Getting to “Majority Wins”

Do you believe that “the majority wins”?  Most of us do.  But so often in our elections the winner is decided by a plurality, not a majority.  Why?  Third party candidates can siphon off enough votes in tight elections so that winners are deprived of clear (majority) victories.

In the 2016 presidential race, the results in four decisive battleground states were potentially affected by the votes for minor party candidates:

  • In Florida, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton 49% to 48%; Gary Johnson received 2%; Jill Stein had 0.7%; two other candidates totaled 0.3%.
  • In Pennsylvania, Trump won 49% to Clinton’s 48%; Johnson had 2%; Stein had 0.9%; one other had 0.4%.
  • In Michigan, Trump received 48% to Clinton’s 47%; Johnson garnered 4%; Jill Stein had 1%; two others captured 0.5%.
  • In Wisconsin, Trump won 48% to Clinton’s 47%; Johnson had 4%; Stein had 1.0%; three others received 0.7%.

We can only speculate as to which candidate would have won if, in a runoff election, the minor party voters had a chance to vote for their second choice candidate.  But, Maine voters in this election passed a referendum that going forward the state will employ Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to result in an instant runoff and a winner always decided by majority preference (Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV).  In the event no candidate wins an outright majority, the second choice of the third place (and lower) finishers are added to the remaining candidates.  This process can be done sequentially, eliminating the lowest vote-getter first, and continuing, to arrive at a majority winner.

In the above four battleground states, if all Jill Stein’s votes and half of Gary Johnson’s votes had gone to Hillary Clinton, she would have won those four states.  (Clinton did win the plurality national vote:  47.7% to Trump’s 47.5%; Johnson received 3.2%; Stein received 1.0%; other candidates received 0.6%.)

This is not a partisan issue!  In the election of 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency with 43.0% of the national vote to President George Bush’s 37.5%.  In that year, the major third party candidate, Ross Perot, received 18.9% of the popular vote.  In every state the winner had received less than 50% of the vote, and were there a runoff election (instant or traditional) in each state, the second choice of Perot’s voters in each state would have decided each state’s majority winner.

Arriving at a majority winner by RCV/IRV would have additional significance. There is a psychological mandate for the winner who captures a majority.  Also, during the campaign..especially in primaries with several candidates..there is a greater likelihood that candidates will not insult each other because winning may ultimately depend upon the runoff votes of the other candidates’ supporters.

RCV/IRV is openly supported by Sen. John McCain, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and President Barack Obama, and is already used in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Burlington (VT) and five other cities.  It has been used for years to decide national elections in Australia and Ireland and in London for Mayor.  It is used in electing student leaders at over 50 American colleges and also is used to select Oscar nominees for best picture.  New York City’s Comptroller Scott Stringer has called for RCV/IRV to be used to avoid costly runoff elections; in NYC, a runoff election can cost the city upwards of $13 million to administrate.

Maine having passed the RCV/IRV referendum will accelerate the movement towards majority wins.  About time.