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No one likes spoilers. Spoiled food, spoiled plans…and spoiled elections. 

In 31 contests over the past dozen years, candidates for statewide or federal office in Oregon have celebrated victory without first winning majority support. 

In other words, in almost one-sixth of Oregon races (16 percent), more voters selected non-winning candidates than cast ballots for the ultimate winner. 

Take the most recent governor’s race. Democrat Tina Kotek won with 47 percent of the vote—about 67,000 votes more than her main competitor, Republican Christine Drazan. But nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson received 168,000 votes, which was more than enough to swing the election. 

Similar cases pockmark state election records. Third, fourth, or even more candidates have complicated over half of Oregon’s gubernatorial races in the past twelve years. They have done the same in races for US representative, secretary of state, and state treasurer. 

In all these cases, it’s not clear if the person who won was actually preferred by the voters. If different candidates had run or if a spoiler candidate had dropped out, the outcome might have shuffled. These “plurality winners” may not represent the will of the people and might push ideas at odds with the desires of the bulk of the electorate. 

Some states, such as Georgia, employ separate runoff elections to avoid this predicament. California and Washington use top-two general elections for the same reason.1 The top-two system does not entirely mitigate the spoiler issue, however. Additional candidates can still create non-majoritarian outcomes in the primary.
And Oregon could, like its cities of Portland and Corvallis, use ranked choice voting to ensure that winners earn a majority of votes.2Sightline uses “majority” here for simplicity, but no method perfectly guarantees that a winning candidate has the support of a majority of the voters. Ranked choice voting, runoff elections, and the top-two method ensure that the winner is preferred on the majority of ballots that have a marked preference in that particular race. In most cases, the majority of active ballots reflects a majority of voters, but not always.

Indeed, the availability of simple solutions like ranked choice voting makes the prevalence of the spoiler problem grate even more. 

In general elections, third parties change the game 

Third-party candidates influenced three of the past five general elections for Oregon’s governor. And in a fourth case, the winner only barely logged a majority. 

Even before the 2022 governor’s race, Democrats worried about Johnson’s candidacy spoiling the election for Kotek. They had seen a similar dynamic unfold in both 2010 and 2014 but in the inverse: it helped the Democrat. 

Democrat John Kitzhaber won in 2010, with a margin of victory of about 22,000 votes more than Republican Chris Dudley but just short of a majority. Two third-party candidates each received almost enough votes to make up the difference between Kitzhaber and Dudley: Greg Kord (Constitution Party) with 20,475 and Wes Wagner (Libertarian) with 19,048.3This was also Oregon’s first gubernatorial election with fusion voting, and Kitzhaber won the support of Independent Party voters, so he did not contend with an Independent Party candidate in the general election.
Either candidate could almost have been a spoiler, pulling voters away from Dudley; together, they very likely changed the election outcome just by running. 

In 2014 Kitzhaber won reelection with 49.9 percent of the vote, which was much closer but still not a majority. 

The 2018 governor’s race barely ended with a majority winner. Although Democratic incumbent Kate Brown received more votes than her closest competitor, she had just 1,999 more than the total votes cast for other candidates.

Spoiler candidates show up on ballots besides those for governor.
In 2016 Republican Dennis Richardson won the race to be Oregon’s secretary of state with 78,580 votes more than the next candidate, Democrat Brad Avakian, ending Democrats’ fourteen-year hold on statewide offices. But four other candidates received almost 175,000 combined votes, which was more than enough to change the outcome. 

The same year, Democrat Tobias Read earned 42,000 more votes than his Republican opponent, Jeff Gudman, to win the race for state treasurer. But two additional candidates received many more votes than Read’s modest edge: Progressive Chris Henry with more than 90,000 votes and Independent Party nominee (and former Republican state senator) Chris Telfer with more than 173,000. In 2020 Telfer seemed to realize that she might have diverted votes from Gudman, chose not to run, and endorsed Gudman for treasurer. (Read won again anyway.) 

No one can know what the outcome of these elections would have been if voters had had other options. But we do know that the number of candidates running, how they campaigned, and how voters strategized affected the final results. The same is true in Oregon’s primary elections. 

Stunted party alignment in Oregon’s primaries 

Christine Drazan won Oregon’s 2022 Republican primary for governor with only 23 percent of the Republican vote. With 19 candidates competing, almost 300,000 Republican voters chose to nominate someone else. 

Republican voters also failed to align on a majority gubernatorial nominee in 2018, 2016, and 2010. None of the party’s chosen candidates since 2010 (actually, since 1982) made it to the governor’s mansion, although several competed in close general elections.

In closed partisan primaries like those in Oregon, voters must register with a political party to cast a ballot in the primary. In other words, an Oregonian must register as a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary or as a Republican to vote in the Republican primary.
4 Oregon’s Independent Party has held a few primary elections in recent years, but most primaries are Democratic or Republican.

Plurality winners in a primary create the same problem as plurality winners in a general election: they don’t accurately reflect the views of the electorate. With split party support, candidates might be extreme, controversial, or uninteresting. They might also perform poorly in the general election. 

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  • Indeed, of the 25 official primary races (of any party) for statewide and federal offices from 2010 to 2022 that concluded with a plurality winner, only four nominees went on to win their general election. And two of those four winners faced a major party opposition candidate who was also a plurality primary winner. 

    In other words, over 12 years of statewide and federal elections in Oregon, only two plurality primary winners beat majority primary winners.5The two winners are Democrat Shemia Fagan (secretary of state, 2020) and Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer (5th Congressional District, 2022).
    Candidates who are weak in May are typically weak in November as well.6There are undoubtedly many additional factors related to candidate performance, including incumbency advantages, district lines, and fundraising.

    As for general elections, so, too, for primaries. Political parties in states such as Alabama, South Dakota, and Texas hold runoff primary elections to guarantee candidates with stronger voter support. Others, such as Virginia’s Republican Party and Maine’s political parties, have used ranked choice voting in their partisan primaries to select winners with majority support. 

    A multitude of candidates confound Oregon’s political parties 

    In addition to the gubernatorial races cited above, Republican primaries offer a plethora of examples of spoiled primaries. (See appendix for a full list of all Oregon’s races with spoilers over twelve years.) In the 2022 US Senate primary, QAnon supporter Jo Rae Perkins won the nomination with 33 percent of the Republican vote, down from her 49.2 percent plurality finish in the 2020 US Senate primary. Lori Chavez-DeRemer racked up just 42.8 percent but still won the 2022 5th Congressional District race. 

    In the 2022 6th Congressional District race, neither major party nominated a candidate with majority support: Republican Mike Erickson won only 34.7 percent of Republican votes, and Democratic nominee (and eventual winner) Andrea Salinas received only 36.8 percent of Democratic votes. These relatively unpopular choices then competed in a close (and controversial) November election. 

    Both parties also nominated plurality winners for the 2nd Congressional District race in 2020: Alex Spenser with 32.1 percent of Democratic votes and Cliff Bentz with 31.3 percent of Republican votes. Democrats floundered to choose their contestant in the 2nd District in 2018 as well, selecting Jamie McLeod-Skinner with 42.8 percent of Democratic votes; she lost to Republican Greg Walden in the general. 

    In the 2020 Democratic primary for secretary of state, three candidates were relatively close: Shemia Fagan won the nomination with 209,682 votes, followed by Mark Hass with 205,230, and (again) Jamie McLeod-Skinner with 159,430. Fagan went on to be one of the few plurality primary winners to win her general election. 

    Oregon can avoid these distortions in future elections 

    All these races, whether party primaries or general, resulted in winners who lacked majority support. 

    Without changes to the method of voting, future elections will undoubtedly produce many more spoiled outcomes. While results are not yet official for Oregon’s 2024 primaries last week, the pattern is evident again: Democratic voters in the 3rd Congressional District race, for example, decided among seven candidates, including three frontrunners. Presumed winner Maxine Dexter has only 48 percent of the vote as of May 30th, 2024. Republicans also had three choices in the 3rd District and four in the 6th. 

    Under Oregon’s current electoral system, running for office isn’t just about defining your priority issues; it’s also about choosing your opponents, reducing competition, and convincing voters to be strategic. 

    Other states have chosen alternative pathways, and Oregon can too. The state could emulate California and Washington’s top-two primaries or the runoffs used in several southern states. Or, this November Oregon voters will have a chance to adopt ranked choice voting for statewide and federal races. 

    With ranked choice voting, voters face no strategic penalty for choosing a Libertarian, Independent, or Constitution Party candidate as a first choice in the general or supporting a compelling but little-known candidate in the primary. Major party candidates don’t have to fear that minor candidates will flip the election to their main opponent. Winners know that they have a strong mandate to govern. And spoiled elections are relegated to the past. 

    For a full list of list of Oregon’s races with spoilers from 2010-2022, download the Appendix