In Tennessee’s August 6 First Congressional District GOP Primary, eventual winner Diana Harshbarger emerged victorious with 19.2 percent support—meaning, in essence, that more than four in every five Republican voters did not vote for her.
Harshbarger, a pharmacist and business owner, was able to sail to victory in a fractious 16-candidate field, garnering 18,069 votes of more than 94,000 cast. She bested her nearest competitors, State Rep. Timothy Hill and State Senator Rusty Crowe, by 2.5 and 3.1 percentage points, respectively.
Under the plurality system used in many states’ congressional primaries, winners often do not achieve majority support among their party’s voters. But rarely does the eventual winner fail to gain the support of more than 80 percent of the party’s electorate, as Harshbarger did in the primary. This problem, however, isn’t limited to Republican primaries in Tennessee: Chicago’s 2019 mayoral primary, where eventual winner Lori Lightfoot edged out her closest competitor, Toni Preckwinkle, with only 17.45 percent of votes cast, is another example of a similar extreme anti-majoritarian result. Fortunately, a solution to this problem exists: ranked choice voting (RCV).
RCV, by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, conducts an “instant runoff” process if no candidate achieves a majority of first-choice support. This ensures that whoever eventually emerges from a party primary victorious has the support of a majority of the party’s electorate. Furthermore, RCV guarantees that similarly-oriented candidates do not “split the vote” and unintentionally throw the election to a factional candidate.
Also, in ranked-choice elections, candidates have an incentive to appeal for second-choice support among their opponents’ backers—leading to friendlier, more collegial, and issues-focused elections. This particular aspect of RCV elections would have positively altered the dynamics of the “spirited” and often rancorous GOP CD-1 primary.
If used in this election, RCV would have ensured that the winner of the primary had majority support among the party’s voters before November’s general election in the deep-red district. It is certainly possible that, after the round-by-round tabulation process, Harshbarger still would have won; it is also conceivable that another candidate with broad support among the party could have emerged victorious.
In any case, two things are clear: no candidate should ever win an election with 80 percent of the public against them and, if RCV had been used in the primary, the winning candidate would have emerged with majority support—and a strong mandate from the party headed into November.