Tyranny of the Majority: The American Winner Take All System

by on August 26, 2015 · 2 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights, Election, History, Politics

Is it no wonder that among the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America the US is next to last in voter turn-out?

tyranny of the majorityBy John Lawrence

A lot of people these days are concerned with getting the money out of politics.

That’s an admirable goal, but it doesn’t solve the problem that’s built right into the American political system: a voting system in which the majority rules and there is no minority representation because the winner takes all.

At every level the US is divided up into districts whether its state assembly and senatorial districts, US Congressional districts, San Diego city council districts or what have you. Citizens in a particular district can only vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins in that district.

Even states can be considered voting districts and in each state you can vote for two US Senators, just not at the same time. If there are candidates you like outside of your district, you have no democratic decision making process with which to vote for them. For example, I can’t vote for Bernie Sanders for Senator because I’m not a resident of Vermont. Similarly, I can’t vote for Elizabeth Warren because I’m not a citizen of Massachusetts. The US voting system on every level is archaic.

One of the characteristics of the districting system is that districts can be gerrymandered in such a way that the majority always wins in every district even though the total constituency contains a significant minority. In addition to all the ways Republicans have tried to suppress minority voting such as demanding ID, making voting as inconvenient as possible, intimidation and disinformation such as robo calls misinforming voters about election dates or polling places, majoriy rule within districts is a baked in the cake, structural method of suppressing minorities. It all starts with a system of dividing jurisdictions up into districts.

Let’s take gerrymandering which is the attempt to set the boundaries of districts in such a way that the desired outcome of the election is manifested. Lawrence’s theorem is that no matter how significant a minority there is in any political jurisdiction, the districts can be gerrymandered in such a way that the majority wins in every district. I’m sure political parties have algorithms and computer programs that produce the desired results.

Let’s take an example. As a hypothetical, oversimplified case, lets say a jurisdiction, a city for example, consists of a white majority and a black minority. Let’s say all the whites vote Republican and all the blacks vote Democratic. Since district boundaries are usually drawn by the party in power, a Republican administration can draw each district in such a way that it includes a minority of black voters and a majority of white voters even if all the blacks live in one part of the city and all the whites live in a different part.

However, California decides the boundaries of districts in a much fairer way:

Though the process varies from state to state, redistricting is usually a partisan endeavor. In most cases, a state’s district lines–for both state legislative and congressional districts–are redrawn by the state legislature, and the majority party controls the process. [Districts are redrawn every ten years after the census is taken.]

Some states require bi-partisan or non-partisan commissions to oversee the line-drawing. However, the state governor and majority party leaders often control who is appointed to these commissions. At the local level, city council presidents and/or council members usually oversee the redistricting process.

Some states are moving toward involving citizens in the redistricting process and creating truly independent redistricting commissions. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 11, a referendum establishing an independent redistricting commission made up of citizens. This commission will draw state legislative districts–though not congressional districts–for the 2012 elections.

However, California’s progressivity in this regard is not true of most other states especially southern states with large minority (black) populations. They just gerrymander away with the result that white Republican politicians stay in power year after year with no or very little actual minority participation in governing. No wonder that minorities don’t bother to vote.

This is the way that white Republicans dominate politics in southern states even though those states contain significant black minorities. Then the way our majority rule, winner-take-all system of voting works is that one member is elected from each district. Each voter can vote for one and only one candidate, and one and only one candidate wins.

As an example, let’s say there are three candidates running for office in a particular district – A, B and C and there are N voters. 51% of the voters are white Republicans who vote for candidate A; 49% of the voters are black Democrats who vote for candidate C. No one votes for B. Obviously, A wins and the minority that voted for C are entirely left out of the governing process. Now imagine a voting system in which all voters rank order the candidates.

jefferson quote on democracyThen, in our highly simplified example, we find that 51% prefer A to B and B to C and 49% prefer C to B and B to A. If the voters voteapproval style, they would give 1 vote to their first place choice and one vote to their second place choice. When the votes are tallied, A would have .51N votes, B would have N votes and C would have .49N votes. The clear winner then would be B since all voters have B as their second place choice. B would win the election, but, more importantly, B would represent both the majority and the minority. Instead of winner take all, a compromise candidate who was acceptable to all voters would be chosen.

Instead of the single member district system, a far better way of deciding political elections would be to have multi-member districts and use proportional representation, a system that guarantees that minority parties are represented in proportion to their support in the voting population. For example, a city could just be composed of one super district and voters could rank all the candidates. The beauty of this method is that voters get to cast a vote on the composition of the entire city council and not just on the candidates running in their district. The elected city council members would more accurately reflect the entire voting population not just the majority. Thus democracy has been augmented.

Many countries elect their parliaments by proportional representation including Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Mexico, Russia, New Zealand and many others. The entire European Union elects its members in this way:

The first week of June should see 500 million EU citizens exercise their right to vote for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The EU does not have a singleelectoral law for these elections. Many details are decided at a national level, but a basic set of rules has been established in 1999: MEPs must be elected on the basis of proportional representation, the threshold must not exceed 5%, and the electoral area may be subdivided in constituencies if this will not generally affect the proportional nature of the voting system.

Proportional representation allows for the election of many more women and minorities than does the American system. For example, 40% of Sweden’s parliament are women. In Norway it’s 39%; it’s 33% in Finland and Denmark vs 12% in the US. There is also greater voter turnout since the voters have more choices. Many don’t bother to vote in the US because they know the majority that does not represent their interests will win in the winner-take-all US system so what’s the use?

The American system of majority rule and single member districts effectively eliminates third party candidates. In fact third party candidates end up just taking votes away from the party that they are closest to in political philosophy. They become spoilers as Ross Perot was in 1992 when he took enough votes away from George H W Bush that the election went to Bill Clinton. Considering the fact that, if he wasn’t in the race, most Perot voters would have voted for Bush, Perot didn’t do Republicans any favors.

The same thing happened in 2000 when Ralph Nader ran to the left of Al Gore and took enough Democratic votes away from him that George W Bush won the election with disastrous consequences in that, if Gore had won, there would have been no lying the US into the Iraq war which destabilized the whole middle East.

If proportional representation were used to elect US Senators and Congressmen, Green Party and Peace and Freedom Party candidates as well as those of other minority parties would stand a chance of being electedand would be able to make their values manifest at the national level in terms of actual governing. As it is Greens and others don’t stand a chance at the state or the national level because of majority rule within single member districts.

majority rulesProportional representation (PR) voting systems are used by most of the world’s established democracies. Under PR, representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received. PR assures that political parties or candidates will have the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. A party or candidate need not come in first to win seats.

In contrast, in the United States the “winner-take-all” single seat districts determine that votes going to a losing candidate are wasted, even if that candidate garners 49.9% of the vote. This leaves significant blocs of voters unrepresented. Voters sense this, and so often do not vote for a candidate they like, but rather the one who realistically stands the best chance of winning — the “lesser of two evils.”

No wonder that, among the 21 democracies in Western Europe and North America, the United States is next to last in voter turn-out, with only about 50% of voters voting in Presidential elections since the 1970s.

An advantage of proportional representation is greater voter turn-out (typically 70-90%) because there are more choices for voters – third, fourth, fifth parties and more, from diverse perspectives, including more women and minorities elected.

The US, compared to European countries which are much older, has the oldest Constitution because the older countries have updated their Constitutions since the US’ was originally implemented. The US could rewrite its Constitution too to reflect more modern political science thinking, but prevailing sentiments are that it is written in stone and cannot be changed. It is to be taken literally much as the Bible is in some circles, and nothing newer under the sun stands a chance of replacing it.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bearded OBcean August 26, 2015 at 3:35 pm

It’s a bit misleading to state that older European countries have updated their constitutions since ours was signed. Most governments have not had singular republics since our founding, often being ruled over by dictators (Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, the Eastern bloc, etc).

Also, rewriting the US Constitution would be an impossibility. It consists of 7600 words, including the 27 amendments. The US tax code is 4 million words. The Affordable Care Act has more than 11 million words.

Who’s to say what reflects modern political science thinking? Would it align with your thinking? Amendments were never meant to be easy to pass. You might not like it, but it’s the greatest document in the history of mankind.


RB August 28, 2015 at 6:48 am

Before I focus upon the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the minority, I will focus upon the loss of democracy as the result of un-elected boards, commissions and government agencies making laws, setting fees, and restricting freedom.


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