Beyond Majority Rule

The fight for more democratic elections continues

by Albert L. Huebner

Toward Freedom magazine, September/October 1998


Philosophers of government and mathematics have been studying how to make voting systems more democratic for over 200 years. Although electoral politics is only one of the democratic processes essential to freedom, no one denies the importance of fair elections. It's unfortunate, then, that in many countries claiming to possess electoral democracy, as well as others striving to achieve it, a subject so deserving of ongoing attention is frequently regarded as a settled matter. So open to creative possibilities, it rarely gets a full and fair hearing. Recently, however, the pace has picked up, spurred perhaps by widespread indifference to voting in some purportedly democratic countries. A few nations even have adopted innovative reforms.

In the US, the matter attracted an uncommon amount of attention during the first term of the Clinton administration, when the president nominated Lani Guinier, a law professor, to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Issues raised by Guinier's nomination might have sparked a much-needed examination of voting and democracy in the US. Instead, there was enormous heat, but little light.

Guinier was best known for her civil rights work, particularly on voting rights. Yet, even though her work was well received by scholars and led to a unanimous recommendation for tenure at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, she became the target of vitriolic attacks after her nomination. She was called a "quota queen" and even a racist. Clinton, with characteristic spinelessness, pulled her nomination and joined the attack, accusing her of arguing in favor of a "minority veto."

Although many of Guinier's critics had a hidden agenda, their misleading campaign nevertheless found broad support. Given no opportunity to defend her views, she was accused of subverting the very core of "American democracy"-the concept of majority rule. And why? Because she was implicitly supporting the subversive idea that US elections are neither fair nor democratic, often leading to the "tyranny of the majority."

That phrase was coined by one of US democracy's founders, James Madison, who argued two centuries ago that the tyranny imposed by 51 percent of the people could be as threatening as the royal tyranny that colonial revolutionaries had opposed. And although it would be hard to tell from the abuse heaped on Guinier's scholarship, criticism of "winner-take-all" voting hasn't just faded away since then. On the contrary, the search for voting methods that are more fair and democratic has recently accelerated. More to the point, it's met with success.


Science writer K.C. Cole doesn't exaggerate in her assessment that while the analysts "don't agree on which system is best," they "do agree on which is worst: It's our own hallowed tradition that says that those with the most votes get to decide for everyone." Back in 1951, Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow provided a major new stimulus to thinking about democratic voting. He demonstrated mathematically that every voting method, judged in terms of the most essential properties of democracy, carried with it some undesirable consequences. In short, some are better or worse, but none is perfect. For proving "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem," he received a Nobel Prize.

One of the most accepted alternatives to winner-take-all, currently used in some European and recently-formed democracies, is proportional representation (PR). In this approach, each political party fields a list of candidates, with seats distributed in proportion to the number of votes cast for each. The most obvious advantage is that every vote counts, drawing people into the process rather than tending to discourage participation. In the negotiated transition to democracy in South Africa in 1994, the leadership opted for this system. As a result, seven parties qualified for representation in the national assembly. The National Party (White Afrikaners) got 20.39 percent of the vote and 20.5 percent of the seats, making it the second largest bloc. Thus, PR assured representation of the White minority.

In contrast, Guinier observes in her 1998 book Lift Every Voice (Simon & Schuster) that in winner-take-all, "it makes just as much tactical sense to suppress votes for your opponents as to raise your own vote totals, so candidates try to discourage at least some people from voting." The numbers indicate just how successful this tactic has been. For example, the so-called landslide for the Republican "Contract with America" was actually approved by less than one in every five eligible voters. Two years later, Bill Clinton was re-elected US president, although 76 percent of eligible voters didn't support him, either because they didn't vote or selected someone else.

While PR does open up the political process, increasing turnout and other aspects of democratic activity, its success is influenced by other variables. Israel's system, for instance, has a low threshold. Thus, any party supported by one percent of the voters gets into the Knesset. This allows minor parties to hold larger ones hostage to their demands. Germany, which uses PR to elect half its legislature, reduces this problem by raising the threshold to five percent. (By the way, women win three times as many seats in Germany than they do in winner-take-all systems.)

Another alternative is cumulative voting, a semi-proportional system that Guinier advocates as a remedy for violations of US voting rights legislation created by single-member districts. Take a city divided into seven wards: Using this approach, everyone gets seven votes, which can be used in any combination-all seven for one candidate, four for one and three for another, and so on. In theory, cumulative voting has the potential to encourage organizing among numerically weak but politically intense groups. As mathematician John Allen Paulos explains, it "would help any marginal group to organize, form coalitions, and attain some power."

Given the leading role played by the Wall Street Journal in the attack on Guinier, it's ironic that many corporations use cumulative voting to protect minority shareholders from being overwhelmed or ignored by the majority. Some rural US communities have also adopted it, often grudgingly, in response to lawsuits charging denial of voting rights. In landmark cases, groups that weren't previously represented-Blacks, women, Native Americans-achieved meaningful victories.


Although ideally suited to preserving existing power relationships, winner-take-all inevitably shuts out more and more voters. When the goal is shifted to increasing participation, however, new methods become preferable. In approval voting, for example, people cast one vote for each acceptable candidate. This can be especially effective in primary elections, preventing two similar candidates from splitting a larger vote and thus ceding the election to a candidate who actually has less supporters.

New Zealand recently implemented a form of PR, and it's also under consideration in Canada. In the US, several small parties are currently arguing that some variation on this approach would enhance democracy. But support from the two current giants is unlikely. Meanwhile, it's uncertain whether other nations that are just beginning to experience democratic voting will adopt the South African model.

Whatever method is chosen, the acid test is whether it extends democracy or inhibits it. In preference voting, another proportional option, voters cast ballots for their first, second, and third choice candidates, reducing the possibility that votes are "wasted." This method has been used with success for many years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the other hand, the use of preference voting to elect members of the city council in New York City during the 1930s and 40s provided dramatic evidence of how fragile democracy remains, now matter how the votes are counted.

Although the one-party monopoly of New York Democrats was broken, they still controlled most of the seats. On the other hand, public attendance at council meetings increased and the level of substantive discussions improved. In some boroughs, more people cast votes for city council than in the ostensibly more important races for mayor or borough president. Moving to repeal the system, the well-heeled Democratic Party ran into opposition from public interest groups, minorities, trade unions, and even progressive Democrats. But ultimately, Cold War hysteria provided the fuel the bosses needed.

Third-party candidates, including an outspoken labor leader and a Black communist, had been elected to seats once occupied by Democrats due to winner-take-all. Under an onslaught of scare tactics, preference voting was eventually eliminated. A Democratic leader asserted, however illogically, that "we owe the success of representative government in this country' to the two-party system.

The powerful will always argue for the superiority of the voting system that preserves their position. But there are many alternatives, and no one system is best under all circumstances. With that understanding, it becomes possible for those committed to freedom to face the real issue - not whether, but how to be democratic.


Albert L. Huebner teaches at California State University, Northridge.

Democracy watch