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Non-Majority Winners and Partisan Manipulation in the Gubernatorial Races and Primaries

by Chris Marchsteiner // Published September 15, 2010

Building on previous blogs about non-majority rules in primaries and prospective ones in this November’s general elections, FairVote plans a weekly update from the “non-majority rule desk” – with an understanding that there’s a solution available and being put into practice in a growing number of communities: instant runoff voting.

As of this afternoon, USA Today reported that the New Hampshire GOP primary for U.S. Senate that was too close to call this morning has now yielded a victory for former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. Only about 1,000 votes separated the two frontrunners, Ovide Lamontane and Ayotte. However, their percentages of the vote were only 37% and 38% respectively. The significant remainder of the votes was split amongst five other candidates, with one moderate Republican claiming 14%. Ayotte’s endorsement from Sarah Palin could have been the deciding factor in her victory, a testament to the way that plurality voting often produces outcomes favoring partisan extremes.

Republican primaries for nominations in New Hampshire's two U.S. Houser races also were won with low pluralities -- Frank Guinta with just 32% in the first congressional district and Charlie Bass with 43% in the second congressional district And in Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell's upset win over veteran lawmaker Michael Castle in the GOP's U.S. Senate primary was the big news, fellow "outsider" Glen Urquhart won the U.S. House primary by a slim plurality, 49% to 48%.

In Rhode Island, David Cicilline won the Democratic primary for the race for the open first congressional district – one with strong Democratic leanings. Reports emphasize that it is a significant victory because Cicilline is openly gay; nevertheless, it is also important to keep in mind that he achieved a plurality victory with only 37.2% of the vote. Runners-up Anthony Gemma, state representative David Segal, and William Lynch trailed with 23.1%, 20.1%, and 19.6%, making the victory less than decisive. David Segal was formerly a consultant for FairVote and a strong supporter of instant runoff voting (IRV). 

In a lower profile primary for attorney general in New York, a five-candidate race led some voters to cast their ballot strategically to ensure outcomes that are at least acceptable.  Read one voter's take on the race and his straightforward, yet compelling, case for instant runoff voting here.

Turning to upcoming general elections, Republican hopeful Charlie Baker in Massachusetts will have to contend with Democrat-turned-independent Tim Cahill in addition to the current governor, Deval Patrick. The election has grown increasingly negative, as the Republican Governors Association put a great deal of money into advertising attacking Cahill. As reported in a lengthy story in the New York Times this week, the anxiety present in the Baker camp reflects the dangers of the spoiler effect. Gov. Patrick also has to look over his shoulder, as Green Party candidate Jill Stein – one of many leaders in the state who support IRV – is also garnering support. Although voters should be able to choose from more than two candidates in an election, additional candidates essentially “break” the plurality system, forcing voters to choose strategically and often awarding victory to the least preferred candidate.

In the wake of controversies emerging about the Republican nominee for governor in Colorado, a Rasmussen poll shows Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo gaining momentum in the Colorado race for governor. After the Republican nominee, Dan Maes, attempted to have Tancredo removed from the ballot when Tancredo switched from the Republican Party to the American Constitution Party, a state judge determined that he was allowed to stay on the November ballot on Tuesday.  This presumably generated a surge of support among the conservative base. Many Republicans have come out supporting Tancredo over their own nominee. A fierce critic of illegal immigration and a former Congressman and presidential candidate, Tancredo has emphasized his conservative credentials over his Republican opponent.  He is now in second place with a likely 25% of the vote.  Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper is leading with 46% of the vote and Maes now trails with 21%.

The extremely close race for New York’s 23rd Congressional District seat could produce an outcome similar to a special election in 2009 if Matt Doheny secures the Republican nomination over Doug Hoffman. Doheny is currently leading by 600 votes, but Hoffman has refused to concede – and has pledged to run on the Conservative Party line this November even if failing to win the Republican nomination.  In 2009, Hoffman ran simply as a Conservative nominee after being denied the Republican nomination. He generated far more support than the GOP nominee, who eventually dropped out of the race -- but still secured enough votes to help tilt the race to Democrat Bill Owens. Hoffman again may act as a spoiler in the election.

The governor’s race is Maine is emerging as one of the strongest condemnations of plurality voting in an election season where plurality victories are common. Republican candidate Paul LePage won the primary with only 37% of the vote in June. He has recently emerged as a flawed candidate as questions surfaced regarding his wife’s tax exemptions on homes in Maine and Florida, a possible violation of the law. Although LePage is leading according to recent polls, there are five candidates running for the position.  This will almost certainly lead to a weak plurality victory for a candidate who only managed to secure a weak plurality victory in the primary. Such results are far from democratic – but increasingly the norm in Maine, where seven governors have been elected with less than 45% of the vote since 1974.

To top off the litany of problematic plurality races, insincere third party candidates continue to pose problems in many races. Since allegations of voter fraud on the part of Democrats and Republicans surfaced in Arizona and Michigan, at least four more states have cited similar attempts to manipulate the system. In Nevada, a judge ruled Scott Ashijan was allowed to run as a member of the Tea Party of Nevada. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, national and local Tea Party groups are denouncing his run for U.S. Senate, calling him and “outsider” trying to capitalize on the “popularity of the tea party movement.” Conservatives have also speculated that the run will siphon Republican votes, ultimately aiding Senator Harry Reid’s campaign. A similar story is playing out in New Jersey, where Peter DeStefano is running as an “NJ Tea Party” candidate despite a clear lack of support from tea party organizations. In Pennsylvania, there was both a tea party and Green Party candidate with questionable credentials, but they have since dropped out of the race due to the rejection of their questionable nomination papers. Unfortunately, in Arizona a judge has allowed the contested candidates to remain on the ballot despite recognizing that Republicans recruited the candidates “in bad faith with a purpose to confuse the voting public.” However, five of the nominees have withdrawn from the race (including three after the ruling, interestingly). Their names potentially will remain on the ballot anyway.

Responding to these faux candidacy scandals across the country, MSNBC talk host Rachel Maddow recently advocated the use of IRV to negate the spoiler effect of third party candidates, preventing major parties from fielding candidates to manipulate voters. Watch the video here. She makes it clear that, for her, IRV can’t be put into place too soon.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an alternative to the broken plurality system. It is being adopted by states in races across the country seeking to correct the problems resulting from increased partisanship and the spoiler effect. IRV stops voters from having to think strategically about their vote and instead encourages voters to choose their preferred candidate without fear of manipulation or unintentionally helping their least preferred candidate.