vote-splitting problems with “top two” rules in new system adopted by voters last year. But as demonstrated by Beth Gaines' election in  the District 4 race -- with her victory tied to her narrow plurality “win” finishing second in the first round ahead of six Repubilcans --underscores that it will rather erratically do the job. Both major parties in California are understandably developing rules to try to boost their favorites before the first round to avoid vote-splitting, as discussed in this article by the California Independent Voter Network. FairVote last year did a policy analysis suggesting advancing more than two candidates from the first round and using instant runoff voting in the final round.

Notable news and links:


  • Washington Post’s “The Fix” on how Colorado congressional redistricting looks headed toward courts.
  • London’s richest man and big Tory donor gives big money to oppose alternative vote electoral reform referendum in the United Kingdom, while The Independent makes its editorial case for a yes, prime minister David Cameron brazenly deceives voters to the end and I have a pro-AV letter in the Financial Times
  • UK voters also will be voting with non-winner-take-all rules in several regions – single transferable vote (or "choice voting") for local elections in Northern Ireland and "mixed member proportional” voting in assembly elections in Wales and Scotland.
  • Canada ‘s distorted winner-take-all elections – Renard Sexton at  New York Times' ,and Kari Chisolm in Blue Oregon
  • Wisconsin supreme court election recount has little impact on margin, but does not inspire the kind of confidence in election administration our voters deserve 
  • Aspen on Tuesday held its city elections with traditional runoff rules after using instant runoff voting in 2009. Voter turnout was way down from the record high in 2009, and all races were won in first round. There was much talk of how to vote strategically in the city council races, as voting for two candidates meant that your second vote counted against your first choice – about a fifth of voters voted for only one candidate. 
And that's our two-cups-of-coffee minute!