A question on quorums and unrepresentative elections

In almost any legislative body — from the U.S. Congress to a middle-school student council — if only 10 percent of the members are present, they lack a quorum and cannot have a binding vote.

Robert’s Rules of Order defines a quorum as “protection against totally unrepresentative action in the name of the body by an unduly small number of persons.”

That’s a just measure reflecting a concern for justice. It’s wrong to pretend that “totally unrepresentative action in the name of the body” is the same thing as the expression of that body’s collective will. Rules requiring a quorum thus seem both logical and necessary. In America’s Congress, a simple majority (usually) constitutes a quorum. The Senate can’t vote unless at least 51 senators are present. That means, for example, that my senators — Bob Casey and Pat Toomey — can’t sneak into the chamber late at night and pass the “Mandatory Annual Pilgrimages to Pennsylvania” bill by a unanimous vote of 2-0.

Quorums just make sense. That’s why legislatures, councils and boards the world over have them.

And it’s why, perhaps, primary elections ought to have them too.

Reindeer herder Kerry Bentivolio is the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s Michigan district. This is not a situation that pleases most Republicans in Michigan or nationally, but it’s one they’re stuck with.

This isn’t an unusual situation for either party. We’ve seen quite a string of goofy, accidental candidates winding up as the standard-bearers for their parties following victories in poorly promoted primary elections — votes that are binding, but hardly representative. Bentivolio won a primary that involved less than 10 percent of voters in the district.

That’s the same kind of meaningless voter turnout that led to Christine O’Donnell’s surprise primary win over Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware. O’Donnell had a few thousand fired-up supporters who turned out to vote. Castle had tens of thousands of supporters who assumed he would win and thus didn’t bother to vote.

Castle’s loss provided grist for a too-easy lecture on civic responsibility and the importance of voting, yada yada yada. And that’s all true and legitimate. If a majority of voters can’t be bothered to show up, they can’t complain that the election outcome doesn’t represent their views.

The complacency of Delaware’s Republicans worked out well for Democrats in that case. Castle would have been a shoo-in in the general election, but his primary loss resulted in Chris Coons’ victory. I’m happy about that, personally. Coons is a smart, honest and capable man. He’d dutifully agreed to be his party’s sacrificial lamb and now, instead, he’s a U.S. senator.

But there’s still something disturbingly undemocratic about a process that allowed a tiny fraction of the state’s registered Republicans to deny the rest of the state — including the majority of Republicanss — the chance to make the choice they seemed to want. Yes, sure, we must all Learn Our Lesson about the responsibility of voting in primary elections. Tut-tut, tsk-tsk, etc. But this finger-wagging lecturing doesn’t change the fact that this dismally ignored responsibility produced a “totally unrepresentative” result.

I’m focusing here on Republican examples, but again this is a problem that regularly afflicts both parties. I’m highlighting GOP examples here because  for me, as a Democrat, it might seem self-serving to complain about unrepresentative-but-binding results from Democratic primaries with a tiny turnout. Such results in Republican primaries actually benefit my side of the aisle, but such short-term benefits don’t outweigh my discomfort with the dubious pretense that elections in which almost no one participates should still be treated as wholly representative and binding.

So here’s my question: Should there be some kind of quorum-like requirement for primary elections? Would it be good or helpful or more democratic to institute some kind of minimum standard for participation below which any election could not be deemed legitimate?

What if we had a rule that said a primary election needed to involve at least 20 percent of a party’s registered voters in order to be binding? Instead of the current system — in which no one votes and a winner is declared from that inadequate sample — the parties would announce that the participation threshold was not met and would schedule a run-off in, say, two weeks.

I realize such run-offs would involve a substantial expense. Elections aren’t cheap. Perhaps some of that expense could be charged to the party whose members’ lack of participation squandered the money spent on the initial balloting — a potential incentive to ensure that missing the “quorum” would be rare.

I’m guessing this is another of those matters where there’s a large and glaring problem I’m overlooking, but since I’m overlooking it, I don’t yet know what that problem is.

So help me out here: What’s wrong with this idea? What are the best reasons there should not be such a quorum or threshold for participation in elections?

  • aunursa

    So a draft is moral because it’s legal, and if the Constitution included language allowing the government to mandate voting, then requiring people to vote would also be moral?

    No.

    A jury summons is moral because it is necessary for the government to carry out its constitutionally mandated function of guaranteeing defendents a trial by a jury of peers.  A draft is moral if it is necessary in order for the government to carry out its constitutionally mandated function of protecting the nation from foreign or domestic military threats.  A requirement that all citizens vote is immoral because 100% participation is not necessary for the selection of federal office holders and some citizens have moral objections to voting.

  • aunursa

    I regret that I don’t understand your point.

  • aunursa

    They just began that type of election in California.  For each office (expect president and vice president), only the top two vote-getters in the primary will be on the general election ballot, and no write-in votes will be allowed.  This has resulted in preventing minor party voters from casting a ballot in the general election for a candidate who represents their party/political philosophy.

    It also had the unintended consequence of 2 Republicans and no Democrats on the November ballot in a congressional district with a plurality of Democrats (41% Democratic voters to 35% Republican voters.  The primary ballot included 5 D’s and 2 R’s — the 5 D candidates split the Democratic vote, allowing the R candidates to receive the two highest vote totals.)

  • aunursa

    Did you miss the bit where I provided links to people who wrote thoughtful essays explaining why they have a moral objection to participating in the voting system at all?  Presumably that includes handing in a ballot.

    And if a blank ballot is not a vote, then why should they be required to hand in a blank ballot?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     It seems very strange to see an argument when aunursa is arguing with someone, and it’;s the other person who is hell-bent on forcing people to do something against their will and dismissing out-of-hand any objection anyone might have to being forced to do  it as illegitimate.

    Personally, no, I do not think it solves anything to compell people to vote in and of itself. It would just increase the percentage of low-information voters. It might give us the government we “deserve” by permanently electing people who appeal to anger and hatred, but I’m not particularly looking forward to it.

    In our current state, mandatory voting would only make our epistemic partisan problems *worse*, not better,, and I also think you have scant basis for taking for granted that mandatory voting would somehow inherently reduce the vote suppression and systematic disenfranchisement we see now, rather than “Republicans make it impossible for minorities to vote, and then add insult to injury by fining them for it.”

    It’s something we _could_ choose to do _after_ we’d fixed the preexisting systemic problems with our system, but as it stands, it’d make things far worse before it made anything better.

    (If it weren’t for our country’s shameful history with such things, I’d be faster to propose basic tests of competency before someone was allowed to vote, enough to demonstrate that you are voting based on the same consensus reality as the rest of us. Because frankly, no, if you think Obama is a kenyan-born muslim, your vote shouldn’t be counted.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    Did you miss the bit where I provided links to people who wrote thoughtful essays explaining why they have a moral objection to participating in the voting system at all? Presumably that includes handing in a ballot.

    And I repeat, those people are not required to be US citizens. If they object to handing in a ballot, which we don’t know, because you haven’t found out, you have simply presumed.

  • EllieMurasaki

    It’d be stupid to institute mandatory voting without first ensuring no voter suppression and a none-of-the-above option for every election. I’ve said that several times. And I’m really not seeing how being required to hand in a ballot is different from being required to show up for jury selection or, if one might owe the US taxes, to send the IRS a 1040.

  • Ross Thompson

    A jury summons is moral because it is necessary for the government to carry out its constitutionally mandated function of guaranteeing defendents a trial by a jury of peers.  A draft is moral if it is necessary in order for the government to carry out its constitutionally mandated function of protecting the nation from foreign or domestic military threats.  A requirement that all citizens vote is immoral because 100% participation is not necessary for the selection of federal office holders and some citizens have moral objections to voting.

    See, I believe that the draft is not necessary to protect the nation, and is therefore (by your reasoning) immoral, whereas universal voting is required for the selection of officials (for exactly the same reason universal enrolment in jury pools is required), and therefore it is moral.

    How do we decide which of us is right?

  • Ross Thompson

    And if a blank ballot is not a vote, then why should they be required to hand in a blank ballot?

    Because it makes not voting an active rather than passive act. It stops it being the default without forcing people vote if they don’t want to.

  • Carstonio

    Actually, none of my posts have endorsed the idea of forcing citizens to vote. I don’t know if that’s the right tactic, particularly if incentives have not been tried. My point all along is that Aunursa’s arguments against such forcing go against the principle of voting as a civic responsibility. Highly questionable when someone whose conscience is allegedly not bothered by something acts like a paladin for the consciences of others.

  • aunursa

    I would appreciate it if you would remind me of the last debate in which I was arguing in favor of forcing people to do something against their will.  Because alas, I cannot recall it. 

  • aunursa

    So you’re gonna revoke their citizenship?  Oh that’s right, you’re the leader of the the “love it or leave it” contingent.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I would appreciate it if you would remind me of the last debate in which I was arguing in favor of forcing people to do something against their will. Because alas, I cannot recall it.

    Do you assume that all infant boys want to have a bit taken off their penis, then, even though they have no way of telling you yes or no?

  • EllieMurasaki

    There is a difference between ‘it is a citizen’s duty to do this and everyone who does not want to do it should move somewhere that they don’t have to do it’ and ‘it is a citizen’s duty to do this and everyone who does not do it should be kicked out of the country’. For illustration, no one is proposing revoking the citizenship of anyone who puts millions of dollars in an overseas bank account rather than do their citizenly duty of paying taxes on that money.

  • aunursa

    I believe that the draft is not necessary to protect the nation, and is therefore (by your reasoning) immoral

    I agree.  Currently the draft would be immoral, since an all-volunteer military is sufficient to protect the nation from military threats.  However there may come a time in which a draft would be necessary; at that point it would be moral to have a draft.  

    whereas universal voting is required for the selection of officials (for exactly the same reason universal enrolment in jury pools is required), and therefore it is moral

    Why is universal voting required for the selection of officials?  And if universal voting is required, would you allow a voter to hand in a blank ballot?  And if you would allow it, how would a blank ballot satisfy the reason for universal voting while not casting a ballot would not satisfy that reason?

  • aunursa

    I don’t understand why it’s necessary to force people to take an active step in order not to vote.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Did you miss the bit where I provided links to people who wrote thoughtful essays explaining why they have a moral objection to participating in the voting system at all? Presumably that includes handing in a ballot.

    I saw that. And my response was that they need to get over themselves.

    It might be useful to note here that I’m not a liberal like you guys (including you on selected issues, aunursa). I’m further along the communitarian line than most people, so I don’t have a fundamental problem with people being required to do stuff they don’t necessarily wanna do muu-uum!

  • EllieMurasaki

    Something I don’t understand. Who is being hurt by having to hand in a ballot? We’re not talking about the people who lose pay if they take the time to stop by their polling place, nor the people who discover too late for absentee-balloting that they don’t have transportation to their polling place or that the polling place is not set up to handle someone with their particular disability, nor even the people who are being intimidated out of voting by True the Vote’s insistence on putting a white watcher in every majority-minority polling place. We’re talking about the people who have no barriers between them and voting but who object to doing so. Who is being hurt by making those people go hand in ballots?

    If the answer is ‘no one’, which I strongly suspect it is, then where is the moral case against mandatory voting?

    And the people who don’t want to participate in the system at all, okay, fine, don’t, but if they want their objection to hold water they have to not participate in the system. If they want the benefits of citizenship and they’re able to pay its costs, they have to pay its costs, and really handing in a ballot is a very minor cost.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Since when is “It’s not that bad a burden, and you haven’t justified your objection to me” a sound basis for public policy?

  • Anon_Ymous

    My father (who self-identifies as Conservative, but since this is Australia that means he’s about as far right as your Democrats, or almost) answered my question about why we have a mandate to hand in a ballot – why shouldn’t people be allowed to stay home rather than hand in a blank paper if they just don’t care?

    Dad told me it was because of the history of racism in this country – that if people could decide not to turn up to vote, then neighbourhoods where people had a slightly darker shade of skin were likely to be visited by those who would “encourage” them to not bother (often these encouragements would get quite heated). Since no one could look at the ballot submitted, they were still allowed not to participate if they really felt like not participating (my brother tells me he writes Daffy Duck every election), but no one would know if they had or not, and it stopped bad things happening.

    Dad also told me about his time in Indonesia (some 40 years ago, now) where elections were held by taking voting booths to the farms, asking those voting for the incumbent (Suharto) to come forward first to vote… and then mysteriously not having time to take everyone else’s vote. Dad sais that requiring *everyone* to vote prevented this kind of corruption, too.

    Personally, I’m a far left hippie, so I think that your system does NOT work, and the reason it doesn’t is because it disenfranchises so many of the poor, who can’t afford to take time off work to vote, and then basically goes “Oh well” when the numbers are low. You say that :

    “A requirement that all citizens vote is immoral because 100% participation is not necessary for the selection of federal office holders and some citizens have moral objections to voting.”

    but I disagree. I think it IS necessary to have 100% participation to achieve a non-corrupt election – and yes, by extension I believe that means that America’s current election system is inherrantly corrupt.

    You have rules that prevent the poor and the dark skinned from voting. You have poverty and wealth inequality which keeps it this way. You have a health care system that only protects the richest of the rich. Your system is horrific, it patently does NOT work, so your arguments are void from faulty premises.

  • EllieMurasaki

    It is demonstrably harmful to every disadvantaged group I can think of offhand to have the set of people who vote contain a higher percentage of people who support policies that hurt disadvantaged people than the set of adult citizens contains. Compared to that, the harm done by having to hand in a ballot is…what, exactly?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The Supreme Court has ruled that those who have a moral or religious objection to serving in war can avoid military service.

    That’s nice. It’s still interesting that you didn’t include conscription in your personal categorisation of immoral requirements, but anyway–under Australian law your duty to vote can be waived if you have a moral or religious objection to voting. So what’s wrong with our system?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Seems to me there’s something undemocratic about winner-take-all style party primaries

    Absolutely. If I were involved in US politics–that is, if I were a US citizen–working for preferential voting would be right at the top of the priority list.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    A jury summons is moral because it is necessary for the government to carry out its constitutionally mandated function of guaranteeing defendents a trial by a jury of peers. A draft is moral if it is necessary in order for the government to carry out its constitutionally mandated function of protecting the nation from foreign or domestic military threats. A requirement that all citizens vote is immoral because 100% participation is not necessary for the selection of federal office holders and some citizens have moral objections to voting.

    No, the difference is that you don’t care about one of the aforementioned duties.

    While I’m here, let me climb up on my pacifist soapbox, give apologies to the vets in the room, and call absolute bullshit on the argument that a draft is necessary in order for the government to carry out its function of protecting the nation.

    We had two referenda about conscription back in WWI (both were defeated). The government at the time wanted to bring in conscription to fight WWI. It was not necessary to defend our country; it was desired in order to make more people available to kill Germans and Turks. Killing Germans and Turks was not necessary to our national security. It was something we did because pip pip tally-ho the Empire old boy.

    Conscription was brought in anyway (an issue that the government fell over, btw). Australian conscripts first fought overseas in Vietnam. Dropping bombs on Vietnam was not necessary for our national security. We dropped bombs on Vietnam to keep in America’s good books.

    If all wars were just wars then I might accept your line about conscription being morally necessary. Hell, if any wars were just wars I’d give you a pass. But just because at various times our government believes it is expedient to go kill some people does not make conscription moral.

    And oh my god it is a whole world away from dragging your arse to a polling booth or to a mailbox to put a piece of paper in a slot.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I dunno Ross; our cultures aren’t that different yet we with our mandatory voting  seem to have a somewhat less divided electorate than you lot.

    And as I mentioned before, with mandatory voting the government has a duty to make sure everyone can vote. Putting up barriers then fining people stuck in them lands the government in court.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You have rules that prevent the poor and the dark skinned from voting. You have poverty and wealth inequality which keeps it this way. You have a health care system that only protects the richest of the rich. Your system is horrific, it patently does NOT work, so your arguments are void from faulty premises.

    QFT

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Gotta say, I am loving all the Aussies on this thread racing out to brag about our awesome voting system…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Oi Oi Oi?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Speaking of conscription, it’s been a dicey issue here in Canada as well, mainly due to the Quebecois feeling decidedly different than the English-Canadians about what war they wanted to fight (mainly because the Quebecois felt with sone justification they were not regarded as full participants in Canadian society because of economic domination by English Canadians). Since WW2 though, we’ve only ever had a volumteer military, so that issue, thankfully, no longer exists.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I can understand that.

    One of the undercurrents in the WWI conscription debate was that Australia had a large population of Irish migrants (or children of Irish migrants). They formed the bulk of the underclass, were discriminated against in various forms, and were damned if they were going to be sent off to fight England’s foolish war.

    Gough got rid of conscription back in 1972, and I don’t recall it ever seriously being raised since.

  • aunursa

    It’s still interesting that you didn’t include conscription in your personal categorisation of immoral requirements

    I regret that I did not make clear: It is immoral — when it’s not necessary to carry out the government’s obligation to protect the nation.

    So what’s wrong with our system?

    I’m not familiar with the Australian system.  What is the penalty for not voting?

  • Ross Thompson

    I regret that I did not make clear: It is immoral — when it’s not necessary to carry out the government’s obligation to protect the nation.

    When is it necessary? Who makes that decision? If the government decides that it’s necessary for them to give themselves the power to re-introduce the draft, and I feel that it’s not necessary (and is therefore immoral), what happens?

  • Carstonio

    the reason it doesn’t is because it disenfranchises so many of the
    poor, who can’t afford to take time off work to vote, and then basically
    goes “Oh well” when the numbers are low.

    Pretty much the same response to health care coverage, as you probably agree. Government has a compelling interest in increasing voter participation, just has it has a compelling interest in increasing health coverage. Disgusting when people insist that they favor those goals but oppose any government attempt to achieve them. Apparently they skipped over “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare” in the Preamble. Almost like they see no distinction between “acts of nature” and systemic, preventable injustices.

  • AnonymousSam

    Now you just need to sell us on run-off voting. :D

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Nah, you don’t need runoffs. Preferential voting saves running a second election.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m not familiar with the Australian system.  What is the penalty for not voting?

    As I said before, if you don’t turn up or lodge a pre-poll or postal vote, you’re up for a fine on $20. It’s a token amount–less than the fine for sticking your feet on the seats on the train. If you have an actual religious or moral objection to voting you can advise the Australian Electoral Commission of this and you will be given an exemption.

    The upshot is that no one who seriously objects to voting on moral principles (yet somehow manages to allow themselves to live in a democracy but that’s another story) is forced to, but the AEC goes to great lengths to make sure that everyone is able to vote, and we get 95% turnout.

  • magpie (lurker)

     Also, they don’t fine you straight off.  You get a letter asking how come you didn’t vote?  Write your reason here, signed, dated and witnessed by a JP and send it back in reply-paid envelope.  That’s what I did once, and didn’t get fined. 

  • PJ Evans

    Preferential voting saves running a second election.

    Counting the ballots is hell, though. Even with a computer.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Hell is going a bit too far.

    It’s definitely worth it, though.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    We had the Single Transferable Vote back in the 1950s and it was used in two elections, apparently, before the governing party of the day decided they’d do better hanging onto the seats they’d collected if they reinstated First Past the Post.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_and_use_of_the_Single_Transferable_Vote#British_Columbia

  • Amy Pemberton

    Before I would go for mandatory voting or a quorum system I would like to see it made a lot more convenient to vote.  “One day in the middle of the work-week during the normal workday” is a recipe for non-participation.  I am not saying that it’s the only reason for low turnout but it doesn’t help.

    Maybe it’s just my area but another thing that contributes to low turnouts is weird off-date elections.  The primaries were bad enough* but on top of that we had two votes, on separate days.  One involved exactly one precinct (which I lived it).  It was a vote to allow a local golf club to sell alcohol** (it lost).  I swear it had a bigger turnout than the presidential primary!  The second was for the county seat to go “wet”–allow the sale of alcohol.  It passed, handily, but I can’t really say that the turnout is what it might have been if it had not been a one-off election.  (The golf club is in the county so it’s still BYOB.)

    *I think the national ones should all be on the same day, preferable two months before the general election.  Or better still, ranked voting, and let the political parties actually go back to having real conventions to pick candidates and not just have a pep rally on the public’s dime.

    **For anyone not from the USA look up “dry county” on Wikipedia.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Indeed. Canadian elections are helped in that Canadian law requires employers to give sufficient time off to allow employees to go and vote. I usually go first thing in the morning and get it done. Or an advance poll.


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