Tale of Two Primaries and How to Uphold Majority Rule

Posted by Rob Richie on August 16, 2017

Next spring, states will start voting in primaries for the regularly scheduled congressional midterm elections in every state. On August 15, however, two states held primaries to fill vacancies -- for U.S. Senate in Alabama as the permanent replacement to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and for U.S House in Utah to fill Jason Chaffetz’ seat in the third congressional district. The outcomes were instructive for how rules matter -- with Alabama upholding majority rule and Utah allowing non-majority nomination winners -- and for why the nation should follow Maine’s ranked choice voting primaries with a close eye next June.

Republicans are heavily favored in both of this year’s special elections due to the strong partisan advantages they have among voters in both contests and unsurprisingly their primaries attracted several strong candidates. Coincidentally, the Republican primary results were quite similar, underscoring how rules matter

In Alabama, where the winner must win more than 50% to earn a nomination, here are the results as reported by the New York Times with 98% of precincts reporting:

Roy Moore, 162,570 votes (38.9%)
Luther Strange* 136,910 (32.8%)
Mo Brooks 82,363 (19.7%)
All others 36,235 (8.6%)


Former Judge Moore and incumbent Strange will advance to a September 26 runoff due to no one earning more than 50% of the vote, with Congressman Brooks running a weak third. Both candidates carry baggage that may lead to a highly negative runoff campaign. Moore has been elected twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and then removed from office, most recently for refusing to stop enforcing Alabama’s ban against same sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law. Backed by President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, Strange is Alabama’s former attorney general who was appointed to fill Sessions’ vacancy earlier in the year by former governor Robert Bentley, who since has resigned from office and plead guilty to campaign finance violations associated with seeking to cover up an extramarital affair. Strange’s appointment stirred controversy due to Strange being in a position to bring charges against the governor.

Meanwhile, Utah’s results, as reported by the Times with 91% of precincts reporting, were:

John Curtis, 26,073 votes (40.5%)
Christopher Herrod, 20,007 (31.1%)

Tanner Ainge, 18,232 (28.3%)

The primary was notable because Utah only recently changed its primary law to allow more than two candidates to appear on a primary ballot. Previously, party conventions either nominated a candidate or advanced no more than two to the primary ballot - meaning that primaries were always won by a majority of the vote. Earlier this year, the state senate passed a bill to establish a primary runoff, but only if a candidate fell short of 35% - which would have had no impact on this race. The state house passed a bill that instead would have established ranked choice voting and triggered an “instant runoff”” if no candidate won more than 50% of the vote. Neither bill passed, although the ranked choice voting bill earned strong bipartisan support, as underscored by an oped in the Deseret News coauthored by two strong backers of the bill, Democrat Rebecca Chavez-Houck and Republican Marc Roberts.

Former Provo mayor Curtis won, with the two more conservative candidates - including Herrod, who won the party’s endorsement at its convention -- together winning 60% of the vote. Just as Alabama’s Strange has a real chance to win the primary runoff in September, Herrod would likely have made the race much closer with an Alabama-style runoff or a Maine-style instant runoff -- but the nomination is now decided. Curtis will be heavily favored in the general election, although will face another divided field, against both a Democrat and the right-of-center United Utah Party that has nominated Jim Bennett, son of former Republican U.S. Senator Robert Bennett.

The latest primary results help make the case for ranked choice voting (RCV) in two ways. First, as reported earlier this week by FairVote’s Myeisha Boyd, Alabama Republicans who live overseas have already cast RCV ballots that will be counted in the runoff. If the state extended that right to cast an RCV ballot to all primary voters, those 28% of voters who didn't vote for Moore or Strange could have ranked one of them second that would have saved the state money and time and maintained higher turnout than likely in the runoff. Second, Utah could uphold its tradition of primary winners earning more than half the votes by having the senate and governor join the house in backing the RCV legislation.

With the number of candidates running and raising money soaring from recent election cycles, we can expect key primaries all around the country to have similarly divided fields that sometimes will result in low turnout runoffs and, more often, simply nominate the candidate who is at the top of the heap no matter how lower their vote share - for one example of many, see this profile of the four Democrats and four Republicans seeking their party's nomination for a critically important race for governor in Ohio.

RCV provides a sensible, efficient way for a party to unite around a candidate who can bring a party’s voters together -- upholding majority rule and rewarding candidates for finding common ground with backers of their opponents. Fortunately, we’ll soon have a case study. Voters in the state of Maine in 2016 gave a ballot measure to establish RCV for nearly all key state elections with the second highest vote total in Maine history. In June, Maine will showcase just what RCV would mean for our politics when it uses the system for the first time in primaries for its U.S. Senate, U.S. House, gubernatorial and state legislature.

Photo Credit: NY Mag

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