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Various versions of ‘majority rules’

Here’s a concept that is key to many current headlines, from Curry County to Washington, D.C.: Majority rules.

Entire branches of political science probably discuss this topic at length, but rarely have we seen so many different examples pull the public into the discussion:

•Eyebrows were raised when the Brookings City Council split 2-2 on the election of a fifth member. What was essentially a tie vote (and the unpleasant debate that had gone with it) was settled by the flip of a coin.

•The Gold Beach City Council has been decimated by three resignations, leaving only the mayor and one councilor. Can there still be a majority for city decisions?

•The appointment of a new lieutenant governor in California will turn on an odd phrase in that state’s Constitution. The raw vote went against the nominee, but the nay vote was less than half of the State Assembly. Which majority rules?

•Voters have decided that increases in Oregon property tax require a majority of those voting, with more than half the registered voters casting ballots. This “double majority” is seen either as a roadblock, or protection of the minority, depending on your point of view.

•The U.S. Senate is in deadlock over two odd traditions on “majority” in its procedures. It takes a “super majority” of 60 votes to end debate (the partisan blockade right now on many topics) and just a single senator’s objection (called a hold) can block a vote on presidential appointments, creating dozens of vacant positions in the government and courts.

It’s fascinating to discuss and debate which kind of majority works best to decide public policy, but there is a flip side to that discussion. In a democracy, or at least this democratic republic, the public tends to believe that “majority rules” is a single concept: the most votes wins. When that is not true, it tends to create an unhealthy distrust of government.


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