The New York 26th District Special Election: The Spoiler Effect in Action

by Katherine Sicienski, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published June 13, 2011

As debate subsides on the impact of the recent special election in New York's 26th congressional district, it's time to step back and examine more fundamental dilemmas within the election process as revealed by this election. 

This Western New York district, spanning the rural suburbs between Buffalo and Rochester, has a Partisan Voting Index (PVI) rating of R+6 - with this PVI, an open seat would be expected to go 56% to 44% in favor of the Republican candidate and a strong Republican incumbent would generally win by landslide. So when the 3-party race suddenly became competitive, it garnered national attention. The main players were Republican Jane Corwin, Democrat Kathy Hochul, and now-Tea Party candidate Jack Davis, with a Green Party candidate also on the ballot (Ian Murphy). On May 24th, a total of 107,564 residents voted with the following results:

Kathy Hochul (Democrat, Working Families): 47.31%, 50,890
Jane Corwin (Republican, Conservative): 42.30%, 45,501
Jack Davis (Tea Party): 8.98%, 9,658
Ian Murphy (Green Party): 1.05%, 1,128
Blank & Void/Scattering: .36%, 387

None of these candidates achieved majority support from the district, and there have since been cries of the spoiler effect from candidate Jack Davis. Interestingly, Jack Davis was a Republican until 2003 when he was removed from a fundraiser headlined by Dick Cheney, at which point he registered as a Democrat and ran as the party's nominee for the NY-26 Congressional seat three times from 2004-2008. This party switch complicates his spoiler effect, but it is still possible to examine the possible ramifications of his candidacy.

Had this election been conducted using instant run-off or ranked choice voting, the lowest ranked candidate would be removed and the votes redistributed to the second choice on those ballots. Ian Murphy, receiving only 1% of the vote, received the endorsement of the Progressive Democrats of Western New York, so it is most likely that those who supported him would rank Democrat Hochul second on their ballot. This would make the second round totals:

Kathy Hochul (Democrat, Working Families): 48.35%, 52,018
Jane Corwin (Republican, Conservative): 42.31%, 45,501
Jack Davis (Tea Party): 8.98%, 9,658
Blank & Void/Scattering: .36%, 387

There is still no majority candidate, so Jack Davis, as the next lowest ranked candidate would be removed from the tally and his votes redistributed to his backers' next choice ranked on their ballot. However, there are multiple scenarios for this redistribution. The first suggests that his Tea Party candidacy diverted support from Republican Corwin, and the majority of second preferences would be for Corwin. This has been posed by many, but it is also worth including Davis' previous notoriety as a Democrat. Doing relatively well in three Congressional elections as a notable Democratic candidate, all of his supporters may not have preferred Republican Corwin. The Huffington Post recently identified polling information from just prior to the election that suggests that for every two Republican Davis supporters, there was one Democratic supporter. This leaves us with two outcome scenarios:

1) Most of Davis' supporters prefer the Republican Party:

Kathy Hochul (Democrat, Working Families): 48.35%, 52,018
Jane Corwin (Republican, Conservative): 51.29%, 55,159
Blank & Void/Scattering: .36%, 387

In this scenario, Corwin receives a majority of the votes and would win the IRV election.

2) For every 2 Republican supporters, David had one Democrat supporter. Therefore one third of Davis' votes are transferred to Democrat Hochul and two thirds to Republican Jane Corwin.

Kathy Hochul (Democrat, Working Families): 51.35%, 55,237
Jane Corwin (Republican, Conservative): 48.29%, 51,940
Blank & Void/Scattering: .36%, 387

In this scenario, Hochul received a majority of the votes and would win the IRV election.

Of course, it is impossible to know the exact proportion of voters that would have preferred Corwin or Hochul after ranking Davis first, but what this exercise makes clear is that that a ranked choice option would have provided a more majoritarian, and perhaps different result. As of now, it is unclear as to whether Corwin or Hochul actually had more support from NY-26, and a different winner could have wildly impacted the national political conversation which has been so fervently trying to derive meaning from Democrat Hochul's success. The importance of reforming elections system to provide for an actual majority candidate is widely apparent in NY-26 as questions continue to abound about the effect of Jack Davis' candidacy.

NY-26 is not the only New York race where Republicans may have been affected by split votes and plurality voting rules. In 2009, Democrat Bill Owens also won a surprise victory in a special election, in NY-23 and was narrowly re-elected in 2010. In both elections, Republicans split their vote with withdrawn Republican candidates drawing far more votes than the margin of Owens' victories. See more in Chris Marchsteiner's blog in November 2010.