A historical look at gubernatorial wave elections

Welcome to the Tuesday, July 26, Brew. 

By: Douglas Kronaizl

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. A historical look at gubernatorial wave elections
  2. Top-five ranked-choice voting initiative certified for Nevada ballot
  3. Arizona’s upcoming primary elections

A historical look at gubernatorial wave elections

We are continuing our “Week of Waves,” bringing you information about wave elections between 1918 and 2016. We define a wave election as the top fifth (20%) of elections from 1918-2016 in terms of losses for the incumbent president’s party.

Yesterday, we talked about wave elections in the U.S. House, but we conducted this analysis at all levels of government. Today, we are digging into gubernatorial wave elections.

When it comes to governorships, we identified 11 wave elections between 1918 and 2016: six for Democrats and five for Republicans.

The smallest gubernatorial waves came in 1982 and 2010, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan (R) and Barack Obama (D), respectively. The president’s party lost seven governorships during these elections. 

The largest wave was in 1970, during President Richard Nixon’s (R) first term when Republicans lost 12 governorships.

The 2018 midterm was not a gubernatorial wave. While Republicans lost seven governorships to Democrats—the low end of what constitutes a wave—the party also gained a governorship in Alaska, bringing their net loss to six.

Between 1918 and 2016, the median number of governorships the president’s party lost was two and the average number lost was three.

Gubernatorial elections provide different takeaways than those in the U.S. House. For starters, unlike the House, not every governorship is up for election every two years but this has changed over time. 

Historically, some states elected governors every two years but now elect them every four years. From 1922 to 1946, there were 33 to 36 governorships up for election every two years, which aids comparisons across years.

From 1980 to 2016, on the other hand, 36 governorships were up in midterm elections and 11 to 13 were up in presidential elections. Only New Hampshire and Vermont still elect governors every two years.

The rise of gubernatorial term limits in the mid- to late-20th century also complicates direct comparisons by creating open offices instead of incumbents seeking re-election. From 1950 to 2005, the number of states without gubernatorial term limits dropped from 29 to 12.

There are 36 governorships up for election in 2022. Click here to learn more.

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Top-five ranked choice voting initiative certified for Nevada ballot

Nevada voters will decide whether to change their primary and general election methods this November. On July 21, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) announced the campaign to place the Top Five Ranked Choice Voting Initiative on the ballot had submitted enough verified signatures to appear on the general election ballot.

Currently, the state has closed primaries, in which a voter must affiliate with a political party in order to participate in that party’s primary. Nevada does not use ranked-choice voting in general elections.

The measure would establish an open, top-five primary, making Nevada the only state with such a system. Instead of choosing Democratic and Republican nominees, these primaries would place every candidate on the same ballot and the top-five vote-getters would advance to the general election.

In the general election, voters would use ranked-choice voting, where they rank each candidate in order of preference. A candidate who gets a majority of the vote in the first round wins outright. If no candidate crosses that threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. This process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.

These changes would apply to congressional, gubernatorial, state executive, and state legislative elections. They would not apply to presidential elections.

The two largest donors to the committee supporting the initiative are Katherine Gehl and Final Five Fund, Inc., which have referred to this type of voting as Final-Five Voting.

While no other state currently uses a top-five primary system, other states use similar methods:

  • Two states—California and Washington—currently use top-two primaries statewide, where every candidate appears on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
  • Alaska uses top-four primaries, which advances the top four vote-getters. This is being used for the first time in this election cycle.
  • In Nebraska, state legislative candidates participate in nonpartisan primaries, which operate similarly to top-two primaries, but there are no party labels. 
  • Louisiana has its own election method, which features every candidate on the same ballot but in either October (odd-years) or November (even-years). A candidate who wins a majority win the election outright. If no candidate meets that threshold, the top-two vote-getters advance to a second election in December.

Alaska’s elections use ranked-choice voting. Maine uses ranked-choice voting in federal elections and Hawaii has also enacted ranked-choice voting for congressional special elections starting in 2023. Multiple municipalities have also adopted ranked-choice voting. Learn more here.

Nevada uses different approval methods depending on the type of ballot measure. Initiated state statutes, like the one proposed here, and legislatively-referred constitutional amendments need only be approved once. Constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by voters need to be approved in two consecutive elections.

Of the 30 initiated state statutes that appeared on the Nevada ballot between 1985 and 2020, 22 (73%) were approved and eight (27%) were defeated.

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Arizona’s upcoming primary elections

We’re heading into the next round of primary elections! Voters in five states—Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington—will cast their ballots on Aug. 2. Today let’s look at Arizona, the races on the ballot, and how their primaries work.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (D) is seeking election to a full term after winning a special election in 2020. Kelly running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but there is a contested Republican primary between five candidates.

Four Democratic incumbents and four Republicans are seeking re-election to the U.S. House. U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) is the only incumbent not seeking re-election. Not counting write-in candidates, there are two Democratic and five Republican primaries.

Multiple state executive races—including those for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state—are on the ballot. None of the incumbents for those three races are seeking re-election. Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is term-limited, Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) is running for the U.S. Senate, and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) is running for governor. There are three Democratic and six Republican primaries across all state executive races.

All 90 state legislative seats—30 in the Senate and 60 in the House—are up for election. Twenty-eight of the 50 incumbent legislators running for re-election (56%) face contested primaries. Of the 40 incumbents who are not running for re-election, 31 chose not to seek re-election, and nine were term-limited.

There are two primaries where multiple incumbents were drawn into the same district during redistricting, meaning at least one must lose. There is also one Senate race where a Democratic and Republican incumbent were drawn into a contested general election.

Republicans currently hold a 16-14 majority in the Senate and a 31-29 majority in the House, the narrowest majorities in any state legislature this year.

Arizona is using partisan primaries in all of its races, meaning candidates from the same party will compete against one another to win their party’s nomination in contested primaries.

Write-in candidates are allowed, but in order to advance to the general election, a write-in candidate must receive as many votes as the minimum number of signatures they would have needed to qualify for the primary ballot.

In Arizona, candidates can advance from the primary with a plurality of the vote. This means the candidate or candidates with the most votes—even if less than 50% of the total votes cast—advances to the general election.

If you have primaries coming up, use Ballotpedia’s Sample Ballot Lookup to see what’s on your ballot and bring your choices to the polls with our My Vote app!

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