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
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
AN UPHILL BATTLE
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
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
Albert L. Huebner teaches at California State University,