Majorities Are Not Mandates

A common argument I’m seeing among supporters of runoff electoral reforms is that candidates should have to win a majority. It doesn’t quite matter the reformer or the proposed reform. The assumption is that plurality wins lack democratic legitimacy, as a majority of voters will have opposed the winning candidate. A lot of people from various political points of view have made this case over the years as they advocate for some style of runoff system:

“In 2010, former Governor Chafee was elected to our highest office with 36.1% of the vote in a 4-way race. In 2014, Governor Raimondo was elected with 40.7% in a 3-way race. These results demonstrate why our current voting system needs to change – we sometimes don’t even know whether the will of the majority is reflected in our elections…”

Former Rep. Blake Filippi, 12/20/2017

“As we’ve seen here in Rhode Island, it’s possible to win even the governorship with much less than half of voters’ support. That’s not much of a mandate, since a majority of voters actually voted against the candidate who won… With an open primary, the candidate who ultimately wins must earn the trust of at least half of the voters. It’s a way of ensuring the candidate truly represents the will of the majority of voters.”

Rep. Arthur Corvese, 1/26/2022

“Quite frankly, I would’ve been able to get more things done if I had over 50% of the people supporting me in the city of Providence.

Former mayor Joseph Paolino, 1/27/2022

“…winners of Rhode Island elections only need to garner a plurality of the votes cast. The Rhode Island Constitution provides that the “candidate receiving the largest number of votes cast shall be declared elected.” Critics of the current system argue that a majority vote requirement could lead to the election of office holders with a clearer mandate to build a consensus to solve problems.”

People’s Primary group, 11/29/2022 (released 2/8/2023)

“More than two-thirds of voters preferred someone else [over me in 2019], and I don’t think that’s a good exercise in democratic majority rule,”

Sen. Sam Zurier, 2/13/2023

Winners should earn a majority support of voters, not just a narrow margin. That’s why I think ranked choice voting is a good choice for Rhode Island – because every voter deserves to have their voices heard… With ranked choice voting, the winner must earn 50%+1 of the vote, making sure that the winner appeals to a broad swath of voters that truly represents Rhode Islanders. 

Rep. Rebecca Kislak, 2/14/2023

All of the above are effectively advocating for a runoff system of some sort; either through an initial round with all candidates and the leading candidates going to the general or through a ranking system in either the general or primary (or both) where the runoffs are held instantly using candidate rankings. All of them suggest that a majority win is equivalent to a mandate or represents the will of the majority.

I want to note that I completely understand this impulse. It’s hard to look at a situation like Providence’s recent mayoral election, where Brett Smiley won with the votes of what ultimately amounted to just 9.33% of registered voters at the time (and 42% of Democratic mayoral primary voters) and argue that Smiley has an electoral mandate to lead the city, given that he was unopposed in the general. Surely, as many of the above say or imply, requiring that candidates get at least one vote more than 50% should ensure that elected officials have the will of the people behind them.

But mandates are a mirage, a rhetorical flourish used to present an often false narrative. George W. Bush was fond of using the electoral mandate rhetoric in his second term (nearly 3 out of 10 presidential communications from the Bush Administration made the claim), even as his popularity plummeted due to intractable wars, failed immigration reform, and eventually a major economic recession (to say nothing of a steady drip of scandals). Supporters of Bush really could make a decent claim to that mandate too; Bush won the first majority in the popular vote since 1988 and Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate.

It’s hard to imagine that, despite having won a primary with the majority of Democrats opposing him, Smiley will govern any differently than he would if he had won with a convincing majority. It’s difficult to look at the Chafee and Raimondo administrations that were put into office in 2011 and 2015, respectively, and figure out how their narrow plurality victories altered the policies they pursued. Is Sen. Zurier going to behave and vote differently in the RI Senate now that he’s won a primary with a 47-point margin and a majority instead of a 6.7-point margin and a plurality? Of course not.

It’s important to not confuse winning with a majority with having the support of the majority. They’re not the same. We can look around the world and see just how these are two separate things:

We can look stateside too for where majorities have not translated to political strength. Democratic New York governor Kathy Hochul won 53.2% of the vote; her nominee for Chief Judge in New York was just rejected by 38 out of 42 of New York Senate Democrats. Up north, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu was elected in a runoff election with an astounding 64% of the vote, but the Boston City Council just voted to make their school committee elected despite her strenuous opposition (though it cannot move forward over her opposition, since the Council lacks a veto override power).

Now, obviously those all have particular circumstances, each nation and state is different. But it’s instructive to look elsewhere at how runoffs aren’t necessarily leading to enduring “mandates” and indeed, that we often find executive branch leaders elected in runoffs are either unpopular or find their popularity easily ignored.

Mandates are, at best, temporary and not necessary to effectively govern. What’s necessary to effectively govern is the support of legislative majorities. Rather than the ability to win 50%+1 of the vote, what we need is executive branch leaders who are able to build consensus in the legislature behind their priorities. The latter is necessary to govern, the former is just icing on the cake.

This is something that Rhode Island’s legislative leaders intuitively, routinely, and necessarily grasp. Having a majority of the Democratic caucus, a majority of the legislative chambers, a 3/5ths majority to pass a budget, and a 2/3rds majority to override a veto are all important milestones that ensure Democratic dominance in Rhode Island, and make the Senate President and Speaker of the House two of the most powerful figures in the state.

The need to build majorities and maintain coalitions is something that those who oppose legislative leaders either fail to understand or are just not interested in pursuing. On the Republican side, only seven of the nine elected Republican members of the House are actually in their caucus. Similarly, both the RI Political Cooperative and the Providence DSA have, at different times, actually reduced their miniscule caucuses; and members of both organizations have pursued strategies of attacking the legislative priorities of legislators and organizations that should be most inclined to join their coalitions.

Democratic governors have not fared much better than political opponents. Governor Chafee, who had gone from Republican to Independent to Democrat in a handful of years was completely without any support in the General Assembly. As Treasurer, Gina Raimondo suggested that she would support a class of pro-pension reform legislators and seek to expand that in the 2012 elections. I believe the only member of that group left standing is Speaker Shekarchi, and if memory serves, he may have been the only non-incumbent of that group elected. And though McKee did ultimately win the party’s endorsement in 2022, a number of legislative Democrats supported one of his opponents or spurned his chosen Lieutenant Governor for fellow legislator Deborah Ruggerio.

It’s not that legislative leaders are particularly skilled at coalition management (though some of them are). It’s that they are structurally incentivized to do it. A Speaker or Senate President who wants to remain in that role must be able to secure and count votes (to each of those majorities I mentioned before), to build support among their caucuses and deny it to opponents. Opposition movements have found it difficult to sustain their own coalitions.

We need to build the structures that can sustain more coalition-building. This is why it’s my belief that rather than looking to majoritarian systems like runoffs, which seek to ensure winners have vote majorities, we should look to consensus systems which allow multiple winners, creating a system where multiple political views are explicitly represented in the governing majority.

That’s not possible in Rhode Island today. We are, like much of the country, a de facto one party state. That’s what’s leading to popular dissatisfaction with our governing leaders. Forcing a situation where candidates must win with 50%+1 of the vote isn’t going to address that problem. It provides a veneer of popular representation, but not the substance; useful for media narratives but not for good governance.

A consensus system might mean starting small: implementing reforms like the party formation in law in Vermont, which forces parties to organize local party committees rather than pass a vote threshold (incentivizing organizing). It might mean allowing fusionism where individual candidates can be endorsed by multiple parties, or electoral alliances where multiple parties can band together to elect candidates of different parties across districts. It might mean more radical changes such as moving to multimember districts (allowing more than one person to represent an area), allowing proportional representation (where a party’s legislative seats are proportional to how well that party performs in the vote), or moving to systems where voters can vote for lists of candidates.

None of these are guarantees of a better politics. Ultimately, they just open the door to one. People still have to walk through those doors and do the hard work of it, running and losing before they ever get to win.

But right now those doors are closed, and a majority requirement to get elected doesn’t open them, leaving us in much the same place as we are now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s