Winner-Take-All Elections


Roman Election: One Vote per Sword and the Loser Loses His Head

The latest buzz in political circles these days is election reform of two sorts: the matter of funding of political parties and campaigns, and the matter of the form of the actual election. Both of these issues stem from the perception among many that the election process, as we practise it, is not that democratic. That our system was in fact designed to create rule by an elite. Which, of course, it was.

2000 Years of Autocratic History in 3 sentences.

First Winners: The Roman Empire took over most of Europe and ruled for about 400 years, until the rest of the world – the surrounding barbarians – threw them out.

Second Winners: The winning barbarians held a lottery and the winners became kings; it took from the Magna Carta until the Industrial Revolution for a new elite to develop, but the principles of the 18th and 19th centuries – government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich – still held sway

Third Winners: Real democracy didn’t get moving until the middle of the 20th century, when the excesses of national competitiveness created World War II, where women got into the work force and the lower classes discovered they were needed.

The message from this history is that democracy is very much a work in progress.

Two Approaches to Elections

I have mentioned in a previous post the deplorable fact that many people still hold to the old medieval precept that an election is a battle. The winner of the battle gets to rule the country for the next few years. This is not democracy, but serial autocracy. It’s the way the aggressive people control democracy. The focus, as usual, is on those who win, and their wiles to create an edge for themselves in future elections.

Others regard an election as the selection process by which the electorate chooses the leaders to perform the will of the people for the next few years. This is a completely different attitude, in that it concentrates the attention where democracy is supposed to address itself: on the voters.

But the old, 2000-year-old bias is still rooted in our society at all levels. In spite of our supposed egalitarian ethos, winners are still given advantages in many venues. First seeds get byes into the medal round. The ruling party gets to choose new members for the Senate and the Supreme Court. And even set their own salaries. Worse yet, the ruling party gets to hold thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraising dinners, where those with enough money (i.e. business winners) get access to political leaders, all the way up to the Prime Minister.

The point is not whether these rights are abused. The point is that they could be abused. The Republican primary race in the US is a perfect example of this. Many states have a “winner take all” policy. In some states, if a candidate wins the state by a score of 11 to 10, that candidate gets all 21 votes at the convention. What’s democratic about that? The numbers show that a man who at the moment is getting about 45% of the Republican votes actually might go into the convention with a majority. It’s a system designed to create rule by the elite. And now the Americans are discovering how it can be abused.

Unhappy Coincidence

In what cannot be completely serendipity, the “winner-take-all” supporters tend also to be the types to support the “election as battle” philosophy. Thus they are much more likely to spend huge sums of money on attack ads and robo-calls. Thus they need more money, so they don’t want funding reform. The B. C. Provincial Liberals are a great example. In Tuesday’s Sun  they professed no interest in shutting down this great cash cow. MLA Vicki Huntington is putting forward a bill to ban business and union contributions, but we know how far that will go. She’s an independent.

And then there’s the promise by the federal Liberals to retire the first-past-the-post election system. That really gets complicated. Because we need a referendum of some sort to approve the change. But what sort of referendum should it be? Presumably not first-past-the-post.

So not only do we need to find a way to make the election process more democratic, we need a democratic way to find the way to fix the election process.

Ain’t democracy fun?


Let’s Play with the Numbers.

Donald Trump: Even with the winner-take-all primaries, he has 40% of republican delegates. 31% of American voters are Republican. That indicates Trump has the strong support of 12% of American voters. The facts we are comparing aren’t one-for-one accurate, but they give an idea of what Americans are really like. Let’s not be upset; I’m sure 12% of Canadians are idiots, too.


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