The Potential for Minority Rule in U.S. Congressional Elections
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."
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 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.
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%.
Chart on Votes Cast in November 2000 House Races
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%.
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
Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords is counted as a Republican, based on
his party affiliation when elected in November
Chart on Votes Cast in U.S. Senate Races, 1996-2000
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
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