The Case For Majority Rule


Early on in the Republican primaries, when Donald Trump recovered from an initial loss to prove he wasn't just a candidate who polled well, his opponents lamented the fact that he was picking up states without the support of most voters.

Most of the businessman's victories were eked out with 30, 35 or 40 percent of the vote -- more than any other candidate, but not a majority.

That was the impetus behind calls for marginal candidates -- Rick Santorum, George Pataki and Rand Paul among them -- to get out of the race, clearing the way for a "serious" candidate to consolidate support and mount a significant challenge to the reality TV star-turned-politician.

A solid plan, perhaps, but there were two inherent problems. First, the plan assumed that votes for other candidates were, by default, votes against Trump. Yet there was no evidence or guarantees that those voters would switch to candidates who were then perceived as serious challengers, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The second problem is even thornier. Telling a candidate to get out of the race isn't exactly American or democratic, and anyone who files the required paperwork, gets the required number of signatures, and builds a campaign structure has a right to stay in the race. Even if they're relegated to the "kids' table" of second-tier, preliminary card debates. Even if they're mocked or ignored by the media, like Pataki. Even if they wear sweater vests and have a name that's been repurposed on the internet as a synonym for fecal matter, i.e., Santorum.

Writing in the New York Times, economists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen propose a different but still democratic solution: majority rule.

The basic idea is to tease out a majority by changing the way people cast their votes. Instead of pulling the lever for the candidate of their choice, voters would fill out a ballot ranking candidates by preference. One voter's ballot might name Trump as his top choice, followed by Kasich and Cruz, while another voter's ballot might name Kasich as her top choice, followed by Cruz and Trump.

The majority rule system would more accurately reflect the will of voters, Maskin and Sen argue.

"Under the plurality system used in American primaries and general elections, a real majority winner can be — and has been — defeated," they write. "Think, for instance, of George W. Bush, Al Gore and Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000, when Mr. Nader’s candidacy drew votes that may well have decided the balance in an excruciatingly close vote. Also, a plurality winner could well be defeated by each of the other candidates in head-to-head contests ... ."

The economists acknowledge that the system isn't perfect. There is no perfect system. But in most cases, it does more accurately reflect the will of the people.

They also argue that a majority rule system would prevent plurality winners from throwing their weight around after an election, despite not having the support of the majority. While this is true, I think this is where their argument goes off the rails a bit -- power and political capital are closely aligned, if not the same thing. A politician imposing his will on a minority has less to do with the application of power than the appearance of it.

In other words, the best politicians are always going to find ways to increase their influence. If, for example, a plurality government treats a victory like a mandate -- despite the support of less than half of the electorate -- opposing a power move like that is a matter of politics after an election, not a limit baked into an election itself. It's on the minority faction to check the winner's power.

Still, the majority rule system is worth a look, especially after a year marked by widespread voter dissatisfaction and the belief that the voting public's power has been neutered by party insiders who have mechanisms to override primaries if voters choose the "wrong" candidate. It might be difficult to get the American people and lawmakers to go along with such a fundamental change to the general election, but after 2016, both Democrats and Republicans would likely agree that the primary system needs an overhaul.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: The New York Times, DemocracyWeb, SpreadingSantorum / Photo credit: Scazon/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

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