In the wake of Boris Johnson’s victory in the election in the UK, a distinguished scholar of comparative constitutionalism posted a lengthy analysis to a listserv in which I participate. Much of that analysis is technical and of interest mainly to other academics, but I was struck by her opening observation:
Calling the Johnson victory a landslide assumes that the results of nationwide first-past-the-post constituency elections adequately capture public sentiment. Yes, Johnson got an overwhelming majority of seats but he didn’t win even a simple majority of the vote. In fact, it turns out that the Tories were up a mere 1.2% in vote totals over their disastrous 2017 election results – in which they lost their parliamentary majority and had to enter a confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP. Labour is now being called down and out with the worst election results (measured in seats) since the 1930s because they were 7.8% down from 2017. Compared with the 2015 election, they were only 2% down, hardly the stuff of grand tragedy…
The UK first-past-the-post electoral system is fiendishly sensitive to small vote shifts which can produce seismic effects depending on how they are distributed across constituencies.
Sound like another electoral system with which you’re familiar?
Politicians and pundits will continue their ongoing arguments for and against the Electoral College, and the British are evidently embroiled in similar discussions about the operation of their system, but there is an underlying issue with which we very rarely engage: what sorts of social and legal arrangements ought to be decided by popular majorities, and what sorts ought to be protected from the passions of those same majorities?
Defenders of the Electoral College point to the Founders’ well-documented concerns about those “passions of the majority,” and to their initial reluctance to remit even the choice of Senators to popular vote. Opponents point to evidence that the Electoral College was a concession to Southern states– they would have been severely disadvantaged in a system where the popular vote prevailed, because their slaves wouldn’t count.
Whatever side of that argument you find most persuasive, the question remains: in the 21st Century, which decisions should be made by popular vote, and which should not?
A fair reading of the Founders’ basic approach–buttressed by political philosophers from the Enlightenment to modern times–suggests that they favored some form of majority rule for issues of governance, and protection from the “passions of the majority” for issues of human and/or individual rights.
If we look at the Constitution, we see that laws are to be made by representatives of the people (the reason we call ourselves a representative democracy). Although it is certainly true that those representatives were supposed to vote for legislation based upon their presumed knowledge and personal beliefs, if those votes proved to be inconsistent with the desires of their constituents, the constituents could vote them out. (It’s also worth noting that legislation was supposed to be passed by a simple majority vote of those legislators–something that seems quaint in an era where overuse of the filibuster means we need super-majorities in the Senate to pass pretty much anything.)
If we look at the Bill of Rights, we see a very different standard. Because the Founders believed in “natural rights”–that is, they believed that humans (okay, white male humans) are born with certain “unalienable rights”–they protected the exercise of those rights against the sentiments of popular majorities.
When you think about it, it’s a striking dichotomy.
It is supposed to take a majority of American voters (or states) to choose the people who will run our government. It is supposed to take a majority of lawmakers to pass legislation. But individual citizens are supposed to be protected against the disapproval of those same popular majorities when they are exercising their fundamental rights.
We can–and do–argue about how to define “fundamental rights” and how to ensure that vote totals accurately reflect majority sentiment. But I think it is fair to say that when electoral systems operate to privilege minority parties and candidates over those preferred by majorities, those systems are neither democratically nor constitutionally legitimate.