Elected without a majority: Plurality wins in 2021

By Deb Otis and Will Mantell

While 2021 saw a record number of Americans voting in ranked choice voting (RCV) elections, the vast majority of our elected officials are still elected in single-choice plurality elections, which limit voter choice, create “vote-splitting” between similar candidates, and sometimes contradict the will of the majority.

Just as in years past, this led to several incredibly low plurality wins across the country — in other words, a vast majority of voters chose a different candidate than the one who ended up winning.

Here are some of this year’s lowest plurality wins:

Florida’s 20th Congressional District, Special Election, Democratic Primary

11 candidates lined up to replace Alcee Hastings, a longtime Democratic congressman who died in April. This majority-Black district is rated as “Solid Democrat” by the Cook Political Report, meaning the Democratic nominee is heavily favored to win the general election. In “safe districts” like this one, it is important for the primary winner to have the broadest possible support because they will almost certainly go on to represent the district.

This neck-and-neck race bounced back and forth between Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick and Dale Holness, with Cherfilus-McCormick finally edging Holness out by five votes after an automatic recount.

Cherfilus-McCormick finished with just under 24 percent, meaning three-quarters of primary voters chose someone else. This is bad news for Cherfilus-McCormick, who will enter office without a clear mandate to lead — and in a weak position heading into another primary in 2022.

Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, Special Election, Republican Primary

Low plurality wins affect both sides of the political spectrum. In this Solid Republican district, Rob Carey won the 11-candidate August primary to replace former Rep. Steve Stivers.

There was less drama than Florida’s 20th, but Carey took only 37 percent of the vote — meaning 63 percent of voters wanted someone else. Now-Rep. Carey could have another crowded Republican primary in his future.

The Rust Belt Mayors

In Cleveland, Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley advanced from a nonpartisan preliminary election with just 27 and 19 percent of votes. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Wanda Williams won the Democratic primary with 29 percent — with her main opponent, current Mayor Eric Papenfuse, right behind at 28 percent.

In an RCV primary election, the winner earns a majority of support — giving them a consensus win and encouraging the party to unify behind their candidacy. That didn’t happen in Harrisburg, where Papenfuse refused to accept his primary loss and waged a write-in campaign against Williams in November.

And here are some other situations where ranked choice voting would’ve worked better than our current system:

The Unnecessary Runoff

Atlantans are getting a special Thanksgiving present this year: a mayoral runoff election on Tuesday, November 30.

Runoffs are expensive, lengthen the campaign season, and see significant drop in turnout from the prior election — so fewer people’s voices’ are heard.

The use of RCV has removed the need for separate runoffs in cities like Minneapolis and New York.

The Unnecessary General Election

It’s the other side of the coin in Topeka, Detroit, Omaha, and Durham, North Carolina — where mayoral candidates won preliminary elections with large majorities. Their reward? Getting to face voters again (and win big again) a few weeks later.

RCV would remove the need for these separate elections held at taxpayer expense.

FairVote Action campaigns for better elections for all. We win voting reforms that make democracy more functional and representative for every American.