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Plurality Wins in the U.S. Senate

Most Senate races are won with a majority, but fully 139 Senate races have been won with a plurality since 1908. Generally speaking, the bulk of these plurality races tend to cluster at the beginning and the end of the century. While 38 plurality elections occurred from 1910 to 1918, when Teddy Rooseveltís ìBull Mooseî Progressive party had a major national impact, the number of plurality wins dwindled considerably by the middle of the century. The 1950ís, for example, saw only four plurality elections to the Senate and the 1960ís only five. The number of plurality elections each decade has steadily increased since then, however, with a notable resurgence occurring in 1992. In the five election years since 1992, there have been 22 Senate races decided by a plurality. To put this in context, these five election years have had 40% of all plurality victories since 1950.

 The 1998 Senate election in Nevada is a clear example of the impact of third party candidates and independents on election outcomes. In this election, the incumbent Democrat Harry Reid won with 47.9%, narrowly defeating Republican John Ensign by a margin of only 421 votes, or 0.1%. What makes this case interesting is that the Libertarian candidate Michael Cloud received 8,044 votes, or 1.8%. Considering the leanings of most Libertarians, it is likely that these votes came primarily from people who would have voted for a Republican in a choice between the major party candidates. Little of the remainder of the vote would have gone to Reid in a two-candidate choice, as the 1.8% for ìNone of the Aboveî can be seen as anti-incumbent and the Natural Law Partyís 0.63% of the vote probably came primarily at Republican expense. Thus, it is quite conceivable, perhaps even likely, that Democrat Reid won only because the Republican vote was split and that Republican Ensign would have won in a two-way race with Reid. The plurality-based voting system helped elect someone to a six-year term despite likely not being preferred by the majority of voters to his leading opponent.

Another U.S. Senate race in which the plurality voting system produced questionable results occurred in Georgia in 1996. In this race, Democrat Max Cleland won with 49% of the vote, beating Republican Guy Millner by just 1%. Other candidates won a total of close to 4% of the votes, mostly to a Libertarian candidate likely to have drawn more votes from Millner. Ironically, the legislature had recently modified Georgiaís requirement for majority winners, which had contributed to Democrat Wyche Fowler defeat in a runoff after leading Republican Paul Coverdell by 1% in the initial round of the election. Once again, the system of plurality voting produced another election here with questionable results.

Sen. Charles Robbís re-election in a 1994 Senate race against Republican Oliver North also raises questions about the role of plurality voting. Robb defeated North by 46% to 43% -- a margin of 3%. Independent candidate Marshall Coleman, who had been the Republican nominee for governor in 1989 and had the backing of Virginiaís Republican senator John Warner, won 11%. It is not clear which candidate would have been the second choice of most Coleman backers, as Coleman was positioned as a relatively centrist candidate, but it is clear that his candidacy provided an outlet for many Republicans concerned about Northís conservative positions.

Spoiler candidates have hurt Democrats as well, although more clearly in U.S. House races. For example, the Republican Heather Wilson was elected to the House in a 1998 special election with only 44.6%, with a 5% margin over Democratic candidate Phillip Maloof. The deciding factor in this election likely was the Green Party candidate Robert Anderson, who won 14.7% of the vote, most of which came from people who probably would have supported Maloof in a two-candidate race between Maloof and Wilson. Again, it is realistic to say that Maloof might have won had Cloud not split his votes. Wilson won the 1998 general election five months later in the same fashion, with Anderson once again splitting the Democratic vote.

The problem of plurality races can also be seen in Senate primaries, where plurality results occur in greater numbers. For example, the five election years from 1994 to 2002 had 29 primaries decided by plurality, in addition to 12 others that went to runoffs in southern states with runoff provisions. Incidentally, few of these plurality winners went on to victory in the general election -only three of the 29 plurality winners from 1994 to 2002 were elected. Many factors ultimately decide the general election, but the evidence suggests that perhaps the plurality method of nominating candidates is not the best way to ensure that a strong candidate is nominated. Senate data is rather limited, but this notion is strengthened when one considers the fact that candidates in House races who went through a runoff tended to fare much better: from 1994 to 2002, 38 of the 66 such candidates went on to win the general election. Strategically, therefore, it seems that plurality voting systems for primaries might not be the best way for a party to nominate a strong candidate.

Given that plurality victories in Senate races are both increasing in number and problematic for American democracy, the time has come for serious consideration of a better method of voting. An ideal choice can be found in instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also may indicate their second, "runoff" choice and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, she wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

IRV would be a better method of voting for several reasons. First, it would ensure that the winner of the election would actually command the support of a majority of those who voted. This would be helpful in preventing a third party candidate from spoiling an election by splitting the vote of the candidate preferred by the majority of voters. If IRV had been used in Nevada and New Mexico in 1998, for example, the candidates truly preferred by most voters would have been elected. Another advantage of IRV is that voters would no longer have to fear that voting for their top choice might split the vote of their second favorite candidate. Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, voters could give their first preference vote to the candidate they actually want to win. As long as the United States uses single member districts for congressional elections, ensuring that representatives and senators actually represent the majority of voters is an essential element of democracy. Given the increasing number of plurality victories in Senate races, adopting IRV would be an important step towards building a healthier democracy.

 Return to Plurality Index. 

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