A deeper look at what elections say about choices

The Illinois primary is now behind us, but I find myself thinking about the upcoming June primary in Maine. Here’s why.

Elections are about choices. Still, one question that nagged me as I watched some of the more interesting primary races Tuesday night was whether the results were truly reflective of voter choices. In the two-way race for governor on the Republican ballot, the distinction could not have been clearer between the governor and his staunchly conservative challenger. Bruce Rauner narrowly carried the day over Wheaton’s Jeanne Ives, but imagine what the outcome might have looked like on the Democratic side if there had been just two candidates.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course. It likely helped Donald Trump emerge from an original field of 17 Republican candidates for president. It may have helped Barack Obama win his party’s nomination for U.S. Senate from among seven fellow Illinois Democrats in 2004. But it is certainly interesting to contemplate — especially in down-ticket races with large numbers of mostly unfamiliar candidates faced with the challenge of distinguishing themselves among well-qualified opponents.

Eight candidates with impressive resumes were vying for the Democratic primary for Illinois attorney general. It can’t be much of a surprise that the voters’ decision came down to a battle between a well-known former governor, Pat Quinn, and a well-financed beneficiary of traditional Democratic Party leadership, state Sen. Kwame Raoul. Together, these candidates won almost 60 percent of the vote. But 40 percent of voters — far more than either Quinn or Raoul won over — wanted someone else.

I confess to some personal disappointments for candidates at the low end of the scale in the seven-person race for the Democratic nomination for Congress from District 6. I know how hard all seven candidates worked and how well-qualified they were, so I can’t help feeling sympathy for the three at the bottom, the most successful of whom garnered just 6 percent of the vote. But that’s just a personal thing. More to the point are questions about the voters’ choice in an outcome where the winner collected just 30 percent of the total vote, the second-place candidate 27 percent and the remaining two 29 percent together.

This phenomenon played a particular role in the Democratic race for Cook County assessor. Here, candidate Andrea Raila was widely believed to be a plant, placed to siphon votes away from incumbent Joe Berrios’ strong challenger Fritz Kaegi. If that was the intent, the strategy failed this time — thanks perhaps in part to Raila’s on-again/off-again/on-again battle just to get on the ballot. But you can see its appeal if you consider the Republican race in the 10th Congressional District. There, a conservative candidate appears to have won with about 36 percent of the vote in a district distinguished by its support of moderates. How did he win? Because two other candidates divvied up the 64 percent representing moderate voters.

I’m not here to complain about this feature of our system. After all, it did give us Abraham Lincoln, who won just 40 percent of the popular vote while three opponents scrambled for their piece of the 60 percent of voters who didn’t want him. But it is interesting to watch.

For some people, it’s disturbing, too, and a movement is afoot, called theĀ Fair Vote initiative, to promote a “ranked choice voter” system that lets voters have a say in who could be elected if their preferred candidate fails. The system is in place in about a dozen cities across the country, and the state of Maine intends to use it in its primary elections this June.

For those who wonder how well Illinois’ primaries represent voter choices, the outcome in Maine may provide some interesting insights.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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