Voices & Choices

Plurality Outcomes in the Presidential Election

Plurality Outcomes in the Presidential Election


With two polarizing Presidential candidates at the top of the ticket creating a close race nationally, and a larger than average third party vote (due primarily to a Libertarian Party ticket headed by two former Governors), Election 2016 has produced more than its fair share of plurality wins.

Compared with 2012, when not a single Electoral Vote was won with merely a plurality, about one fifth of contests appear to have Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump prevailing with less than a majority of the vote. As of this writing, this is true of: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, as well as Maine and Nebraska’s second Congressional Districts; and based on pre-election polls will ultimately also include Alaska, Nevada, Utah, and the nation as a whole.

The remaining votes have been split amongst the Libertarians, Greens, and Independent Conservative candidates – Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin respectively. So far, New Mexico reports the largest cumulative third party vote share, followed by Michigan; though pre-election polling suggests Utah will ultimately claim this distinction. As of current returns (at 10:30pm), no contest reports one of the alternative candidates coming in second place or within 10% of winning an electoral vote.

Whilst the third parties or independents do not appear to have been in a position to win any electoral votes, the voters in these races may have allowed the candidate whom that specific state or congressional district liked the least to win despite being opposed by a majority. Or, instead of giving voice to their sincere preference, some such voters may have felt compelled to vote strategically, even if it didn’t represent their true opinion, simply to avoid splitting the vote. With ranked choice voting, third party voters would still be able to express their preferred option, without having to worry it would help the candidate they like least; especially when combined with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Another benefit of ranked choice voting, according to studies of the politics in jurisdictions that have adopted this method, is that it discourages negative campaigning. Given the need to appeal to voters whom may not have that candidate as their first preference; candidates will have to reach out with more positive messages to earn their vote in the event no one receives a majority. With so many voters dissatisfied with the tone of the 2016 campaign, this is another strong reason to consider reforming the electoral system.


In short, had ranked choice voting (and the National Popular Vote Compact) been in place, voters could have expected to enjoy a more positive campaign, with the outcome guaranteed to represent the will of the majority; rather than forcing us to discuss the meaning of so many plurality victories.




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