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Majoritarianism - the beginning of the end?

Instead of simple 'yes no' voting, the Borda Count and Condorcet allow much greater precision in drawing out the best possible outcome of a vote. For the first time ever, the Borda Count has now been used to make a democratic decision - the naming of a new bridge in Dublin.

Rosie Hackett bridge, Dublin. Flickr/infomatique

“Democracy works on the basis of a decision by the majority,” they say.  Is that really the best we can do?

Take Donetsk.  One guy wants (a) unity with Russia; others prefer (b) independence, (c) more autonomy within Ukraine, or (d) the status quo.  So, what does this guy do?  Simple: he concocts a catch-all phrase to unite the (a), (b) and (c) supporters, something about self-determination, and holds a referendum.  The (d) supporters abstain; he wins; and two hours later, he announces a policy of (a).

Or take Scotland.  In 1997, Tony Blair wanted the Scots (and Welsh) to want devolution. The SNP (and Plaid Cymru) argued for multi-option votes to include independence, but Blair said no. Devolution won by 48% (and in Wales, by 1%!) The SNP now controls the question, so it’s back to majority voting.

Or take any majority vote. The obvious flaw of this blunt, divisive and adversarial instrument is this: you cannot thereby identify a majority opinion, because, to be on the ballot paper, that opinion must be identified earlier. You can ratify a majority opinion, perhaps, if you have consulted widely or guessed wisely. But even then, you cannot be sure.

In contrast, you can probably thus identify, with absolute certainty, the opinion of he/she who wrote the question. Which is why, in referendums, parliamentary divisions or party meetings, majority voting has been used by umpteen dictators; they include Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Gaddafi, Duvalier and Khomeini. Some of them changed their party and/or electoral system; none adjusted the majority vote.  He – it was always a he – chose the question, and the question was the answer. It works, always, almost. It backfired twice: Pinochet lost his third referendum, and Mugabe lost his one and only which he ruled to be non-binding.

Majoritarianism was also the underlying doctrine of both Stalin and Máo Zédōng.  Indeed, on translation into the Russian, the very word ‘majoritarianism’ comes out as ‘bolshevism’… (oops, so they have now concocted a new word: ‘majoritarnost’.)

Democratic decisions need not be resolved by (simple or weighted) majority vote. If there are more than two options on the table, there are several other decision-making voting systems (and even more electoral systems, for the latter sometimes cater for more than one winner). In decision-making, then, the outcome could be the option with the most first preferences, or the fewest bottom preferences, or the best average; furthermore, there could be quotas, thresholds and weightings, with two or more rounds of voting. There are lots of possible systems. 

Only two of them take all preferences cast by all voters into account: the Borda Count, a points system; and the Condorcet rule, a comparison of every pair of options, to see which wins the most pairings. Little wonder that the Borda and Condorcet rules are the most accurate. Indeed, the Borda winner is often the same as the Condorcet winner.

In both, people cast their preferences. Then, in the non-majoritarian Borda Count, the outcome is, at best, the option with the highest average preference. And an average involves everybody, not just a majority.

A form of Borda Count is used in elections in Slovenia and in Nauru. For the first time ever, (as far as is known), it has now been used in decision-making. On 20 May, 2014, Dublin City Council opens a new bridge across the Liffey. A ‘Naming Committee’ of six councillors used a Borda Count to get a short list of five names; and on this short list, a full meeting of Council used another Borda count to identify their consensus opinion: Rosie Hackett.

In a plural democracy, on any contentious question, there should always be more than two options ‘on the table’. If a democratically elected chamber takes decisions by a non-majoritarian methodology, there is no longer any justification for majoritarianism: majority rule by majority vote; neither single-party majority rule nor majority coalition nor even grand coalition.

Consider a consensual polity. One party moves a motion. Other parties may propose, not amendments to this clause or that, but a complete (even if similar) package. If, when the debate ends, a verbal consensus proves to be elusive, all concerned move to a vote.

No one votes no. No one votes against anybody or any thing. Instead, everyone votes for (one, some or hopefully) all the options listed, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In a nutshell, the Modified Borda Count – that’s its full name – can cater for a more inclusive polity; it is ideally suited for power-sharing, for all-party coalition governments of national unity, and for international gatherings. It is more accurate; ergo, it is more democratic.


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About the author

Peter Emerson, the child of an English Catholic mother and Irish Protestant father, is the director of the de Borda Institute, a Belfast-based NGO which specialises in voting systems for decision-making.  He has worked in several other conflict zones as well, in the Balkans, the Caucasus and East Africa.  His latest book is From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, (Springer, 2016).

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