Non-Majority Winners and "Spoilers" in Election 2010

Released November 4, 2010

From FairVote's Innovative Analysis series

By Chris Marchsteiner & Rob Richie

Election Day brought big changes this year. Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives decisively, while the Democratic Party narrowly held onto the U.S. Senate. With a majority of the nation’s governors being elected, Republicans made key gains. While the media’s narrative will undoubtedly focus on the winners and losers, our Non-Majority Rule desk will zero in on how plurality voting rules skewed and distorted several elections – and led to some underhanded campaign tactics.

Third party and independent candidates across the nation played a decisive role in many extremely close races. A pattern has emerged of majority victories becoming less prevalent and candidates winning through spoilers splitting the vote. Overall, 8 governor races and 4 U.S. Senate races appear to have been won with less than 50%, including at least two races with less than 40% (plus a third, depending on how many write-in votes ultimately count for Lisa Murkowksi in Alaska). In addition, several U.S. House races were affected by third party and independent candidates.

Here’s a review of races, starting with statewide races.

In Rhode Island’s gubernatorial election, independent Lincoln Chafee beat out Democratic and Republican candidates in a three-way race. Chafee won just 36.1% of the vote over Republican Robitaille’s 33.6% and Democrat Caprio’s 23%. 7.3% of the vote went to 4 other candidates. We don’t know what the result of this election would have been under a majority rule system, but it certainly would have confirmed the fairness of the result.

The governor’s race in Maine went to a candidate who more likely would have lost in a majority system. With 92% of districts reporting, Republican Paul LePage appears to have won with 38.1%. As in Rhode Island, no candidate reached even the 40% threshold; Independent Eliot Cutler had a remarkable surge in popularity in the last two weeks and led for much of the evening. As of now, however, he is 6,779 votes behind LePage with 36.7% of the vote. In a runoff system, the more centrist Cutler almost certainly would have picked up the bulk of votes for Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell (19.2%) and two other independent candidates (6%).

The governor’s race in Minnesota may go to an automatic recount, although Democrat Mark Dayton seems likely to hold onto his narrow lead. With 99% of precincts counted, he leads with 918,351 votes. Independence Party candidate Horner captured 251,300 votes, far greater than the winning margin.

The high-profile governor’s race in Colorado was predicted to be a state without a majority victory due to the dispute over the troubled candidacy of Republican Dan Maes and American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo. The Republican Party turned on Maes as Tancredo surpassed the Republican nominee in the polls, leaving Maes with as low as 5% in some polls. These fears of Maes acting as a spoiler were unfounded in the end: Democrat John Hickenlooper apparently has won a majority victory with 50.5% of the vote. Tancredo followed with 36.9% and Maes did better than many expected with 11.2%. Their combined votes did not overtake Hickenlooper – but Maes did get into the double digits, keeping Republicans from the ignominy of losing major party status.


Turning to the U.S. Senate, Republican Mark Kirk captured Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat by a slim margin of 82,414 votes over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias with 99% of precincts reporting. This vote total is smaller than the 85,492 votes won by Libertarian Mike Labno, and far smaller than the 115,561 votes won by Green candidate LeAlan Jones. These two third party candidates may have played a decisive role in the election’s outcome.

Although a victory for independent write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska is uncertain, she seems likely to have earned a remarkable victory as the first write-in candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat since Strom Thurmond in 1954. The total write-in votes are nearly 7% more than the votes cast for Republican Joe Miller, although only 41% of the overall vote. The New York Times reports that it could take weeks for those votes to be counted, but Murkowski is celebrating a likely victory – albeit one that may well leave her with less than 40% of the final vote.

One of the closest Senate elections was in Colorado, where Democrat Michael Bennet won over Republican Ken Buck 47.7% to 46.8%. A number of third party candidates garnered 5.5% of the vote, and their participation easily could have tipped the election either way. These include: Green Party candidate Bob Kinsey with 2.2%, Libertarian candidate Maclyn Stringer with 1.3%, Independent Reform Party candidate Jason Napolitano with 1.1%, independent Charley Miller with 0.6%, and independent J. Moromisato with 0.3%.

In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio won with a non-majority total of 48.8%. Still, Rubio’s percentage is far higher than many expected, and he likely would have been favored in a runoff against Crist despite polls showing Crist as the overwhelming second choice of Kendrick Meek’s supporters.

The big news from Nevada is that Sen. Harry Reid retained his seat and his status as Senate Majority Leader, but his victory comes in an election with a significant third party and independent presence, most notably from the popular “None of these candidates” option. The Non-Majority Rule desk previously covered voter discontent with Reid and Republican Sharron Angle in the state, but Reid’s majority victory was substantial, apparently winning 50.2% of the vote over Angle’s 44.6%. If his percentage holds, it will only be Reid’s second statewide race won with a majority of the vote.

On the U.S. House side, the Indiana 2nd District race between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Jackie Walorski provides a particularly stark example of the effect of third party candidates. The Democrat eked out a slim victory of 2,452 votes. However, Libertarian candidate Mark Vogel captured 9,445 votes that may well have gone mostly to Walorski in a runoff choice solely between the Democratic and Republican candidates. The Democratic victory was all the more problematic because Democrats, in the final days of the campaign, spent upwards of $15,000 on a mailer to targeted households identifying Mark Vogel as the true conservative candidate in the race.

Looking to similar tactics, although Republicans had fielded faux Green Party candidates to siphon votes from Democrats in Arizona, the plan did not seem to have an effect. In the New Jersey House races the similar ploy by Democrats to steal votes from Republicans appears ineffective. However, Republican Jon Runyan won the 3rd District by only 6,106 votes. In comparison, the three independent and third party candidates in the race won 5,660 votes.

Other U.S. House races results included:

  • With 100% reporting in the South Dakota at-large race, Independent Thomas Marking may have played the role of a spoiler in the race between Republican Kristi Noem and incumbent Democrat Stephanie Sandlin. The seat went to the Republican with 48.1% to the Democrat’s 45.9%; Marking captured 6% of the vote.
  • Minnesota’s 8th District went for Republicans over Democrats by 48.2% to 46.6%. Two other candidates won 4.3% and 0.9%, providing yet another example of a toss-up election in a voting system that adheres to majority rule.
  • New Hampshire’s 2nd District similarly went to Republicans by a 2.8% margin over Democrats with a Libertarian candidate winning 2.7% and an Independent winning 2.2%. 
  • A close race in Massachusetts' 10th District yielded a victory for Democrat Bill Keating. Beating Republican Jeff Perry 46.9% to 42.4%, Keating’s margin of victory is smaller than independent Maryanne Lewis' share of the vote at 5.9%. Two other independent candidates captured 4.8% of the vote as well.
  • With 99% of precincts reporting, California’s 11th District race is one of the closest yet. Republican David Harmer led Democrat Jerry McNerney by 23 votes. The American Independent Party won 8,775 votes, clearly determining the election.
  • A similarly close election in Illinois’ 8th District shows Republican Joe Walsh winning by 797 votes. Green Party candidate Bill Scheurer won far more than this margin of victory with 6,412 votes. Given plurality voting rules, Scheurer effectively handed the election to Walsh – Scheurer ironically is a leading advocate of using instant runoff voting in such elections.


Many more elections played out just like these. With the increasing number of third party and independent candidates, our nation’s elections will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. Serious reform is needed to uphold the will of the majority – either traditional two-round runoff elections or instant runoff voting (IRV) being the most likely options in races for single-winner offices.

IRV, also called ranked choice voting, allows voters to rank their choices, and makes it far more likely to avoid spoilers and have majority winners. On this Election Day in North Carolina, IRV was used in a statewide Court of Appeals race successfully. Of the five races for Court of Appeals, more valid votes were cast in the IRV vacancy election than in all but one, including two traditional two-candidate races that were closely contested. Three county-level judicial elections with IRV in North Carolina also seem to have gone well.  Elsewhere, voters approved IRV in Maine’s largest city of Portland for future mayoral elections, while voters used IRV for the first time in three California cities, including Oakland.

IRV is a pragmatic, tested solution that is being used more frequently as voters grow tired of politicians and judges receiving power through insignificant plurality victories that do little to indicate voter preference. Whether you are registered as a Democrat, Republican, independent, or third party, today should be a day for reflection on the flaws that obstruct true democracy in the United States.

Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.