A basic concept of democracy is “majority rules.” We accept that whoever gets the most votes in an election wins. (Except, strangely, in elections for President.) It seems only fair.
It is difficult to define the word majority so it retains real meaning. A majority is arbitrary and fluid. A winning coalition in one election may flop in the next. And elected legislative majorities are in fact elected by what turns out to be a minority of the people.
These conditions, while contributing to the incoherence and illogic of political life, provide hope and opportunity for politically committed individuals. When most don’t take part in public life– as depressing as that may be– the contributions of those who do take part are multiplied.
No election ever involves everyone. People under 18 years old can’t vote. Many states impose restrictions on the rights of those convicted of crimes. While these limitations on who may vote may have public support, this does not change the fact that we dilute the concept of the majority by disenfranchising some people before elections are even held.
Many choose not to vote. Presidential elections draw only between 50 and 60 percent of those over 18. Midterm elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S Senate often draw just one-third of possible voters. In odd-year elections, important municipal offices in large cities are sometimes determined with turnouts of 20 percent or less.
Almost all elections are won by candidates winning just a fraction of the eligible population. These candidates cannot claim they are backed by a majority of all people or even of all potentially eligible voters.
This absence of a majority can also be said to apply to successful “mass” political and social movements. Turnout in the four elections won by Franklin Roosevelt was generally around 60 percent of eligible voters. Almost all black voters in the South were excluded from the ballot. Many of those who voted did not vote for Roosevelt. (more…)