We throw around phrases like “majority rule” with abandon, but often without giving much thought to their actual meaning.
Americans assume they elect their public officials by majority rule. Most of the time they’re right, but not because that is, in fact, the rule. Rather it’s simply a byproduct of the two-party system.
“Majority rule” means an election winner must secure a majority of the vote — 50 percent plus one. With only two candidates on the ballot, one will always emerge with a majority, absent a rare exact tie.
Indeed, when the Framers tweaked the Constitution, after the disastrous election of 1800 revealed problems with their original mechanism, they made clear in the 12th Amendment that they wanted presidents elected by a majority, not a plurality, of electors.
Today, a number of jurisdictions use systems like rank-choice voting to ensure majority rule.
That’s because plurality rules can produce perverse outcomes, when a third candidate (let alone a fourth or a fifth), complicates matters.
Say there are 100 voters, 46 for A, 44 for B and 10 for C. Assume further that eight of the 10 voters supporting C, prefer B to A.
A wins using plurality voting because A has more votes than any other candidate.
But B has more total support than A — the original 44, plus eight of C’s voters.
Should citizens be stuck with the candidate who got two more votes in the initial balloting, even though B would beat A by four votes in a majority system?
This is not merely academic angels dancing on pinheads. It changed the course history in recent years, perhaps twice.
George W. Bush beat Al Gore according to Florida’s official (and faulty) tally by 537 votes, while 97,488 Sunshine Staters cast ballots for Ralph Nader — and in 2000, as Florida went, so went the Electoral College and the presidency.
The exit poll found 47 percent of Nader voters would have picked Gore in a two-person race, while just 21 percent would’ve voted Bush. A third would not have participated.
Professor Gerald Pomper applied these figures to the actual vote, concluding Gore would have gained a net of 26,000 votes in Florida, far more than he needed to carry the state easily.
Getting the electoral decision rule right is critical.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), like most other electoral reformers, has strongly favored majority rules for most of his career. He advocated such systems as mayor of Burlington, Vt. , in Congress, and now, as a presidential candidate.
Sanders argues it is unfair to let a candidate win who might be supported by a minority, and that majority rules give people the ability to vote their true preferences instead of making strategic calculations.
Why bring this up now?
It could bear directly on the nomination battle consuming the Democratic Party.
Now Sanders seems to be changing his lifelong philosophy, and upending decades of progressive reform, by arguing that whichever candidate has the most delegates on the first ballot should be nominated, even if a majority of delegates don’t back that individual.
Why give up the beliefs he articulated in bills he co-sponsored and statements he’s made, as recently as this year?
Sanders obviously thinks he may have the most delegates on the first ballot, even though a majority might prefer another candidate.
That’s how principle is sacrificed on the altar of ambition.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.