When it comes to numbers, terms such as majority and minority are pretty well understood. Merriam Webster defines majority as “a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total” and minority as “the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole” and goes on to qualify that by describing it as “a group having less than the number of votes necessary for control.”
So where in the world of voting does a plurality fit in? More significantly, why does a plurality matter?
Imagine an election, such as a party primary, in which more than two people are running for office. If candidate A captures 45% of the votes, candidate B captures 35%, and candidate C captures the remaining 20% of the votes, no candidate has an actual majority because a majority is a number or percentage equaling more than 50% of the whole. And that’s where plurality fits in: Candidate A has a plurality of votes, plurality being defined as the greatest number of votes in a contest in which no one gains more than 50% of the votes.
Does winning a plurality of the votes automatically make candidate A the winner of the contest? Naturally, the answer is, it depends.
In this case, it really depends on who’s running the elections. Winning a plurality of the votes in some elections would make candidate A the winner of that election. In 2018, in Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district, Dr. John Joyce became the Republican party’s nominee on the November ballot by winning a plurality of only 22% of the vote in the primary (it was an eight-way race).
In other elections, the absence of a majority winner forces a run-off election between the two candidates who won the most votes. We saw this in 2018 in the primary elections in Georgia. In a multi-candidate contest to become the Republican party’s nominee for Governor on the November ballot, no one won more than 50% of the votes. Casey Cagle won a plurality of 38.9% and Brian Kemp came in second with 25.6% of the votes. A special run-off election was held, and Brian Kemp emerged the victor with a decisive majority (69.4% of the votes) and went on to become the Republican party nominee for Governor in the November election.
Of course, in some cases, having a plurality of the votes isn’t enough win an election or even to win a seat in a special run-off election. No candidate in the 2016 presidential elections won a majority of the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won a plurality, with 48.5% of the popular vote. Donald Trump came in second with 46.4% of the popular vote. But winning the plurality doesn’t matter because the popular vote doesn’t actually decide a presidential election. The president is elected by the 532 members of the Electoral College, whose votes may or may not mirror the popular vote. In 2016, they did not, and in that contest Donald Trump won a majority of votes – nearly 57% – to go on to become the 45th President.