Step on up, ladies and gentlemen, to find out who will win a race with the fewest number of votes?
We know the rule in most American elections is that whoever has the most votes wins - and it seems logical enough. But is it really the good rule it sounds like?
The answer is no. The “whoever has the most votes wins'' rule is called plurality voting. Plurality voting is not a truly representative system; the “most votes” doesn’t necessarily mean a majority when candidates are vying for a single position. In a crowded race, the candidate with the most votes sometimes has (a lot) less than 50% of votes, meaning the majority of voters are left unrepresented. So, why try to win the most votes possible when a small threshold is all you need to edge out the competition?
This year’s primary elections are proving to be no exception. Below, we recorded all of the candidates to-date who won a congressional or statewide primary with a plurality (less than 50%) of votes to see just how few votes candidates are getting by on, and which candidate won with the fewest:
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As of this writing, in the lead is Carrie DelRosso, who won the Republican primary for Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gubernatorial race with only 26% of votes, leaving 74% of Republicans entirely unrepresented. That’s 315,000 votes, or 3% of Pennsylvania’s total voting age population. 97% of Pennsylvanians weren’t represented.
And it gets worse. Primaries often decide who will win the general election if the jurisdiction is safely red or blue. So sometimes, candidates can guarantee a forthcoming general election win with only a small plurality of votes from an already small group of primary voters.
This happened five times this year already, despite only five states having held primaries so far and the November election being over five months away. In these primaries, the majority of primary voters actually voted for someone other than the winner, yet the winner is now on track to win the general election:
- Jim Pillen won the Republican primary for Nebraska’s gubernatorial election with 33.7% of the vote. If Pillen wins in November, as expected in a safely red state, he will have secured the governorship with 90,000 primary votes, less than 7% of Nebraska’s eligible voters, leaving 93% of Nebraskans unrepresented.
- Bob Evnen won the Republican primary for Nebraska’s Secretary of State with 43.8% of the vote. If Evenen wins in November, as expected in a safely red state, he will have secured the position with a little over 75,000 primary votes, about 6% of Nebraska’s eligible voters, leaving 94% of Nebraskans unrepresented.
- Valerie Foushee won the Democratic primary for NC CD-4 with just 47.2% of the vote. If Foushee wins in November, as expected in a safely red state, she will have secured the seat with a little over 35,000 primary voters, about 6% of NC-14’s estimated eligible voters, leaving 94% of NC-14 voters unrepresented.
- Chuck Edwards won the Republican primary for NC CD-11 with just 33.4% of the vote. If Edwards wins in November, as expected in a safely red district, he will have secured the seat with a little over 29,000 primary voters, about 5% of NC-11’s estimated eligible voters, leaving 95% of voters unrepresented.
- Debbie Critchfield won the Republican primary for Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction with 39.6% of the vote. If Critchfield wins in November, as expected in a safely red state, she will have secured the position with over 104,000 primary voters about 7% of Idaho’s estimated eligible voters, leaving 93% of voters unrepresented.
Even in “toss-up” districts where general election votes are more consequential, general election voters are sometimes given a choice between candidates that only pluralities of primary voters actually wanted. It is this dynamic that makes many voters feel unsatisfied with their choices in November.
For example, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, the Republican nominees for Governor, Lt. Governor, and U.S. Senate are all on track to win their primaries with a plurality. A majority of Republican primary voters would have preferred a different candidate to represent them in the general election, yet have to vote for the nominee if they want their party to win what will be a close race.
However, individual states can act now by implementing ranked choice voting (RCV) for primaries. With RCV, voters rank candidates to produce a majority-preferred winner. This way, nominees will go into the general election with majority support from their party’s voters.
A number of states have taken the lead and implemented RCV for primaries already. When primaries use RCV, nominees have a stronger mandate to their voters, parties send stronger candidates into the general election, and more voters have a say in the outcome. Under RCV, candidates must race to the top rather than the bottom, and ask themselves “How can I win as many votes as possible?” instead of “How can I win with as few votes as possible?”