Too Often the ‘Winner' Is Not the Choice of Most of the Voters

In Robert Penn Warren's classic novel All the King's Men, a political machine puts Willie Stark in as the third candidate in a gubernatorial race in order to "split the hick vote." Stark finds out and blows the whistle. He loses, but goes on to win the next race for governor.

The novel illustrates a problem in politics in the old Solid South, in the days of one-party Democratic rule. The Democratic primary amounted to the election, and with multiple candidates the opportunities were there to mostly preserve incumbents. You put in a third candidate to split the anti-incumbent vote.

The solution was to mandate a primary in which the top two candidates went on to a run-off election. It was a reform won by progressives in an effort to break up the political machines that ran Southern state governments. It ensured that the person elected got the majority of the votes. Seems like a simple concept.

In many counties and districts in East Tennessee, it is the monolithic Republican Party primary that is the election. Too often the person elected is not the choice of the majority of the voters. In East Tennessee it isn't usually the case that someone puts a third candidate in the race to split the vote. It is more likely the case that a vulnerable incumbent attracts more than one good candidate in opposition. Which, ironically, helps the vulnerable incumbent.

Out in Halls last week, Commissioner R. Larry Smith was re-elected to County Commission with 43 percent of the vote. That means 57 percent of the voters in his district wanted someone else, but the vote was split among his two opponents.

Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri has angered a lot of voters by pushing a railroad intermodal facility in rural New Market. He got 34 percent of the vote, but got re-elected. He got 2,860 votes and his two opponents got 2,768 and 2,581 votes respectively. So 66 percent of the voters wanted Palmieri out and he goes back in for four more years. That's a real mandate for leadership.

In Knox County's school board races, which are non-partisan, there is a run-off election. Unless one of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top finishers face each other in a run-off election. In Knoxville City Council district races, the top two finishers go on to run citywide.

But these races are non-partisan, so the run-off can occur with one more election. With the Republican primaries you would have to insert a run-off election before the general election—the one in which the Republican usually beats up on a hapless Democrat. It would be costly to add another election, which probably ensures it will never happen.

This isn't just a local issue, however. In the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 2006, the total votes for Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary exceeded the vote for Bob Corker. So the majority of Republican voters picked one of the conservative candidates over the more moderate Corker. If Corker and Bryant had met in a run-off, who would have won? Hard to say.

But Corker went on to the general election and defeated Harold Ford Jr. Republicans voted for Corker in the general as opposed to Ford, but it is likely they would also have voted for Bryant had he been the nominee. But Corker is the U.S. Senator from Tennessee.

In the current Republican primary for governor, we have three good candidates. Will either Zach Wamp, Ron Ramsey, or Bill Haslam win over 50 percent of the vote in the primary? It doesn't seem likely. Wamp and Ramsey are considered to be the more conservative candidates and Haslam is considered a moderate. Given the makeup of the voters in a Republican primary, it is likely the conservative vote will be split among Wamp and Ramsey, which would seem to favor Haslam.

It is likely the Republican gubernatorial primary will mirror the senate race of 2006. The majority of the voters in the Republican primary will probably vote for someone who will not be the nominee.

Majority rules? Not always.