At first glance, voting seem pretty simple. Someone says: "all in favor say, aye; all opposed say nay!" If there are more ayes that nays, the ayes have it. When it comes to choosing an official, the method is the same. If more people vote for Sarah than for Joe, then Sarah gets to be homeroom monitor, or maybe President of the United States.
When there are only two choices, yes or no, Joe or Sarah, then one or the other will receive a majority of the votes. In political science, a majority is defined as anything more than half.
The only other logical possibility is a fifty-fifty split. Consider the 2010 Governor’s race in South Dakota.
Dennis Daugaard (Republican)
Scott Heidepriem (Democrat)
When there are more than two candidates, the probability that no one of them will get a majority is pretty high.
In 2010, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin ran for reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her opponents were Republican Kristi Noem and Independent B.T. Marking. These are the results, from the South Dakota Secretary of State website:
Kristi Noem (Rep)
Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (Dem)
B.T. Marking (Ind)
In the 2010, Kristi Noem won a plurality of the popular vote. A plurality means more than any other candidate but less than a majority. In most American elections, a plurality is enough to win. There is nothing in principle wrong with this. Noem came in “first”. But it does make us a little uncomfortable. After all, more South Dakota voters voted against Kristi Noem than voted for her. She won because those voters split their vote between the two losing candidates.
Even worse, a candidate can sometimes win a plurality with a very small share of the vote if there are a lot of candidates running. Consider U.S. House district 2 in Louisiana in 2006
William Jefferson wins a plurality of only 30%, with 70% of the voters choosing someone else. If he is allowed to take office, is that really democracy? Most Americans would say no.
Getting to a Majority.
It is considered preferable in American elections for the winning candidate to receive a majority of the vote. For the most part this is not a problem, due to the two party system. The Democratic Party and Republican Party dominate politics across the United States. We refer to other political parties as Third Parties.
In House and Senate elections, it is very rare for a third party candidate to win or come close to winning. No third party candidate has won a presidential election since the current party system emerged after the Civil War. But third party candidates occasionally do have an effect on, or even determine who the winner will be. In 1992 Ross Perot ran as an independent party candidate. He pulled over 19 million vote, which represented almost 19% of the total popular vote. The question is: from which of the two candidates did those 19 million votes come? In other words, if Perot hadn’t been in the race, most of those voters would probably have cast their ballot for either George Bush (Bush 41), or Bill Clinton. Strong evidence suggests that most of the vote came from Bush. Perot couldn’t come close to winning, but he probably did swing the election to Clinton.
When only the two candidates nominated by each party are viable, one or the other will usually get more than 50%. This is especially true when one of the candidates is running for reelection. Persons that the voters know and trust frequently enjoy what is called incumbent advantage. An incumbent is someone who is in office and is running for reelection. The person who is not in office who is running against the incumbent is called a challenger. If the incumbent is not tarnished by a scandal or is unpopular for some other reason, the challenger will most often lose. This is called incumbent advantage, and it helps push the average vote for officer holders in the House or Senate well above 50%.
Until the 1960’s, the Democrats and Republicans chose their candidates at party conventions. Another name for one of the meetings is a caucus. These conventions hosted large numbers of party activists, who voted to nominate a candidate for office. But relatively small numbers of Americans could or were interested in participating in these intense, all day or even several day affairs. Today the caucus is used by some state parties when they select their delegates for the national party conventions. These caucuses have a role only in nominating the candidates for President.
Today, candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are chosen in primary elections. These are very similar to the general election: voters go to a polling place, usually the same one they will visit in November, and fill out a ballot or use a voting machine. Each party holds its own primary, but these events are usually controlled carefully by state regulation.
There are two basic kinds of primary elections. In a closed primary, only registered members of a party are allowed to participate in that party’s primary. South Dakota is a closed primary state. When you arrive at the polling place on the day of the primary, they will check to see that you are on a list identifying you as a Democrat or as a Republican. Then they will give you the proper ballot. In an open primary, you do not have to be a registered Republican or Democrat, but can choose which party’s ballot you want to fill out on the day of the primary.
After the primaries, the two candidates conduct a campaign lasting several months. At the end of the campaign, the general election is held. The winner will take office. In states where the two party system is strong, which means that both parties reliably attract significant numbers of voters, the winner of the general election will usually get a majority of the vote.
In 2010, the field of potential Republican candidates for the U.S. House Race was large at first and narrowed as it went along. Here are the results from the June 8, 2010 Republican primary:
Noem won the primary, of course, and went on to win the general election in November.
When one party is strong and the other very weak, the above system does not work so well. This was the case in many parts of the Southern United States for more than a hundred years after the Civil War. In such a situation, one Democrat might win the primary in a field of seven with 30%, and then go on to face no opposition in the general election.
The solution to the problem was a runoff system. All the candidates from either party run in a single election several months before November. If any candidate gets more than fifty percent of the vote, that candidate is automatically elected to office, and there is no need for a second election. If no candidate wins a majority in the first election, then the first and second place candidates face one another in a runoff election.
That is what happened in the Louisiana District 2 race described above. William Jefferson, who had been tarnished by a scandal, finished the first round with 30%; and another Democrat, Amy Carter, finished second with 22%. A runoff was held including only these two candidates. Jefferson won 51% to 49%, and so returned to office with majority support. But he still didn't get to keep the thousands he had stuffed in his basement freezer.
The Cycle of Elections
Every two years elections are held for the entire House of Representatives and one third of the U.S. Senate seats. In each state, only one of the two senate seats will be up for election at any one time. Every four years there is a Presidential election. Presidential elections generate a lot more interest and participation than any other American election. For this reason, politicians and political scientists tend to speak of House and Senate elections in years when there is presidential election as off-year elections.
Historically, the fortunes of the two parties tend to be affected by whether it is a presidential election year, or an off-year election. When a party’s candidate for president is elected, and especially when he wins big, that party usually does well in House and Senate elections on that same day. When a President wins and his party does well in Congressional elections, we say that he carried his party members in on his coattails. But two years later, in the next off-year election, the party that holds the White House usually suffers a loss of House and Senate seats.
When a President wins a second term, his party does not usually benefit as much as it did when he was first elected.
This pattern of ups and downs, dependent on which party the President belongs to, is called the Election Cycle.