Plurality voting isn’t the only option for elections

There are other ways to select our elected officials. Is it time to consider some of them?

One of the common themes throughout the 2016 presidential election was a discontent with both candidates from the two major political parties in the United States. There seemed to be a larger than usual amount of voters who felt that neither of the candidates mainstream represented them well, or that were not comfortable voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, for various reasons. This discontent is not uncommon in elections in the United States at multiple levels of government. For example, in 2010, Maine Governor Paul LePage was elected with 38.2 percent of the vote. Nineteen of our presidents have been elected with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. That doesn’t mean 19 presidents lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College. Fourteen of those 19 won the most popular votes but received less than 50 percent of the total votes.

So, how can a candidate receive less than 50 percent of the vote and still win an election? When it comes to the presidency, the simple answer is the Electoral College. As the 2016 election showed, a candidate can actually lose the popular vote and still win the election. However, as noted above, there have been 14 instances when a presidential candidate won the popular vote but received less than 50 percent of the popular vote. There are even more examples of that at the state and local level, including Governor LePage. The reason this can happen is plurality voting.

Plurality voting is the system of voting that is used in most state and local elections and in federal elections in the United States. In plurality voting, a candidate does not need to win a majority of votes, they simply need to win more votes than any other candidate does. So, there can be candidates like Paul LePage who win 38.2 percent of the vote who win elections. His opponents received 36.5 percent, 19.2 percent and 5 percent of the vote each. The result was that Maine elected a governor who was opposed by over 60 percent of voters in the election. 

Because of plurality voting, there have been eight governors in the last 20 years to win an election with less than 40 percent of the vote. The percentage of gubernatorial elections won with less than a majority has been increasing as well, from about 5 percent of elections in the 1940s to over 20 percent in the last decade.

One potential problem associated with winning an election without winning a majority is that an official can be seen to lack a popular mandate to support their policies. Without a majority vote, a governor, for example, can be seen as weak by the legislature. This can lead to a lack of cooperation between the two branches of government.

There are other methods of selecting elected officials that are used in parts of the United States, mostly at the local level. These methods seek to better represent the will of the voters and give voters different choices in electing their representatives. This article is the first in a series of articles examining those methods and some of their pros and cons. Future articles will look specifically at a few of the methods used around the country, beginning with ranked-choice voting.

Second article: Alternative to plurality voting: ranked-choice voting

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

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