Fairvote election analysis: Non-majority rule (and solutions)

From Fairvote:

Non-Majority Rule in American Elections

More than a Dozen U.S. Senate and GOvernor’s Races Won with <50%

A FairVote Innovative Analysis by Chris Marchsteiner / Rob Richie on “IRV” in NC

FairVote intern Chris Marchstein has done a weekly series of blog posts this election season from the “non-majority rule” desk, profiling the many stories from the fall about partisans running “faux” third party candidates to split the vote, major candidates being asked to drop out to avoid “spoiling” and examples of how our plurality voting system fails to accommodate voter choice. Following is his latest blogpost and an update from FairVote’s Rob Richie on the first-ever statewide general election with instant runoff voting.

Non-Majority Winners and “Spoilers” in Election 2010

Election Day brought big changes this year. Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives decisively, while the Democratic Party narrowly held onto the U.S. Senate. With a majority of the nation’s governors being elected, Republicans made key gains. While the media’s narrative will undoubtedly focus on the winners and losers, our Non-Majority Rule desk will zero in on how plurality voting rules skewed and distorted several elections – and led to some underhanded campaign tactics.

Third party and independent candidates across the nation played a decisive role in many extremely close races. A pattern has emerged of majority victories becoming less prevalent and candidates winning through spoilers splitting the vote. Overall, 8 governor races and 4 U.S. Senate races appear to have been won with less than 50%, including at least two races with less than 40% (plus a third, depending on how many write-in votes ultimately count for Lisa Murkowksi in Alaska). In addition, several U.S. House races were affected by third party and independent candidates.

Here’s a review of races, starting with statewide races.

In Rhode Island’s gubernatorial election, independent Lincoln Chafee beat out Democratic and Republican candidates in a three-way race. Chafee won just 36.1% of the vote over Republican Robitaille’s 33.6% and Democrat Caprio’s 23%. 7.3% of the vote went to 4 other candidates. We don’t know what the result of this election would have been under a majority rule system, but it certainly would have confirmed the fairness of the result.

The governor’s race in Maine went to a candidate who more likely would have lost in a majority system. With 92% of districts reporting, Republican Paul LePage appears to have won with 38.1%. As in Rhode Island, no candidate reached even the 40% threshold; Independent Eliot Cutler had a remarkable surge in popularity in the last two weeks and led for much of the evening. As of now, however, he is 6,779 votes behind LePage with 36.7% of the vote. In a runoff system, the more centrist Cutler almost certainly would have picked up the bulk of votes for Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell (19.2%) and two other independent candidates (6%).

The governor’s race in Minnesota may go to an automatic recount, although Democrat Mark Dayton seems likely to hold onto his narrow lead. With 99% of precincts counted, he leads with 918,351 votes. Independence Party candidate Horner captured 251,300 votes, far greater than the winning margin.

The high-profile governor’s race in Colorado was predicted to be a state without a majority victory due to the dispute over the troubled candidacy of Republican Dan Maes and American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo. The Republican Party turned on Maes as Tancredo surpassed the Republican nominee in the polls, leaving Maes with as low as 5% in some polls. These fears of Maes acting as a spoiler were unfounded in the end: Democrat John Hickenlooper apparently has won a majority victory with 50.5% of the vote. Tancredo followed with 36.9% and Maes did better than many expected with 11.2%. Their combined votes did not overtake Hickenlooper – but Maes did get into the double digits, keeping Republicans from the ignominy of losing major party status.

Turning to the U.S. Senate, Republican Mark Kirk captured Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat by a slim margin of 82,414 votes over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias with 99% of precincts reporting. This vote total is smaller than the 85,492 votes won by Libertarian Mike Labno, and far smaller than the 115,561 votes won by Green candidate LeAlan Jones. These two third party candidates may have played a decisive role in the election’s outcome.

Although a victory for independent write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska is uncertain, she seems likely to have earned a remarkable victory as the first write-in candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat since Strom Thurmond in 1954. The total write-in votes are nearly 7% more than the votes cast for Republican Joe Miller, although only 41% of the overall vote. The New York Times reports that it could take weeks for those votes to be counted, but Murkowski is celebrating a likely victory – albeit one that may well leave her with less than 40% of the final vote.

One of the closest Senate elections was in Colorado, where Democrat Michael Bennet won over Republican Ken Buck 47.7% to 46.8%. A number of third party candidates garnered 5.5% of the vote, and their participation easily could have tipped the election either way. These include: Green Party candidate Bob Kinsey with 2.2%, Libertarian candidate Maclyn Stringer with 1.3%, Independent Reform Party candidate Jason Napolitano with 1.1%, independent Charley Miller with 0.6%, and independent J. Moromisato with 0.3%.

In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio won with a non-majority total of 48.8%. Still, Rubio’s percentage is far higher than many expected, and he likely would have been favored in a runoff against Crist despite polls showing Crist as the overwhelming second choice of Kendrick Meek’s supporters.

The big news from Nevada is that Sen. Harry Reid retained his seat and his status as Senate Majority Leader, but his victory comes in an election with a significant third party and independent presence, most notably from the popular “None of these candidates” option. The Non-Majority Rule desk previously covered voter discontent with Reid and Republican Sharron Angle in the state, but Reid’s majority victory was substantial, apparently winning 50.2% of the vote over Angle’s 44.6%. If his percentage holds, it will only be Reid’s second statewide race won with a majority of the vote.

On the U.S. House side, the Indiana 2nd District race between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Jackie Walorski provides a particularly stark example of the effect of third party candidates. The Democrat eked out a slim victory of 2,452 votes. However, Libertarian candidate Mark Vogel captured 9,445 votes that may well have gone mostly to Walorski in a runoff choice solely between the Democratic and Republican candidates. The Democratic victory was all the more problematic because Democrats, in the final days of the campaign, spent upwards of $15,000 on a mailer to targeted households identifying Mark Vogel as the true conservative candidate in the race.

Looking to similar tactics, although Republicans had fielded faux Green Party candidates to siphon votes from Democrats in Arizona, the plan did not seem to have an effect. In the New Jersey House races the similar ploy by Democrats to steal votes from Republicans appears ineffective. However, Republican Jon Runyan won the 3rd District by only 6,106 votes. In comparison, the three independent and third party candidates in the race won 5,660 votes.

Other U.S. House races results included:

  • With 100% reporting in the South Dakota at-large race, Independent Thomas Marking may have played the role of a spoiler in the race between Republican Kristi Noem and incumbent Democrat Stephanie Sandlin. The seat went to the Republican with 48.1% to the Democrat’s 45.9%; Marking captured 6% of the vote.
  • Minnesota’s 8th District went for Republicans over Democrats by 48.2% to 46.6%. Two other candidates won 4.3% and 0.9%, providing yet another example of a toss-up election in a voting system that adheres to majority rule.
  • New Hampshire’s 2nd District similarly went to Republicans by a 2.8% margin over Democrats with a Libertarian candidate winning 2.7% and an Independent winning 2.2%.
  • A close race in Massachusetts 10th District yielded a victory for Democrat Bill Keating. Beating Republican Jeff Perry 46.9% to 42.4%, Keating’s margin of victory is smaller than independent Maryanne Lewis’ share of the vote at 5.9%. Two other independent candidates captured 4.8% of the vote as well.
  • With 99% of precincts reporting, California’s 11th District race is one of the closest yet. Republican David Harmer led Democrat Jerry McNerney by 23 votes. The American Independent Party won 8,775 votes, clearly determining the election.
  • A similarly close election in Illinois’ 8th District shows Republican Joe Walsh winning by 797 votes. Green Party candidate Bill Scheurer won far more than this margin of victory with 6,412 votes. Given plurality voting rules, Scheurer effectively handed the election to Walsh – Scheurer ironically is a leading advocate of using instant runoff voting in such elections.

Many more elections played out just like these. With the increasing number of third party and independent candidates, our nation’s elections will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. Serious reform is needed to uphold the will of the majority – either traditional two-round runoff elections or instant runoff voting (IRV) being the most likely options in races for single-winner offices.

IRV, also called ranked choice voting, allows voters to rank their choices, and makes it far more likely to avoid spoilers and have majority winners. On this Election Day in North Carolina, IRV was used in a statewide Court of Appeals race successfully. Of the five races for Court of Appeals, more valid votes were cast in the IRV vacancy election than in all but one, including two traditional two-candidate races that were closely contested. Three county-level judicial elections with IRV in North Carolina also seem to have gone well.  Elsewhere, voters approved IRV in Maine’s largest city of Portland for future mayoral elections, while voters used IRV for the first time in three California cities, including Oakland.

IRV is a pragmatic, tested solution that is being used more frequently as voters grow tired of politicians and judges receiving power through insignificant plurality victories that do little to indicate voter preference. Whether you are registered as a Democrat, Republican, independent, or third party, today should be a day for reflection on the flaws that obstruct true democracy in the United States.

* * * * *

North Carolina uses Instant Runoff Voting for state, county-wide elections

This fall North Carolina held the first statewide general election with instant runoff voting (IRV) in the nation’s history to fill federal judge Jim Wynn’s vacancy in on the Court of Appeals. Three Superior Court vacancies were also filled with instant runoff voting. The statewide vacancy election drew 13 candidates; the three Superior Court races each drew three candidates.

Before 2006, such judicial vacancies created between the primary and Labor Day of an election year were filled with a single election by plurality voting. With that system, voters cast one vote, and the candidate with the most votes won, no matter how low his or her percentage of the total vote. In 2004, a statewide vacancy to the North Carolina Supreme Court was won with 23%. IRV requires winners to demonstrate more support if they do no win a majority of first choice rankings. (See www.ncvotes123.com)

From what we know of these IRV elections, voters seemed to have handled instant runoff voting well, which is a credit to state and local elections officials. Anecdotal reports from election officials have been positive. For instance, Carteret County Board of Elections director Lindy Lewis said yesterday toward the end of Election Day: “”We haven’t had a phone call from a precinct official or voter (regarding the instant runoff) which makes me feel good about that.” (See: http://www.enctoday.com/news/voting-84349-jdn-voters-holly.html)

Hard numbers from the elections seem to confirm that voters handled IRV and that will play an important role in ensuring winners are representative of voter intent. For example:

Votes in the Court of Appeals vacancy election: There are more valid votes in the Court of Appeals vacancy race, with IRV, than in three of four other Court of Appeals races (and only slightly fewer votes than the fourth race). This would suggest that voters were not intimidated by the number of candidates or ballot design and that they did not make an unusual number of mistakes in marking their IRV ballots.

Without IRV, the statewide race would have been won with 20%: The top vote-getters in the Court of Appeals race were Cressie Thigpen (with 20%) and Doug McCullough (with 15%). Under the previous system for vacancy elections, Judge Thigpen would have won outright, although fully 80% of voters did not select him as their first choice. Now we will find out whether more voters preferred Thigpen to McCullough or vice versa. Even though the final winner is unlikely to get 50% of the overall vote, he will need to get substantially more votes than under the previous system — and far more votes than would have been cast in a December runoff.

One of three Superior Court races will require an instant runoff: Of three Superior Court races with IRV, two (in Rowan and Buncombe counties) were won with a majority of the first round vote. The third race (in Cumberland County) has the first-choice leader with 36% and two candidates close behind. IRV will allow us to see which of the two frontrunners was favored by more voters.

It is important to note that the instant runoff tallies are not expected to take place until after the State Canvass on November 23rd. But the voters’ work is done; all that is needed is for election officials to have the time to add ballots from the defeated candidates to the totals of the runoff candidates based on whichever candidate is ranked as a second or third choice on each ballot.

Dave Schwab


  1. There are cases in which IRV is incapable of resolving the so-called spoiler issue. And the majoritarian argument in general suffers from the fatal premise that there is majority support for any candidate.

  2. You weren’t at my precinct where the majority of voters were vocally unhappy with IRV. I worked there as a poll greeter for most of the day, and as a Democratic Party poll observer.

    I didn’t worry about the Republican voters, but I spent well over half my time explaining IRV to Democratic voters and to those UNA voters who wanted to vote for Democratic candidates. That is because over half the voters who showed up at the polls didn’t know they’d be expected to rank their choices.

    The Republicans were claiming this was a Democratic plot to keep a Republican judge from winning. Everyone complained that they spent way too much time on that part of the ballot – one voter felt she spent half her time on IRV alone.

    I am not quite sure what Rob Richie means by his claim that:

    “Of the five races for Court of Appeals, more valid votes were cast in the IRV vacancy election than in all but one, including two traditional two-candidate races that were closely contested.”

    We had 26 spoiled ballots, a much higher than normal number. The poll workers (some of whom have worked at this polling location for DECADES) were astounded by this high number, and attributed it to IRV. In the 2009 Minneapolis IRV election, the spoiled ballot rate was 3 times higher than in non-IRV races. This is a good indicator of the level of voter confusion.

    There were 8 over-votes in the 26 non-IRV races on the ballot, but 28 over-votes in the one single IRV race. In the other 4 Court of Appeals races, there were ZERO over-votes.

    For the 4 other COA races, there were a total of 1351 undervotes, compared to the 723 undervotes in the single IRV race.

    Oh – and if you think that these voters were upset about having to cast their votes in an IRV contest – they were disgusted that the SBOE has known since 2006 that they might have to do county-wide or state-wide judicial IRV elections, and chose to do nothing about it until the last minute. The Republicans were especially infuriated that Republican members of the State Board of Elections were the ones who pushed the “bending” of state and federal election law to use uncertified software to count the IRV.

    They all hoped that this would be the last time any of us would have to waste so much time explaining how to vote in a contest – instead of asking voters to vote for our candidates. Having to be told how to vote in some tricky contest insulted their intelligence!

  3. Chris Telesca is an adamant opponent of IRV whose “Chicken LIttle” approach to this election has proven wrong time and time again. In cointrast, here’s what the Fayetteville paper editorialized about the election:

    “Merit: For the success of instant-runoff voting in this week’s election. More than 1.9 million voters cast ballots ranking the 13 candidates to replace Judge Jim Wynn on the N.C. Court of Appeals. It was the first statewide use of instant-runoff in the United States in more than 70 years and, thanks to education efforts by the State Board of Elections and other groups, most voters had no problem with the ballot. Two well-qualified candidates – Cressie Thigpen (a Fayetteville native) and Doug McCullough, advance to the runoff count.”

    Meanwhile, as to D. Eris, it’s absolutely true that voters weren’t going to have majority support for a candidate in every election. But there’s great value in having the plurality leader have to prove majority support from those who have an opinion between that candidate and top opponents. IRV would have provided fairer results in several of the elections cited here — and certainly dramatically changed the framing of those elections as they took place.

    A good example is what just happened in Oakland, where the frontrunner was defeated. In a traditional election, his opponents would have had a hard time campaigning without lots of charges of spoilers and split votes. But IRV made that MUCH less of a factor, and his top challenger overcome a 10% deficit and won, coming the first woman and first Asian American mayor of the city.

  4. Rob: you’ve been claiming that IRV is a success in places that ended up dumping it after one or two tries. You said IRV went over great in the 2007 Cary NC pilot, yet a motion to consider IRV for 2009 couldn’t even get a second!

    A wise man once said: “it’s not over till it’s over”. Your claims of success in NC are way too premature! Remember – our General Assembly just flipped to Republican control, and how well do you think that IRV is gonna play when the Republican voters in my precinct think IRV is a Democratic plot?

    All the provisional votes haven’t been counted yet, and we have no idea how the counting of the second and third votes is going to go – especially in the DRE counties. Right now – people are looking into the very real possibility that the Republicans on the SBOE pushed the “bending” of state and federal election laws to count IRV votes using an uncertified MS Excel spreadsheet.

    Most people on editorial boards think an inch deep and a mile wide – so I don’t expect that they will look too closely at the problems with IRV right now – last-minute, jury-rigged counting of votes, lack of voter education, etc.

    The Raleigh N&O had an editorial on the IRV election and here’s how they finished off:
    “Yet elections officials will have to hand-sort votes (nearly 2 million were cast in the race) and it’s unclear how swiftly or smoothly counting will proceed. When it’s done, a candid assessment of the pros and cons will be in order, before casting the deciding vote on statewide instant runoffs”.

    You yourself have written that IRV bombs big-time when people focus on the “process” of casting and counting votes. Wait till voters see how screwed-up and convoluted the counting process goes – they’ll be begging their legislators to dump IRV. And that’s assuming the lawsuit over the software and other matters doesn’t kill it first.

  5. In my state, irv could be a great tool for cash strapped counties by making local, non partisan primaries un-necessary. People shouldn’t dwell entirely on the partisan affect, there are financial benefits as well. In my city, however, irv wouldn’t work because we fill 3 seats on the city council with all candidates running on the same ballot line (you can vote for up to 3).

  6. It sounds like NC failed to educate voters about IRV before the election. It’s really not complicated, but still easy to imagine that some voters could get panicky if they show up to the polls without knowing that they have to use a new system. Weren’t there any TV commercials: “IRV, it’s easy as 1, 2, 3″? Anyway, you don’t even have to rank your choices if you don’t want to – IRV just means your vote is less likely to be wasted.

    IRV does seem to face a lot of opposition after it’s passed – from vested special interests who don’t like voters to have more choice and more control. If the corporate-sponsored parties decide that they don’t like how it affects their chances, you have a pretty powerful coalition of special interests fighting to repeal IRV. Fortunately, polls show that voters prefer IRV to plurality-take-all, so while the anti-reform side has the money and power, we’ve got the people.

  7. Dave Schwab: If you say you have the people, how come wherever IRV was used and then people put it to a vote whether to keep it or get rid of it – they get rid of it?

    And IRV is not as easy as “1-2-3″ – our voters do not fall for such silly slogans that don’t stand up to any real examination. And when you have 13 candidates for one race, there is a good chance that you could have voted for 3 candidates who were not in the top two – and all your votes were wasted. When you have a traditional top-two race, even if you didn’t vote for the top two in the general election, you always get to vote for them in the runoff.

    IRV only gives the illusion of more control. Since the vote-counting process is so complex, your average voter can’t follow it. Nor can the average election administrator. That’s why so-called “IRV experts” have to come in and instruct the admins – or in some cases (like in Aspen) take over for them. If voters don’t know how the votes are counted and can’t understand the method – how can they have confidence that the elections are being administered fairly and accurately? Voters in my state passed a law requiring only certified voting systems be used to count votes, but since there are no such certified systems that count IRV, the state had to “break” the law by using an algorithm written by an SBOE staffer to run on Microsoft Excel spreadsheet – which is not a federally certified system for counting voters. That was done so election administrators in DRE touchscreen counties wouldn’t have to use the certified method of hand-counting the thermal paper trial ballots.

    And I kinda doubt the accuracy of those polls. If their not conducted by IRV advocates who have a vested interest in seeing IRV do well (and who fake southern accents), then the questions are puff-ball questions designed to push IRV.

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