A short primer on how you Americans elect your leader
"Democracy" explained from Athens 500 BC to Florida 2000 AD
By Rolf Richardson, Henley UK
With the next presidential election beginning to rumble into gear, let's forget personalities for a moment - there'll soon be enough of them - and take a look at what may actually be more important, the nuts and bolts of how politicians get elected.
Democracy, like mothers and apple pie, is usually beyond reproach, but the shenanigans surrounding the 2000 election may have sown a seed of doubt in people's minds. This was the occasion, you may remember, when the winner lost: when Al Gore polled over half a million votes more than Bush, but was still denied the White House. Something wrong here, surely.
Forget the Florida recount fiasco and hotly disputed decision of the supreme court, the real problem is how the contents of the ballot box are counted. The voter often has less effect on the result than the electoral system.
That simple word “democracy” hides a whole series of options, some impractical, others heavily distorted. There can be “bad democracy”.
Democracy comes in several flavors, some good, some bad
Democracy was invented by the Greeks and Romans about 2,500 years ago, so it's about time we got it right. As the superpower of the age, Rome's experience is particularly revealing. Like many countries, they started with tyrants, but these they replaced with a form of democracy known as the Republic.
Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm to curb the excesses of their chief executive, they emasculated him. The top job, the Consul, was not one man but two, and they only served for one year: like having tandem occupants of the Oval office, both being thrown out after 12 months.
This system worked reasonably well while Rome remained a small city state, but collapsed around 200BC, when Rome found itself master of the Mediterranean and growing rapidly.
It's a curious concidence that the two men who have most influenced the western world are both known to us by the initials JC and were born exactly 100 years apart: Jesus Christ, year zero and Julius Caesar, a century earlier.
By the time Caesar was born, Rome was enjoying endemic civil war, the consuls and senate at the mercy of warlords, like Marius and Sulla.
Caesar has earned his place in history by doing something we would find completely unacceptable: he destroyed Rome's old democracy, the Republic, and replaced it with one-man rule. Perversely this was the one thing necessary to allow Rome to prosper. As inheritors of Roman civilisation, we owe Caesar a debt of gratitude for undoing the shackles of her imperfect democracy.
Although Caesar was dictator of Rome for only four years, he had broken the mould and pointed the way towards Rome's future greatness - the Empire.
In spite of some awful early emperors, like Caligula and Nero, the system soon developed a rough-and-ready sort of democracy, the army “acclaiming” the man they thought best fitted to the post and then getting rid of him if he proved unsuitable.
In 69AD, the year of the four emperors, Galba, Otho and Vitellus were tried and then dispatched in quick succession, before Vespasian finally made the grade, but this sort of trial-and error was unusual. When things got working properly, emperors could last twenty years or more.
The word “empire” is now so deeply unfashionable, that it's worth recalling one verdict on the Roman Empire in its prime as “the period in the history of the world when the human race was most happy and prosperous” - that from historian Edward Gibbon. Critiques don't come much better than that.
Most people have pretty simple demands from their rulers: a full belly and freedom from fear. In Rome, benign dictatorship served this purpose better than flawed democracy. The trick, of course, is to ensure that dictatorship remains benign, but the idea that democracy, whether good or bad, is the be-all and end-all is maybe something we should question.
To explore this notion, let's leave the past and travel to the midget state of Singapore, tiny in size maybe, but big in economic clout.
I spent a lot of time in Singapore during the late 1950s and early '60s, when the outlook was far from promising. Not only were they trying to recover from brutal wartime occupation under the Japanese, they also had an explosive ethnic mix and absolutely no resources of any kind. Out on the streets, a young firebrand call Lee Kwan Yew, leader of the Peoples Action Party (PAP) was fomenting trouble.
To telescope 50 years into a paragraph, the PAP quickly became the party of power in independent Singapore, winning every seat in four consecutive elections, even in 2006 only losing two seats out of 84.
This may look like Soviet-type elections, fixed to sweep the commissars back into power, but in fact Singapore uses the system familiar to anyone in North America or Britain. It's known as “winner takes all” or “first-past-the-post” (FPTP): you simply divide the country into constituences and the top poller in each constituency gets in.
It's so simple that someone with an IQ of 10 can understand it. Unfortunately, these elections can produce huge distortions, which rarely reflect the will of the people.
In the case of Singapore, the clean sweep in seats was typically produced by majorities of around 70% in votes, a good majority, it's true, but 70% is a long way from 100%.
Singapore, like Rome at its zenith, has been lucky that the young firebrand of the 1960s, Lee Kwan Yew, proved to be a consummate politician. Using the benign dictatorship of total parliamentary control, he turned Singapore from a high-risk investment into one of the world's most successful economies. People there often grumble at government interference - littering and anti-social behaviour carry heavy fines - but criticism withers in the face of affluence for all, virtually no crime and everything ticking over like clockwork.
However, if voter support falls below the exceptional levels of the PAP in Singapore, cracks soon appear in First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). When there's a spread of opinion and several substantial parties, election results under such a system can become farcical.
Where a "majority" can be less than 40%
In Britain the last few decades have seen Tory and Labour take their turn in government with about 40% of the popular vote, sometimes less. With low turnouts, barely a quarter of eligible British voters have supported the party in power.
My favorite example of FPTP anomaly comes from the Canadian 1993 federal elections, when the Conservatives went to the country holding 151 seats. Next day, they awoke to results beyond their worst nightmares. Not only had they lost, that had been expected, but the electoral system, which previously had given them more than their fair share, had turned round and bitten them.
The Liberals won, but the sting is in the runner-up statistics: Bloc Quebecois, concentrating its vote entirely in Quebec, got 54 seats on 13% of the vote, while the Conservatives, spread around the country, got a slightly better 16%, but only two seats. The Canadian Conservatives were wiped out by the electoral system.
Although this is an extreme example, FPTP often gives such bizarre results, that most of the world has moved on to Proportional Representation (PR), where seats gained reflect votes cast.
There is now so much experience in PR elections that they can be tailored to anyone's needs. But with man's ability to make a mess of things, the results are not always what the designers intended.
Perhaps the best example of the law of unexpected electoral consequences comes from Israel. Flip through the Old Testament and one gets the impression that the ancient Israelites were obsessed with two things: begetting and smiting.
Often this smiting was not of their enemies but each other, so in 1948 the founding fathers of modern Israel designed the most democratic electoral system possible, allowing every shade of Jewish opinion the chance to let off steam.
Uniquely, they did not divide the country into constituencies, but shovelled every vote into one common pot. Even worse, the threshold at which a party could win a seat was set at an absurdly low 1%.
The result was that Knesset's 120 members typically held about 15 parties, many of them one-man-bands: even the main parties did not normally get a large slice of the cake.
In the the current Knesset the largest party, Kadima, only has 29 seats, with four more trailing behind with representations in the teens. Under these conditions, trying to form a government, which may have to include bitter opponents, takes ages and can ultimately prove abortive.
In the years since 1948 there has been some tinkering with the system, raising the threshold to 2% and directly electing the prime minister - an act since rescinded, but Israel remains almost ungovernable: like the Roman Republic over two thousand years earlier, a nice idea, but hopeless in practice.
Democracy, to be worthy of that name, must not only be fair, above all it must work. Fortunately, we have plenty of examples of PR that works admirably: Germany with the excellent AMS system, recently exported to New Zealand, and Ireland with the even better STV: other European countries tend to use some form of Party List PR, which again does the job better than FPTP.
Critics of PR point to the fact that this form of election usually leads to coalition government. That's true. Voters don't normally like to hand total power to one bunch of madmen. In that case the system should respect voter wishes, even if our masters then have the uncongenial task of making compromises.
The problem with the Israeli version is that it's far too fragmented. Better forms of PR produce fewer parties, usually only two or three major ones. From the voters' point of view, coalitions put the brake on anyone going berserk, which can happen under “winner takes all”. At the Nuremberg trials, Goering said that the Nazis would have had an easier path to power had the Weimar Republic used FPTP elections.
If politicians start whining about the need for “strong and stable government”, we must never forget that their agenda is diametrically opposed to ours. They want power and only put up with democracy because they have to. We, on the other hand, need to be able to stop them going off the rails.
Meanwhile back in the U.S. of A.
Which brings us back to the USA, where FPTP elections rule supreme. A federal state softens some of the worst excesses of such a system, so I want to concentrate on just one aspect: the way in which the US President is chosen. As this man - or quite possibly woman - is far and away the most powerful person on the planet, this is something that concerns everyone, not just Americans. Maybe the whole world should vote for the US President! (Joke).
The mechanics of voting for the President were enshrined in the original Constitution and have not been amended since, in spite of some 700 (!) efforts to do so. Public polls have favored amendment by around 75%, but politicians are notoriously reluctant to change anything which helped them to power.
Voters do not of course elect the President directly, but through delegates to an electoral college. This quaint bit of old Americana goes back to the days when distances in terms of time were huge and electing delegates, who often took days – weeks? - to reach Washington, was the only way of organising things.
Lovers of tradition will be pleased to know that there is probably no need to change the electoral college as such. All we have to do is to follow the example of Nebraska and Maine, the only two states that do not use winner-takes in presidential elections.
In 2000, when Florida announced that Bush had won by 537 votes and that a recount was necessary, panic seized both political camps, because all of Florida's 25 electoral votes were at stake. The fact that nationwide Al Gore had a half million majority counted for nothing. The world's most powerful man had to be decided on what was effectively a dead-heat, which could never be satisfactorily resolved.
Had Florida operated the Nebraska/Maine system, they would have sent 12 Republican delegates and 12 Democrats off to Washington, leaving only the last one for a recount to decide. Equitably dividing the Florida delegates in this way would have given Gore a total of 274 votes to Bush's 258, with a recount now irrelevant. Clearly the outcome the voters intended.
There's no excuse for such “bad democracy” and even politicians have to move their butts if public pressure becomes too great. Perhaps a 701st. attempt to amend the constitution could succeed.
Let's call it the Nebraska/Maine amendment and it might go something like this:
“The federal government requires all states to return delegates to the electoral college for President in proportion to votes cast.”
No doubt lawyers would have a fine time crossing the “t”s, dotting the “i”s and making the whole thing watertight, but this is the general idea. Anyone in favor?
Rolf Richardson is a longtime BOAC pilot who always took time to photograph and write abbout the thousands of exotic places he landed while flying for that old British Airline. Today he is a much sought-after lecturer aboard cruise ships who regales his listeners with pointed and pithy remarks about many of his "ports of call" and writes a Travel Column here. He lives in Henley, Oxfordshire UK and can be emailed here.