How to make the majority rule in America
Even in bright-red Kansas, notorious xenophobe Kris Kobach might normally find running for governor to be a challenge. The state is known for its rock-ribbed Republicanism, but it has elected its share of Democratic governors — Kathleen Sebelius, who served in President Obama's Cabinet, was the most recent — and Kobach, carrying the baggage of his Trumpist national profile and a recent contempt-of-court citation, has the kind of personality that's often been rejected by Kansas voters, who often seem temperamentally (if not ideologically) moderate.
This year, though, the GOP nominee for governor in Kansas has an unusual advantage: His opponent has an opponent.
Maybe that's not a fair way to describe a three-person race. But it's generally understood across the state that it is Democrat Laura Kelly, not Kobach, who stands to lose votes to independent candidate Greg Orman, a businessman last seen losing a U.S. Senate race to incumbent Republican Pat Roberts.
The effect of Orman's candidacy? Kobach is spared the challenge of having to appeal to the state's moderate voters. He also may not have to win a majority of voters to become governor.
We're getting used to this in America, the idea that Republicans — and it's usually Republicans — get to win elections without truly winning the electorate. George W. Bush became president even though Al Gore got more votes in 2000; Donald Trump similarly overcame his shortage of votes thanks to the geographical quirks of the Electoral College.
Not coincidentally, the electorate is as angry and polarized as it's ever been. We've reached a dangerous moment, where pundits talk almost blithely about the prospects of civil war, and officials seem to no longer care about appealing to voters beyond the most ideological elements of their base.
So here's a crazy, out-of-the-box idea to improve American democracy: Majority rules.
That's right: To win any election in America, it should be the case every single time that you have won the support — or at least the affirmative assent — of a majority of the participating voters.
This is where defenders of the status quo start talking about how the Founders designed our Constitution with "countermajoritarian" tendencies, and give stark warnings against the tyranny of the majority. But a close read of the Founders suggests they only meant to restrain the majority, not to countermand it outright. The "fundamental principle of free government," James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58, is that "the majority would rule."
Alexander Hamilton, meanwhile, offered a stark warning in Federalist No. 22: "It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third. The larger States would after a while revolt from the idea of receiving the law from the smaller."
That's frighteningly prescient, an almost dead-on prediction about what's happened to our country with its Dem-leaning urban areas and GOP-loving rural states. The solution, again: Majority rules.
How do we get there? It's not difficult. There are two notable systems already in operation in much of the country.
"Instant runoff" voting lets voters rank their candidate preferences in a single visit to the poll. If none of candidates receives a majority of first-choice votes after ballots have been counted, losing candidates are eliminated and their second-place votes distributed to the others, until one candidate has a majority. This system is used around the world, and it's picking up steam in the United States — municipalities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Burlington, Vermont have used it.
One weakness to that system though: It only supplies the assent, not support, of a majority of voters. The better option? A simple runoff. Whenever there are more than two candidates for a seat, one must get a majority of votes. If that doesn't happen in the initial election, the campaign starts again with just the two top candidates remaining, and a second vote several weeks down the line. This demands more attention from voters, who often seem sick of the never-ending campaign season, but it also allows the winner to claim a legitimacy that's unavailable to a popular-vote loser like President Trump. And a key part of the appeal: It's used in many elections across the country already. There's nothing new or foreign about it — the kinks of unintended consequences have been worked out.
The proposal for runoff elections — instant or otherwise — isn't just a "get Democrats elected" scheme: We still debate whether Bill Clinton would've been elected president in 1992 if Ross Perot hadn't entered the election against an already weakened George W. Bush. Other counterfactuals to contemplate: Would a Clinton who had received majority support in national elections still have been impeached, or would the Republican Congress have kept its powder dry? Conversely, would Trump be more accommodating to his opponents, elected and unelected, if he knew he had to win some of their votes in order to stay president?
Possibly not. But we see what the current setup has given us: strife and division. Candidates who don't have to seek broad support somehow also seem to fail to secure the common good.
The "majority rules" scheme, of course, depends on dismantling the Electoral College. Good riddance. It's a pox on the idea of the "one-person, one-vote" ideal of our governance, an institution that increases the power of your ballot if you live in a state that other people have left. Yes, it was designed to constrain the popular will, but guess what? The Founders were worried about saving the country from a candidate like Trump.
That didn't work out. Time to move on. Even in a republic like ours, it is a majority of voters who must decide the nation's direction — or else the revolt Hamilton feared might actually materialize. Everybody loses when the winning candidate wins, in essence, by default. At every level of our governance, it's time to make our democratic elections a bit more democratic.