Fractured Primaries and the 2016 Congressional Elections

Posted by Haley Smith on September 08, 2016

Tennessee’s August 4th primary featured a particularly brutal battle for the Republican nomination in the Volunteer State’s 8th Congressional district. In an opportunity to claim Republican Stephen Fincher’s open seat, thirteen Republican candidates put their hat in the ring for their party’s nomination, with former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff coming out on top. But, the crowded field of candidates led to highly fractured results, and Kustoff’s victory came with only 27 percent of the vote. The next closest finisher (and race front runner) George Flinn garnered 23 percent of the vote in a primary that only attracted around 26 percent of registered voters.

In a district considered safe for Republicans, the general election in November will likely be a formality for Kustoff. The last four elections have been won by the Republican candidate earning over 60 percent support each time. The results of the August 4th primary essentially mean Kustoff has won election to the House of Representatives with just 3 percent of the voting age population (and 6 percent of registered voters) casting a ballot for him.

In fractured primaries like the one in TN-8, the nominee of the majority party wins the low turnout primary with a small plurality of the vote and is almost guaranteed to win the general election.

The 2016 Cycle

In the 2016 election cycle, 88 elections had uncontested primaries for both Democrats and Republicans. An additional 51 contests lacked a major party candidate on one side altogether. With this lack of competition, the prevalence of fractured results where there is competition is particularly problematic. So far, 32 Congressional races had at least one major party primary with a fractured outcome. In five of those cases (IN-3, MD-4, MD-8, NC-13, NC-12) both major parties had fractured outcomes  meaning the candidate won a small plurality (far less than a majority) of support and advanced to the general election.  

Of those 32 fractured primaries, 15 were for the dominant party’s nomination in a safe district, which means that the likely general election winner advanced through the primary with a low plurality of the party vote. Eleven of these safe seat fractured primaries took place in open seat contests, like TN-8, accounting for 42 percent of the 26 open seat U.S. House contests held in the 2016 cycle.

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Vote Share

What makes fractured primaries in safe seats most concerning is the low percentage of the electorate that actually supported the winning candidate. In Tennessee’s 8th district, North Carolina’s 9th, 12th, and 13th districts, and New York’s 13th and 24th districts, less than four percent of each district's voting age population determined the likely general election winner, since the primary election is the decisive race for these districts.

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Runoff Elections

To help ensure that a primary election does not advance a candidate that most party voters dislike, several states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas, mandate runoff elections for federal primaries when no candidate receives a majority of the vote. North Carolina also used a runoff system up until 2016. Runoff elections, however, are costly and often suffer from even lower voter turnout than primary elections. Sometimes as low as 11 percent  as was the case in Georgia’s most recent runoff election (compared to the 19 percent turnout for the primary election). Alternative election methods, like ranked choice voting, can not only prevent a candidate gliding into office on the back of a tiny pool of primary voters but can also eliminate costly runoffs.

Use of Ranked Choice Voting to Prevent Fractured Outcomes

In a ranked choice voting election, voters rank candidates in order of choice. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has more than half of the vote, then they win  just like any other election. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated, and those voters have their votes instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until two candidates remain. Then, the candidate with the most votes wins.  

Adoption of ranked choice voting in Congressional primary elections not only eliminates the need for separate runoff elections in the states that currently use them but also ensures that each party’s nominee is truly the preferred candidate of the electorate. When so few congressional primaries have any sort of competition, it is important to ensure that when there is competition in the primary the outcome is as representative as possible.

Image Source: Kustoff for Congress

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