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Votes FOR and Votes AGAINST

In my latest column for AIER, I argue that one of the problems with using primaries as a means of choosing each party’s nominee for the U.S. presidency is the fact that this method routinely chooses as nominees candidates who win only a plurality of votes (rather than a majority of votes). A slice:

Suppose there are eight candidates on the ballot in addition to Jones, and that Ms. Voter despises Jones but is largely indifferent to the other eight candidates. So she votes for Smith. But had Smith not been on the ballot she would have voted with nearly equal enthusiasm for any of the candidates other than Jones. In this example – which is hardly far-fetched – Ms. Voter’s vote is not so much for Smith as it is against Jones. And what’s true for Ms. Voter might be true for a large number of her fellow voters who cast their ballots for candidates other than Jones. Because the number of non-Jones candidates is large, the “anybody-but-Jones” vote is dispersed among several candidates, leaving each of them with a smaller vote total at the end of the election than is won by Jones.

If, at the election’s end, Jones has a majority of all the votes cast, then – while it’s never legitimate to describe Jones’s election as revealing “the will of the people” – we can legitimately conclude that that number of voters who oppose Jones is smaller than is the number who regard him as the best candidate. But if Jones wins only a plurality of the votes, then declaring him to be the nominee is fraught with this significant problem: A majority of the voters voted against Jones.

If we think of votes as “votes for” candidates, then it would make some sense to declare any candidate who wins only a plurality of votes, but not a majority, as the victor. The reason is that no other candidate has the support of as many voters as does the plurality winner. From this perspective, the plurality winner is the people’s choice. But once we recognize that votes can be “votes against,” then declaring as victor any candidate who wins only a plurality runs the very real risk of putting into office [or onto the November ballot] a person who the majority of voters oppose. The candidate who wins only a plurality might do so simply because the opposition vote was spread among two or more opposing candidates.

Because today a candidate is declared to be a political party’s presidential nominee if that candidate wins only a plurality of primary votes – winning an actual majority isn’t necessary – it should be no surprise if both the Democratic and Republican party each often sends into the general election candidates that a majority of that party’s voters oppose.