When democracy fails (and it appears to be doing so with increasing frequency)

Most societies have images, often somewhat idealised, of the origins of their democratic system.

 Clockwise: France, Russia, US, France (again), Britain

Australia has its own more prosaic version.


The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V), May 9, 1901, by Tom Roberts

Yet democracy is an ideal form and its manifestations in many countries sometimes leave   citizens somewhat disgruntled. A case in point is the US where there is a move to change the electoral system for the president from an electoral college to a popular vote as result of Hillary Clinton losing the election but winning the popular vote.

One of the constants in democracies is that the losers inevitably feel that the system is rigged. Donald Trump certainly expressed this opinion, until he won.

The present US electoral college system, which gives each state a number of electoral  college votes according to its population means that someone can win the US presidency without winning the majority of the votes.

This is because the electoral votes are based on a “winner takes all” basis rather than a proportional basis. This means that a candidate who loses large populous states, such as Florida and California, by a very small margin and wins a lot of small states by very large margins may have a massive majority of the popular vote but not win the electoral college votes.

So it really comes down to a definition of democracy. And this is where the trouble begins. I blame Google which has 59,000,000 entries for the definition of democracy.

But let’s stick with “a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives” and  where the government represents “will of the people”.

However, difficulties arise, not so much in the definition of democracy, but in the way it is achieved through the electoral system.

Without going into a discussion of the technicalities (and any discussion of democracy and electoral systems inevitably becomes eye-glazingly technical), all voting systems have inherent strengths and weaknesses.

“First past the post” systems where the person with most votes wins, are the most common. This means that the majority of voters in a given electorate get the representative they want but the minority (and it may be a very small minority) gets no representation whatsoever. The party that has the most elected representatives then forms a government.

What follows then is effectively a political dictatorship for the term of the government.

This particular system worked reasonably well when there were only two parties, as was the case for a long time in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. But it’s still a  “winner takes all” system.  This system is beginning to prove inadequate where there is a proliferation of candidates and fragmentation of the traditional hegemony of the major parties.

And it only works fairly when the electorates are not gerrymandered as they were under Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland from from 1968 to 1987.


Joh Bjelke-Petersen demonstrates his attitude towards the democratic process

And the system does not work so well, in a democratic sense, when there is more than one party. In a system where the vote is split between three parties who get 40/30/30, the party with 40% forms government. The remaining 60%, who did not vote for that  party, get no representation. In this situation, would it be more “democratic” to form a coalition of the two parties that got 30% each?

This comes to an important question which is relevant in Australia today: What constitutes a majority?

Is a majority defined by who people vote for or by they don’t vote for?

In Australia, this question is answered, in part by a hybrid system of preferential and optional preferential voting. The voters are asked to list their preferences so that, if they don’t get their first preference, their vote is allocated to their second preference and so on down the ballot paper.

The advantage of the system is that, as has happened in the Australian Senate, the number of representatives is a  reasonable approximation of the voting intentions of the Australian electorate.

The disadvantage of the system is that, in Australia where there are two major parties and a number of GIMPs, the GIMPs, who attract around 25% of the popular vote also hold the balance of power. And it’s not that the GIMPs are in any way a unified force so that quite small aggregations of GIMPs may become undemocratically and disproportionately powerful.

One of the disconcerting aspects of the US electoral system, at least from an Australian perspective, is that voting is not compulsory and as result it is usual for only 50% of the eligible population to cast a vote. When this is divided between the two major parties, it means that 25% of the voting population elects the President, Senate and Congress.

So what can we say about a democracy where 50% of the people don’t vote?

Do we simply shrugged our shoulders and say “Well they didn’t vote so they have to take what they’re given.”

Or do we ask, “How has the democratic system in the US failed to such an extent that half the population no longer participates?”

The problem with these very low participation rates in the US is that small changes in voting patterns in the so-called “battleground states” can lead to electoral outcomes that are potentially disastrous, not just for the US but for the whole world.

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