Voices & Choices

A Controversial Election in Kentucky Makes the Case for RCV

A Controversial Election in Kentucky Makes the Case for RCV

Incumbent Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin finally conceded the state’s gubernatorial election today after a recanvass of votes failed to have any meaningful change in results, capping off a tense week of speculation and debate extending into foundational democratic principles.

How did we get here? Once the votes were counted, Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s former Attorney General, defeated Bevin in one of the most-watched elections of the 2019 cycle. It was a close contest, with Beshear up just over 5,000 votes out of over 1.4 million votes cast. This is normally the point in a blog post where we would report that the trailing candidate called for a recount and then, relying on FairVote’s data from past statewide recounts, point out that a recount would extremely unlikely to reverse the election’s outcome. 

The second part still applies. If there were a recount, the result would likely change by only a few hundred votes (probably fewer than 300), which is not nearly enough to reverse the outcome. If there were a recount, that is. Under Kentucky law, there are no recounts for gubernatorial elections. Kentucky does have a recount law, but it explicitly excludes races for governor. Instead, a gubernatorial candidate’s options are to request a recanvass of votes and then contest the election.

So what is a recanvass? It involves reviewing the county-level vote totals by rechecking the totals reported by voting machines for discrepancies. At most, recanvassing might catch some clerical errors or technical glitches, making it unlikely that the final total would have been changed by the 5,000-plus votes needed to close the gaps between the candidates. In fact, no recanvass in Kentucky has ever reversed the outcome of an election.

While the recanvass changed nothing, contesting the election could lead to a drastically different outcome than what the current vote total shows. In Kentucky, election contests are decided by the state legislature. The legislature can choose to order a new election or simply declare one candidate the winner. Statements by legislators had created concerns that they, rather than the voters, might decide the state’s next governor, although they have since backed away from that position after public outcry. Despite his rhetoric earlier in the week, Bevin announced he would not contest the election after the recanvass results were reported.

While Bevin eventually conceded, Kentucky could have avoided this situation entirely if they used ranked choice voting.  Libertarian candidate John Hicks received nearly 2% of the vote--far more than the difference between Bevin and Beshear. State Senate President Robert Stivers blamed Bevin’s loss on Hicks splitting the vote, claiming that many of Hicks’ votes "would have gone to Bevin." (The Libertarian Party of Kentucky cheerfully agreed with Stiver’s assessment, taking credit for splitting the vote and delighting in the “delicious tears from Bevin supporters.”). 

As the Kentucky Libertarians and others have noted, Kentucky Republicans would have been better off using RCV. There would have been no vote-splitting and no one could accuse Hicks of being a spoiler. If Kentucky Republicans are unhappy with the outcome of the election they should join states and cities across the country and adopt RCV.


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