The Potential for Minority Rule in U.S. Congressional Elections

February 2001

More than a century ago, John Stuart Mill explained how it was misleading to describe a winner-take-all election system as "majoritarian" because "a majority of a majority is not the same as a majority of the whole."

Here's what he meant. Suppose each representative has been elected by a majority in a single-member district. Suppose a very controversial item of legislation is voted on and that it passes by one vote in the legislature. This legislation theoretically could have the support only of those voters who had elected the representatives supporting the legislation. If that were true, all the voters who did not help elect one of these representatives - perhaps 75% or more - would be denied their policy preference.
Such a polarized breakdown of voters is unlikely, but the broader point is a powerful one:  that winner-take-all elections in no way ensure passage of policy supported by the majority. This potential is exacerbated in the United States by three particular trends: 1) voter turnout is extremely low, with barely a third of American adults voting in congressional races in off-presidential years; 2) most general elections are not competitive due to partisan imbalance and to how single-member districts are shaped in redistricting, which in turn makes the even-lower-turnout party primary the most important election in most districts; 3) more races are being won without a majority of the vote, particularly in primaries. Minority rule is even more likely to occur in the U.S. Senate, given its great divergence from the principle of one person, one vote because each state has two Senators, regardless of population.

We received the analysis below from a long-time Internet democracy activist (demorep1@aol.com)  who has compiled statistics on potential minority rule in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate based on the November 2000 elections and, in the case of the Senate, elections in 1996 and 1998 as well. Note that his analysis does not factor in the problems of our low turnout and non-competitive general elections, but still indicates that a particular bill could pass the U.S. House with the support of only 26% of voters and the the U.S. Senate with the support of only 11% of voters. We plan to post similar analyses about state legislatures this fall.
Refer to Terms and Sources for more information

U.S. House Elections, November 2000:
Minority Rule Percentage (MRP)

The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 House Members, each elected from a one-seat district for a two-year term. The chart below indicates that a bill could receive a majority of 218 votes in the House from legislators who received less than 26% of the votes from those at the polls in November 2000. A bill could pass with the votes of 218 Republicans whose share of the vote was barely 32%.

 

 Votes Received

 % of Total Votes Cast (105,392,130)

 435 Winners (214 D, 221 R)

 65,503,878

 62.2%

 218 Low-Vote Winners (120 D, 98 R)

 27,303,266

 25.9% (MRP)

 218 Low-Vote Majority Party (Republican)

 34,180,388

 32.4%


* Total votes in November 2000 is based on the total votes cast in the presidential race in November (see chart below).

** Two independent House candidates won, but one (Bernard Sanders, Vermont) is closely aligned with the Democrats and the other (Virgil Goode, Virginia) with the Republicans. In addition, note that one Democrat and one Republican each were elected without any general election votes.
 
Chart on Votes Cast in November 2000 House Races

 

 Voters (2000)

 Percent

 403 Democratic House Candidates

 46,747,873

 44.4%

 401 Republican House Candidates

 47,127,816

 44.7%

 All Other House Candidates

 3,401,429

 3.2%

 Non-Votes in House Races*

 8,115,012

 7.7%

Total Voters in Election 2000

105,392,130

100.0%


* "Non-votes" in House races is determined by subtracting the number of votes cast in House races from the number of votes cast in the Presidential race. It does not include the voters who did not cast a valid vote in the presidential race (which was more than 2% of all votes).

U. S. Senate Elections, 1996-2000:
Minority Rule Percentage (MRP)

The U.S. Senate has 100 Members. Senators serve six-year terms, with one-third of the Senate elected every two years. Two Senators are elected from each state, regardless of that state's population. The chart below indicates that a bill could receive a majority of 51 votes in the Senate from legislators who received less than 11% of all votes cast in U.S. Senate races in 1996, 1998 and 2000. A bill could pass with the votes of 51 Republicans whose share of that total vote was barely 24% and the votes of 51 Democrats whose share of that vote was less than 33%.

 

 Votes Received

 Percent of  Total 
Senate Votes*

 100 Winners (50 D, 50 R)

 102,547,895

 56.9%

 51 Low-Vote Winners (22 D, 29 R)

 18,988,443

 10.5% (MRP)

 50 Low-Vote Democrats

 59,055,827

 32.7%

50 Low-Vote Republicans

43,492,068

24.1%


* Total Senate votes is based on adding all votes cast in U.S. Senate races from 1996 to 2000. It does not include the votes of anyone at the polls who did not cast a valid vote in the U.S. Senate race. See chart below.

** Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords is counted as a Republican, based on his party affiliation when elected in November 2000

Chart on Votes Cast in U.S. Senate Races, 1996-2000

 

 Votes Received

 Percent

 99 Democratic Candidates, 1996-2000

 87,826,296

 48.7%

 100 Republican Candidates, 1996-2000

 86,664,162

 48.1%

 Other Candidates, 1996-2000

 5,846,013

 3.2%

 Total Senate Votes, 1996-2000

 180,336,471

 100.0


Terms:
 
D - Democrat
R - Republican
Ind - Independent
MRP - Minority Rule Percentage
 
Democrat and Republican votes include third party votes for Democrat and Republican candidates in fusion states like New York
 
Sources:
 
1996 Data - Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election of November 5, 1996, Clerk, United States House of Representatives
 
1998 Data - Statistics of the Congressional Election of November 3, 1998, Clerk, United States House of Representatives
 
2000 Data - Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election of November 7, 2000, Clerk, United States House of Representatives