On Democracy

It’s not exactly a light topic, but here’s a thought on democracy.

I’m sure most people understand the rudiments of democracy – rule of the majority is essentially what it boils down to, or so that’s the theory. Which is the point I was pondering the other day, really – if you take the English model, the numbers look a bit off to me.

To win government, a party must have 51% of the members in the parliament. To win a seat, a candidate must win 51% of the local vote. Nothing here however says that the overall popular vote must be won, though.

The way I see it, the minimum needed to form government is 51% of 51%. The other seats could be lost by margins as wide as the Pacific, or not even with candidates for that party. Assuming electorates are created equal, effective targeted campaigning could mean that 51% of 51% of the population – 26.01% – could deliver a party to government.

That is a little scary.

Now, that kind of result is about as likely as ski weekend packages in Hell, except perhaps in Zimbabwe, but it shows the idea of democracy being majority rule is a bit of a fallacy. If the other parties win a combined, say 75% of 49%, that’s 36% – just in the wrong place.

If you want to ensure that you’ll always represent a majority of the population, winning a seat and winning government would require 75% of the vote in 75% of the electorates. You can probably expect Air Bacon to be operating the day after that occurs.

Practice suggests governments tend to have about half the country on side, but this also is on the assumption that voting is compulsory as it is in Australia. If you make voting optional and reflect realistic voter turnout rates, you cut down the minimum proportion of people even more.

So, when they ask you whether you want a directly-elected president on the basis of a pure popular vote, or you want something else, explain what democracy is really about and go for direct election, any day.

3 Replies to “On Democracy”

  1. A quick idea. I’ve always thought proportional representation was more democratic, it means that whoever is voted for actually gets the vote, rather than the vote being distributed between the two major parties, as in the two-party system. At least then there is the option of a third or fourth party having a say.

  2. I don’t think democracy implies rule of the majority. I personally think the definition is so muddy that all anyone can agree on is that there is voting involved.

    It’s short-sighted to want to elect a president on popular vote alone just to prevent the nightmare scenario of some highly-organized 26% of the population taking over the country.

    Yes, the current system has flaws like gerrymandering and people having “more” of a vote than their neighbours but this alternative has its problems too. Embracing the ideal scenario is great but I think the minority opinions of the people can be important and it’s easy to have them drowned out by the majority.

  3. Kirsty: Yeah, does sound like porportional representation would definitely be a better way to go about it, though it does require some divorcing from the local-representative model. Do you anywhere that’s got it in place?

    Jack: sure, democracy doesn’t literally translate into rule by majority (more “rule by the people”), but I think if you asked 10 people 9 would say it’s about majority rule, and those are the people voting. It’s why you get outcry about Gore in 2000 or Beazley in 1998 winning the popular vote but still going down because of an electorate system.

    Direct election of a president to me has a number of factors to it, the least of which is the majority-view representation – the obvious fact is that to appeal to 51% of the population, views would be pretty middle of the road as is.

    Regarding minority views, I think Kirsty’s nailed that one – proportional voting is far more likely to result in the views of minorities being expressed than the current electorate-based voting.

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