Non-Majority Outcomes in Senate Races and Presidential Contests

Posted by Austin Plier on November 10, 2016

As election 2016 outcomes become clearer and vote totals finalize, we can begin to assess the impact that vote-splitting had on various U.S. Senate races and the presidential contest in states. As the fight for control of the Senate played out, it looks as though six Senate races will be won without a majority of the vote.

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Of these six races, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania are particularly close, leaving voters to wonder the impact that independent and third party candidates had on the outcomes. In Pennsylvania, incumbent Pat Toomey (R) edged out challenger Katie McGinty (D) by 1.7% of the vote, while 3.9% of voters cast a vote for Libertarian Edward Clifford, depriving Toomey of a clear majority.  In New Hampshire, Governor Maggie Hassan (D) defeated incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte (R) by just 746 votes, while over 30,000 voters cast a vote for either Independent Aaron Day or Libertarian Brian Chabot. With such a close margin, an instant runoff between the top two candidates might have changed the outcome had voters been given the power of ranked choice voting, which will be used in Maine in 2016. Of course, it is also quite possible that those voters would not have turned out at all if deprived of the opportunity to support Day or Chabot.

In the presidential race, it appears the popular vote nationally and in 11 states will be decided without a majority of the votes. Many of these races were won with razor thin margins as well.

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Naturally, most of these states are key swing states given their competitive nature, further magnifying the fact that the candidate won all of the state’s electoral college votes (with the exception of Maine) without receiving majority support. In New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton won with 47.6% of the vote--just 2,516 more votes than Donald Trump--while Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received more than 30,000 votes. Similarly in crucial Michigan, Trump won with 47.6% with a margin of victory of just 0.3%, while a combined 5.1% of voters voted for someone other than Trump or Clinton.

The partisan mix of non-majority winners in presidential contests and Senate races indicates that neither party benefits from the way our election system is set up--especially since it is harder to claim a mandate to lead without a majority. In an election cycle defined by surprises and an anti-establishment attitude, it’s hard to say in any of these races which way voters would have broke had they indicated their preference between the two leading candidates. Instead, in states like New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan must try to claim a mandate to lead despite most voters voting for someone else, while Republicans are left to wonder what might have been had Ayotte and Hassan faced off head to head. Similar dynamics will apply to key presidential swing states in which Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won with a slim plurality.

At the same time, this year’s non-majority outcomes help illustrate the ways in which voters are penalized by our “vote-for-one” system. Voters of all stripes are deprived of real choices at the ballot because of horse-race analysis like that above. This is unfortunate, as many of these voters might not have been inspired to participate in the first place, had it not been for a third party candidacy. However instead of blaming our election system, third party candidates and voters alike are often the targets of frustration when no candidate has received a majority of the vote.

Voters in Maine grew tired of sacrificing a mandate to lead in order to have real choices on their ballot. After years of bemoaning the role of third party candidates, citizens decided to take action and change the system. On election day, Maine voters voted “yes” on a ballot measure to adopt ranked choice voting for all statewide elections. In doing so, they became the first state to make vote-splitting and the concept of “spoiler candidates” a thing of the past. Other states would do well to follow their lead.

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