Now that June has come to a close, we have reached the halfway point of the primaries for the 2018 midterm elections. There have been a small handful of notable surprises: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over 19-year incumbent Joe Crowley; Ben Jealous’ landslide win over his establishment-backed counterpart, Rushern Baker. Generally however, the primary elections have been painfully predictable.
Yet again, single-choice plurality elections—in which the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner, even if they do not earn a majority—delivered a string of dubious victories. As of this writing, a total of 70 candidates won their primaries without securing a majority of the votes in high-profile contests for Congress and governorships. In those races, winners advanced to the general election even while most voters cast their ballots for someone else.
In some, an overwhelming majority opposed the winning candidate, and it happened to both parties. For Republicans, Brad Little won the Idaho gubernatorial primary with slightly more than 37 percent of the vote. Tony Campbell, a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland, won his primary with only 29 percent of the vote. For the Democrats, Clint Koble and Antonio Delgado won their House primaries with just 26 and 22 percent of the vote, respectively. Especially in crowded primary races, the failure of this method to produce fair, democratic results becomes obvious.
Defects of the plurality system
The most common and harmful effect of plurality elections is the potential for a split vote. When two or more candidates with similar platforms run in the same race, they can splinter their supporters’ vote and hand the election to a candidate who a vast majority oppose.
Counter-majoritarian outcomes like this are typical and reveal a critical flaw of plurality contests. They often fail to provide the essential basis of a fair election: that the results reflect the voters’ preferences. This method of choosing our representatives is undemocratic, erodes the legitimacy of our electoral process, and causes people to lose trust in the system.
When used to nominate candidates for seats that are “safe” for one party, this method is particularly undemocratic. In an increasing number of states and districts, we can safely expect that the nominee of a major party will cruise to victory in the general election. In this context, the primary election effectively chooses who will fill the office. This is bad enough given the low turnout that primary elections attract, but it’s even worse when the nominee earns only a small proportion of that low-turnout electorate.
Of the congressional primaries won with less than 50 percent of the vote so far, 11 of them are in “safe” districts where FairVote projects the nominee to win the general election. In those districts, the nominee has for all intents and purposes already won the seat—even with just a fraction of the electorate voting for them.
When used in primary elections for more competitive districts, the plurality system can also fail to produce the strongest candidate for the general election. Primaries with lots of candidates—like the 30 contests so far that had six or more people running—fracture the party’s support. If the general election promises to be competitive, a primary win with only 30 or 35 percent of the vote raises some red flags. Candidates must appeal to a broader electorate if they want to win the seat. But under a plurality system, they can advance to the general election having secured only narrow support. This can spell trouble in November.
We saw it happen again this time around. Take Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, for example. This is currently an open seat that is predicted to be a toss-up in the general election. It is also directly in the sights of the Democrats’ mission to flip competitive seats and take back the House. But the Democratic nominee, Susan Wild, won her primary last month with just 33 percent of the vote. As a result, she will need to work even harder to consolidate and broaden her support as the general election approaches.
Though Wild may have won in a majority system (like a runoff or ranked choice voting), the plurality system leaves the full preferences of voters unknown. This uncertainty creates a vulnerability for her as campaigning begins for the general election. With just a third of the Democrats’ support under this system, she doesn’t exactly have a mandate from her party’s voters. And Wild isn’t the only one. Eleven other primary winners (Democrat and Republican alike) will head into toss-up general elections having failed to secure a majority of their parties’ votes.
Not every state uses the plurality system, but nearly all the alternatives are defective. The most common is the primary runoff. Under this system, if no one receives a majority after all the ballots are counted, the top two vote-getters advance to a second election to crown the primary’s winner.
There are two serious problems with this method of electing a nominee. First, primary runoffs are very costly and end up burdening taxpayers. Additionally, asking voters to participate in a second election (sometimes months later) raises barriers to participation and results in a massive drop in turnout. As we have reported in the past, this decline is nearly universal.
That trend has continued this summer. In the primary runoffs held thus far, there has been an average drop in turnout of 45 percent. In South Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, that number hit an abysmal 68 percent decrease in participation—the worst of any runoff this season and one of the worst in the last 24 years.
Since a smaller and smaller minority of people end up choosing their representatives under the runoff system, those representatives are far less reflective of the people they are supposed to serve. As we reported in May, primary runoffs in Texas saw such a sharp decline in turnout that some candidates won the runoff with fewer votes than their second-place opponent had won in the first round—completely undermining the majoritarian goals of runoffs.
Washington and California use a different alternative: the ‘Top Two’ primary. Rather than have separate party primaries, this system holds a single election. The two candidates (regardless of party) that receive the most votes win and advance to the general election.
Though Top Two technically ensures that no candidate is ever nominated with less than 50 percent, split voting remains a very serious problem. Multiple like-minded candidates running in the same election can still splinter their support, leaving a majority of voters without a candidate of choice. This occurred in California’s 31st Congressional District in 2012, when two white Republicans advanced in a majority-Democratic and majority-minority congressional district. Though Democrats avoided a similar disaster outcome in California earlier this month, the system remains deeply flawed. Reform is desperately needed.
A better way: ranked choice voting in Maine
Thankfully, the citizens of Maine have shown us all that there is a better way. On June 12, voters lined up to cast ballots in the first-ever statewide ranked choice voting (RCV) election. After all the votes were counted, every winning candidate received a majority and Democratic turnout reached its highest ever. It was a resounding success.
Here’s how it worked. In an RCV election, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated. Those voters who selected that candidate first have their votes counted for their second choice. This continues until someone secures a majority.
This is a powerful system that solves the worst problems of plurality elections. It allows voters to more fully express their preferences and ensures that winners have majority support.
Because votes are redistributed after a voter’s top choice is eliminated, people don’t need to pick between the “lesser of two evils.” Instead, voters choose the candidate they like best without fear of wasting their ballot or vote-splitting that crowns an unpopular winner. And with just a single election, there is no need to hold expensive, low-turnout runoffs.
If there’s one thing we have learned from primary season thus far, it’s this: plurality elections must be reformed. Without a doubt, RCV is that solution.
Also notably in Maine, voters approved a referendum on the question of keeping RCV with more than 54 percent of the vote. This foils a plan by the state legislature to delay (and eventually repeal) the original initiative to implement the new system. In other words, RCV in Maine is here to stay.
After a hard-fought battle, voters reformed the system and will ensure that their voices are heard into the future. Come November, all of the state’s elections for federal congressional offices will use the system. Once again, Mainers will have a chance to show the country that better elections are possible.