The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion


23 March 2012

Will the candidate favored by the majority win in June?

Just 12.5% could
nominate a GOP
commissioner candidate

Eight men have filed for the Republican primary to nominate a candidate for the Flathead County Commission seat opened by Jim Dupont’s death this week. If the votes are evenly split among the candidates, the nominee could win with just one vote more than 12.5 percent of the votes.

Not necessarily. Candidates disfavored by the majority could win a number of elections this year in Montana.

Montana employs a plurality wins electoral system. When only two candidates appear on the ballot, there are no write-ins, and no option for “none of the above,” a plurality becomes a majority. But when the ballot for an office or nomination contains three or more candidates (or combination of candidates and options), and there is no provision for a runoff between the two candidates receiving the most votes, the election’s winner can receive well under a majority.

In other words, a zealot or crackpot who would be the last choice of most voters could win the election, or throw the election to a candidate who would lose in a two-way race.

Remember Jesse Ventura, the hulking ex-professional wrestler who became Minnesota’s Independent governor with 37 percent of the vote? Ralph Nader, whose 1.6 percent of the vote in Florida deprived Al Gore of a victory over George W. Bush? Stan Jones, the blue-faced Libertarian whose 3 percent of the 2006 U.S. Senate vote in Montana deprived Conrad Burns of a majority to the benefit of winner Jon Tester?

Ventura was far to the right of his opponents, Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Skip Humphrey. It is unlikely that Democrats would have voted for Ventura in a runoff against Coleman, who finished second. In Florida, Gore probably would have been the second choice of enough Nader voters to win a runoff. And in Montana, there’s a very high probability Burns would have won had Jones not been on the ballot.

Plurality systems increase the power of third and minor parties, sometimes disproportionately, and they increase the probability that the winning candidate will be disfavored by a majority of the voters. That’s why some jurisdictions have runoff elections when a candidate fails to receive a majority in an election.

Addressing the problem last fall, I wrote in part:

At a nominating convention, where successive votes by the same set of voters can be taken easily and quickly, a different sort of runoff is possible. Instead of having voters chose between the top two vote getters, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is left off the next ballot, forcing his supporters to opt for their second choice (or not vote). After each round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes is struck from the ballot. The process stops when someone secures a majority of the votes.

A similar process for primary and general elections is possible by using instant runoff voting, a system invented in the nineteenth century. Here’s how it works, as described by

  1. IRV uses ranked ballots to simulate a traditional runoff in a single round of voting. Voters rank candidates in order of preference. They may rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, with lower rankings never counting against higher rankings.
  2. First choices are tabulated. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected.
  3. If no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the candidate receiving the fewest first choices is eliminated.
  4. Ballots cast for the eliminated candidate are now counted toward those voters’ second choices.

IRV, which can be implemented in various ways, was adopted by San Francisco in 2004, and is used in a number of cities around the country.

Not all multi-candidate contests will be won by a candidate receiving just over the theoretical minimum. Money, issues, personal popularity; all widen the gap between candidates. Many multi-candidate elections will feature two major candidates, sometimes three, plus a number of candidates who will receive only a percent or so of the vote. Sometimes, but not always, the one-percenters will affect the outcome. Sometimes, the winner of a field of 40 will receive a majority.

But that’s little reason for comfort. Although the probability of an adverse outcome may be low, the consequences can be devastating, causing economic harm and loss of confidence in political systems. The risk of harm is greatest in executive offices such as governor, and decision making bodies with few members, such as county commissions.

It’s too late to switch to IRV for the 2012 primary. And implementing IRV for the 2012 general would require a special session of the legislature. Not impossible, but as improbable as winning the lottery. But the 2013 session of the legislature is the place and time to get started. In the meantime, we can mitigate the risk by working, and working hard, for the least risky candidates (provided we can figure out who they are).


Statewide, legislative, and Flathead County Commissioner three-way contests

Office Party Candidates Minimum percentage
(+ 1 vote) needed to win
Primary election      
U.S. House R 3 33.3
U.S. House D 7 14.3
MT Governor R 7 14.3
MT Secretary of State R 4 25.0
Montana State Senate      
District 2 R 3 33.3
District 3 R 3 33.3
District 6 R 3 33.3
District 7 R 3 33.3
District 17 R 3 33.3
District 34 R 3 33.0
Montana State House      
District 46 R 3 33.0
District 60 R 3 33.3
District 71 R 3 33.3
District 87 R 3 33.3
District 89 R 3 33.3
Flathead County Commission      
District 3 R 5 20.0
District 1 R 8 12.5
General election      
Libertarian MT House   8 districts 33.3
Libertarian MT Senate   2 districts 33.3
Libertarian U.S. Senate   2 33.3

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