Voices & Choices

Plurality Wins in 2020: A Violation of America’s Majority Rule Principle

Plurality Wins in 2020: A Violation of America’s Majority Rule Principle

Voters in eight states and the District of Columbia went to the polls on Tuesday. Some states held long-postponed presidential primary elections, while others held primaries for congressional seats, governorships, and other local races. Local races drew large fields of qualified candidates, resulting in some shockingly narrow wins. Even more interesting is that many of these victories were secured without achieving a majority of the vote. 

In a truly representative democracy, the majority should earn the right to choose candidates even as every voice is heard and represented. We should make sure as many votes count for winners as possible. When electing or nominating one person, that means winners should earn a majority of more than 50 percent of votes. Otherwise, more than half of voters can see their voice silenced. As of June 2nd, more than fifty congressional primaries have been won without majority support, and it’s still early on in the election season.

FairVote highlights these individual winners with the intent to point out the lack of substantial electoral evidence to suggest or guarantee these winners are truly the most preferred nominees by their constituents. The flaw lies with our plurality voting method; a flaw that can be corrected with ranked choice voting. As a more impartial option, ranked choice voting allows candidates to consolidate support during an “instant runoff” and thus, the winner emerges with a solid majority mandate. Furthermore, this permits the party to enter the general election united in confidence behind their selected nominee. 

So far, FairVote has identified six nominees likely to win in November even after failing to secure the majority necessary to win their party’s nomination.

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One example is Illinois’ 3rd district, where Democrat Marie Newman defeated incumbent Dan Lipinski by just two points while two other candidates on the ballot earned 8 percent of the total votes. The district is considered a Democratic stronghold, so Newman is highly likely to win the seat in November. Another local example, not included in the graphic above, is the Baltimore mayoral election, which included six major candidates. Sheila Dixon is leading with around 30 percent of the vote, and would be assured an easy victory in the general election come November.

At this point in the election season, there are three districts - Indiana’s 1st, Indiana’s 5th, and New Mexico’s 3rd district - in which both parties have nominated a non-majority winner. This means a majority of both Democrats and Republicans will not have their preferences represented on the November ballot. 

While constituents are often willing to rally behind a single candidate in order to prevent electing members of the opposing party, these non-majority winners lead voters to lose faith in the system. It raises the question of, “why vote if my voice will not be heard?” This type of winner does not need to have the majority of constituents’ interests in mind when the majority of constituents did not cast a ballot for them in the first place. Such a divide in votes also makes it difficult for the non-majority winner to accomplish anything if they do not have the support of legislators necessary to push through policy.

Some states prevent non-majority winners by holding runoff elections. Texas, North Carolina, and Mississippi have scheduled runoff elections for June and July, with additional runoff elections likely in South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Georgia. States with runoff elections have an important feature in common with ranked choice voting advocates: they demand that winners of their elections earn support from a majority of voters. However, runoff elections require voters to return to the polls a second time, resulting in lower turnout and more funds required to hold an additional election. These states could preserve their desire for a strong majority mandate while also saving money and improving turnout by switching to ranked choice voting.


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