The remarkable Robert Maynard Hutchins, a law professor, chancellor of the University of Chicago and founder of the Center for Democratic Institutions, once proposed a working definition of democracy. “A democratic community is a self-governing community,” Hutchins said. “Every member of the community must have a part in his government. The real test of democracy is the extent to which everybody in society is involved in effective political discussion.”
This is a question facing the United States like never before. This weekend, for example, we witnessed democracy in action in France. And it was a democracy where “every member” played a part.
France (and many of the world’s governments) has figured out that the only way to secure democracy is to require an electoral majority, 50 percent plus one. That means there are two elections: one that allows every party and every member to have a voice, then a second round that forces voters to elect a leader with a majority.
It’s because of this process that I didn’t think Marine Le Pen and her far-right party would ever run France. She can earn enough votes to get through the first round – she could have even won then. But getting to a majority? I think not.
This same scenario played out in The Netherlands. Before the election there were many news stories about the potential impact of far-right candidate Geert Wilders and his anti-Europe and anti-immigrant views. Indeed, his Freedom Party did gain seats in the Parliament. But it was always unlikely that Wilders would ever form a government. Yes, he could win seats. Even the most seats. But a governing majority? No.
This is where electoral democracy in the United States is both unfair and weak.
Beyond the Electoral College failings, pull back and look at the bigger picture. President Donald Trump was elected with 46.1 percent of the vote even though Hillary Clinton earned 48.2 percent. Minor party candidates including Jill Stein and Gary Johnson picked up 5.7 percent.
But what if that was merely round one? Then Trump and Clinton would have campaigned again, one on one, and one of the candidates would have reached the magic mark of 50 percent plus one.
Consider past elections. President Barack Obama won both of his elections with a majority in 2012 and 2008. And President George W. Bush would have been re-elected in 2004. But George Bush and Al Gore would have needed a runoff because neither had a majority. Same goes for Bill Clinton, who never did win a majority (43 percent in 1992 and 49.3 percent in 1996).
The point here is that U.S. electoral politics has a structural problem, and structural problems can be fixed.
Many states have already done so. Republicans in Congress are giddy because there will be a runoff election in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff fell short last week in his bid to replace Tom Price. He “only” earned 48.1 percent of the vote and will now face Republican Karen Handel. This is likely to be a close race. But whoever wins will have done it with a majority. There will be no question about the legitimacy of the people’s message.
Yes, the Electoral College is a problem. So is the structure of the U.S. Senate, where a vote from Wyoming is worth 15 times more than a vote from California. And the House has its own version of structure that is terrible for democracy: Gerrymandering and geography meant Republicans, in 2016, received just under 50 percent of the votes yet earned 55.2 percent of the seats.
There are more democratic ways for the people to be represented in their government.
States and cities have experimented with proportional representation, which gives every citizen a voice. In a liberal Western city, that means conservative voters could count on at least a percentage of the seats. Or vice versa.
One way to make a proportional system work is an instant runoff election. This process involves voters choosing a favorite candidate, then a second pick, and a third. In each round, the candidates with the lowest number of votes are eliminated mathematically. The winner earns a majority. Bernie Sanders favors such a system because it “allows people to vote for what they really want without worrying about the possibility of them getting what they really don’t want.”
How do we make election reform happen? As a start, without the drawn-out process of a constitutional amendment, Congress could require a second round of presidential voting before the Electoral College meets. That still might not result in a majority, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.
A democratic country – or community – ought to be self-governing in a way that allows every member a fair part in effective political discussion. We must get there if we claim to be a democracy.