In every state except Louisiana and Georgia, U.S. Senators are elected in a contest in which every voter has one vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins. That means that if more than two candidates run, votes can be split up among them so that the candidate who wins was opposed by most voters. This happens every year, and it contributes to doubts as to the legitimacy of the candidate elected, and to the continued shaming of independent and third party candidates as “spoilers.”
This year, nail-bitingly close Senate races are taking place in a number of states where there is a real chance the winner will fall short of a majority of the vote. Those races include several states where Libertarian Party candidates are running, such as in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin and Missouri. While Libertarians’ views can draw support from voters who might otherwise vote Republican or Democratic, the general view is that their views on smaller government cut more deeply into the Republican vote.
Nevada has both independent candidates and a “none of the above” option that could take support away from either Rep. Joe Heck (R) or former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) in a key open seat race. In New Hampshire, Brian Chabot, a third-party conservative, is also running, and could hurt the chances of Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R).
Here is a complete list of states where polls show that the winner may be elected with less than 50% support in a multi-candidate contest according to recent RealClearPolitics (RCP) averages:
Pat Toomey* (R) with 43.0% versus Katie McGinty (D) 45.0%; McGinty leads with +2.0%; other independent candidates include Edward Clifford III (L) and Everett Stern (I)
Joe Heck (R) with 45.5% versus Catherine Cortez Masto (D) 47.3%; Cortez Masto leads with +1.7%; other independent candidates include Tony Gumina (I), Tom Jones (I), and Thomas Sawyer (I)
Kelly Ayotte* (R) with 47.1% versus Maggie Hassan (D) 45.6%; Ayotte leads with +1.5%; other independent candidate is Brian Chabot (L)
Todd Young (R) with 42.7% versus Evan Bayh (D) 42.0%; Young leads with +0.7%; other independent candidates include Lucy Brenton (L) and James Johnson (write-in)
Roy Blunt* (R) with 46.8% versus Jason Kander (D) 45.5%; Blunt leads with +1.3%; other independent candidates include Jonathan Dine (L), Jonathan McFarland (G), and Fred Ryman (C)
Richard Burr* (R) with 47.0% versus Deborah Ross (D) 45.0%: Burr leads with +2.0%; other independent candidate is Sean Haugh (L)
John McCain* (R) with 49.5% versus Ann Kirkpatrick (D) 39.5%; McCain leads with +10.0; other independent candidate is Gary Swing (G)
Ron Johnson* (R) with 44.3% versus Russ Feingold (D) 47.0%; Feingold leads with +2.7%; other independent candidate is Phil Anderson (L)
Mark Kirk* (R) with 34.7% versus Tammy Duckworth (D) 48.0%; Duckworth leads with +13.3%; other independent candidates include Kenton McMillen (L) and Scott Summers (G)
Marco Rubio* (R) with 48.5% versus Patrick Murphy (D) 44.8%; Rubio leads with +3.7%; other independent candidates include Paul Stanton (L), Tony Khoury (I), Steven Machat (I), Basil Dalack (I), and Bruce Nathan (I)
Tim Scott* (R) with 45.0% versus Thomas Dixon (D) 28.0%; Scott leads with +17%; other independent candidates include Bill Bledsoe (L) and Rebel Scarborough (American)
Darryl Glenn (R) with 40.8% versus Michael Bennet (D) 48.2%; Bennet leads with +7.4%; other independent candidates include Lily Tang Williams (L), Arn Menconi (G), Bill Hammons (Unity), Dan Chapin (I), and Paul Noel Fiorino (I)
As a longstanding flaw in our electoral system, voters must grapple with the likelihood that their vote for an independent or third party candidate may contribute to the election of the candidate they like least. This is the reality voters will continue to face without the expanded use of ranked choice voting -- a fairer voting system that voters in Maine may vote today to use in their future elections, including for U.S. Senate in 2018.
With ranked choice voting, third party and independent supporters could rank candidates in order of choice. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority, then he or she wins just like any other election. But if nobody has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority, and is declared the winner.
Thus, third party supporters have the freedom to vote for their favorite candidate without fear that doing so might “spoil” the election outcome. Additionally, ranked choice voting may also help keep the major parties more accountable to the electorate. Candidates are encouraged to seek the support of a broader range of voters than they normally would, including asking for second and third choice rankings from minor-party supporters.
With ranked choice voting, diverse fields of candidates could run, each promoting their vision for the U.S. Senate, and at the end of the election, every race would have a winner with broader support than under the vote-for-one system. And control of the Senate -- and all it means for governance in Congress in the next two years -- wouldn’t hinge on potential vote-splitting in a handful of states.