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The Case Against Majority Rule

An article in The New York Times by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen makes the argument that the U.S. should reform its primary elections to reflect the wishes of a majority of voters rather than a plurality.

The fundamental idea behind the column is that a majority of Republican voters have, in fact, voted against the current front-runner Donald Trump in the primary races which have been held so far.  Unlike 2012, where Mitt Romney really only had one or two clear rivals -- Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul -- following Super Tuesday, Trump has risen to the top of the pack by working his way up an incredibly divided field.

Trump's rise shows that he probably would have lost at least several of these primary races if, for instance, he was facing only Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, or only Ohio Gov. John Kasich in any of them, the authors argue.  The insinuation is that a majority-rule system would be better suited to elect candidates who are truly popular, and not simply relying on a vocal minority faction to propel their popularity.  

But to turn the primaries into a contest whereby a clear majority is needed to determine a winner, elections would, by necessity, have to be limited to two candidates.  The lack of a pure majority rule system in the U.S. goes back to the early days of the republic, in which the Founders devised an electoral system which would block candidates with limited geographical appeal over ones who could appeal across a broader spectrum of supporters. The key in determining such candidates are electoral votes, not total votes cast.

That argument is even more compelling today, as the territory of the United States is now continental in scope and is far more culturally and racially diverse than it was 200 years ago.  

The call for the enactment of a pure majority-rule system also belies the fact that the winner of 270 electoral votes has almost always been -- with a few exceptions -- the winner of the popular vote, as well.  It is no coincidence that the Democratic and Republican parties are essentially coalitions of different groups of voters, with diverse views and opinions and with varying degrees of power within the parties.

The problem is when one ideological viewpoint begins to dominate in each party; once that has happened, compromise becomes more difficult, particularly when former congressmen and senators known to be 'moderate' are being replaced left and right with more ideological legislators.

The GOP may have screwed up in not attempting to stop Donald Trump quickly enough.  But his candidacy does not highlight any fatal flaw in the plurality-rule system used in U.S. elections; it simply shows that the separate constituencies which have made up the Republican Party for nearly 30-40 years have been drifting away from each other even as the party continues to dominate mid-term elections.  Trump has given voice to the angriest voters within the party, especially among the working class.  This constitutes a fundamental disagreement within and outside of the GOP over the proper role that government should play, and it will ultimately need to be resolved.

It should not be resolved by scrapping U.S. electoral rules and attempting to move to a majority-rule system which would necessarily raise barriers for potential candidates and provide nebulous benefits.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Source: The New York Times / Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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