June 17th, 2002


Some thoughts on the problems of democracy



Democracy is frequently referred to as a system of majority voting. Granted, the last election in the United States the opposing candidate received more popular votes than the winner, and neither received a majority of popular votes because of the existence of other candidates, it is surprising that our system is called that." Of course the winner did get a majority both in the Supreme Court and in the electoral college. The loser got a majority in the Florida Supreme Court.1Why do we call it "majority voting" when . . . The failure to get a majority in the popular vote is not particularly uncommon. Lincoln, for example, got only 35 percent of the popular vote and if one of the three of his opponents in the election, Douglas, had met him in a 2 candidate election, he would have won. The 1912 election, once again, had a winner who received less than half the popular votes. In Wilson's case he had two opponents, either one of which could have beaten him if the other had not been present. The current government in Canada received less than half the popular vote and, except in wartime, no British government has been elected by more half the voters since 1920. In both of these cases, of course, the winner had more than half of the representatives in Parliament. During its long reign in India, the Congress party never received a majority of the popular vote. Normally it received less than 45 percent. Another and interesting case is the election of 1960. Nixon had more popular votes than Kennedy but lost in the electoral college. The fact that Nixon had more popular votes, although not a majority of all votes, is almost a secret2. 1The Florida Supreme Court, solidly Democratic, voted 4 to 3 for Gore. Seven of the United States Supreme Court voted to overturn the Florida Supreme Court decision, but two of them wanted to send it back to Florida for further consideration. Hence the common newspaper reference to decision as 5 to 4. 2For an explanation of the actual situation see my letter to the editor of The New York Review of Books; Nov. 10, 1988 "Did Nixon Beat Kennedy? and the "Reply" by Francis Russell whose article I was criticizing. He accepted my criticism.

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