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

    Alas, I may have erred.  Within the confines of the Constitution, each state determines its own voting procedures.  Thus each state could determine whether to adopt mandatory voting.  A constitutional amendment may be required to mandate voting nationwide.

  • aunursa

    The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land.  Any law or policy which is determined to be in violation of the Constitution is null and void.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Voting, like paying taxes and doing jury duty, is a citizen’s duty. How one votes is patriotic expression, and one is perfectly free to express disgust with all the candidates on the ballot by voting for none of the above, but if one can vote then one must vote, and all effort must be put forth to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote can and will.

  • aunursa

    Perhaps the non-voter considers participating in the voting process — even by selecting “None of the above” or “I choose not to vote” — a tacit acceptance of the validity of the voting process, acceptance that he does not wish to offer.  It would be like a defendent who refuses to rise when required by a judge because the prisoner does not recognize the authority of the court.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If he does not wish to recognize the validity of the voting process then he is perfectly free to change his citizenship to somewhere that hasn’t got a voting process.

  • aunursa

    aunursa: Why [do all citizens have a responsibility to participate in the voting process]?
    Sgt. Pepper: Personal responsibiltah!

    Non-responsive.  Can anyone else explain why all citizens have a responsibility to participate in the voting process?

  • aunursa

    Decision-making is a form of work, and when citizens deliberately choose not to vote, they’re effectively making others bear an extra burden but still receiving benefits from those decisions.

    On the contrary.  When citizens deliberately choose not to vote, those citizens who do care and do take the time to study the candidates and the issues don’t have their votes cancelled out by apathetic voters and ignorant voters.

    And there’s absolutely no extra burden for those who choose to vote because of those who choose not to vote.  On the contrary, your vote counts more (as a percentage of the entire vote) and your wait in line will be no longer because of their absence.

    (Which is not to suggest that I want citizens to be apathetic and ignorant of the issues and candidates or that I want fewer citizens exercising their right to vote.  I wish everyone were as interested in the election as we are here.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    ‘Personal responsibility’ pretty much covers it, actually. If you are over the local age of majority, you are capable of communicating to others and of understanding things communicated to you, and you want the benefits of living in a democratic society, then you have the right and the responsibility to participate in that democracy.

  • aunursa

    Paying taxes and serving on juries are required by the U.S. Constitution.  Moreover the tax collection process and court system would not operate if these functions were optional.  By contrast the electoral process is not adversely affected by the choice of some citizens not to participate.  The outcomes of elections may be affected, but not the process itself.

    Since all voting is done by secret ballot, how one votes is not expression, patriotic or otherwise.

    if one can vote then one must vote

    Why?

  • aunursa

    Why do you have the responsibility to participate in a democracy?  Why can’t you just let other people who are more interested in participating make those decisions?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I did not prepare enough Banish Idiocy spells today, I see. Can someone else explain the free-rider problem to aunursa, please?

  • sptrashcan

    Why do you have the responsibility to serve on a jury, which is mandatory participation in the system of justice? What’s the functional difference between serving on a jury and voting in an election? Personally, given the many problems in the justice system, I’d have much more of a problem serving on a jury than I do voting.

    (I have problems with voting, but they boil down to that I feel I have to vote, and furthermore that I have to vote for one of the two major parties and thus support the system and grant an illusory mandate, because any other action is effectively a vote for the even-worse opposition.)

  • Münchner Kindl

    In the U.S, party dues are $0. It’s different here than in Europe. /

    1. Does this mean it couldn’t be changed?

    2. Do you mean there is no way to differentiate between a member who activly takes part in a party and somebody who registered 8 years ago or more as “Republican/ Democrat” without checking in between?

  • RavenOnTheHill

     Well, for one thing, if everyone doesn’t participate, the politicians get to pick their voters.

  • RavenOnTheHill

     Well, for one thing, if everyone voted, the politicians wouldn’t be able to pick their voters. That’s what’s done now: the pols decide which voters they want to turn out and work at turning them out. Mandatory voting would end that.

  • Münchner Kindl

    This is basically the positive idea of “fining people for not voting”: gets the same result (people have an incentive to vote), but

    1. Rewards instead of punishes are much better psychological
    2. No disenfranchisment of poor people; no allusion to past times when blacks or other minorities were excluded.

    A practical way would have to be found for people who vote by mail because the voting place is too far away / they are too frail / they don’t have time off work (even if voting days were declared a holiday, emergency services and restaurants are still busy).

  • Münchner Kindl

    A big problem with requiring a membership fee to vote in a party primary
    is that in some areas one party can be so overwhelmingly dominant that the
    primary basically is the election. Thus a fee would be required to participate in the only meaningful part of the election

    So you do not currently have the option in your system to put candidates on the ballot not associatedwith a particular party, just by collecting x% of signatures?If yes, this system outside the established parties can continue, of course.If not, then the current system of one party being dominant is a problem, anyway.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I believe candidate Romney has some strong opinions on personal responsibility…

  • Münchner Kindl

    Citizenship has many responsibilities; voting seems to me both a less onerous and more important one than paying taxes. Why, of all responsibilities of citizenship, does this one is it important that it not be mandatory?

    1. There are a lot of duties to citizenship that are required for a democracy to properly work that are nevertheless not enforced with punishments because checking up on them would be difficult or impossible, and it’s expected that citizens know how important participation is for the democracy to work at all.
    2. Going to vote in an election is the least and smallest part of a responsible educated citizen in a democracy. We don’t (for good reason – it was abused) check if the people who come up to vote actually know anything about the candidates or parties they are voting for, although that’s an unspoken requirement not to elect a foot powder, a guy in a coma or a certified insane candidate http://www.cracked.com/article_19046_the-8-most-successful-politicians-who-werent-human.html .
    3. There are a lot of other secondary requirements to make voting useful, that is, worthwhile to have an impact, that are also not mandatory: a free press that does its duty as watchdog, instead of mouthpieces who neglect fact-checking; easy access to non-scam IDs; easy rules about place of residence regarding voting rights; voting rights for disenfranchised like criminals…

  • Münchner Kindl

    Oh yes, let’s only have people who can afford to pay membership dues be allowed to vote. What a brilliant idea. That would make me unable to vote, by the way.

    1. We’re talking about the primaries – on how the parties choose the candidates, right? You can still vote all you want in the real election between candidate from party A and from party B. 2. Money already influences the election far too much, if you look at the donations the candidates have to collect for their election battle.3. If the party you are interested in is in line with your principles of helping poor people, they have (like any other club) the option of structuring the membership fee as they like. If the Democratic party wants to attract the poor people, they could offer a symbolic fee of 1 $/ year for everybody who makes less than 30 000 $ / year income, a fee of 10$ for 30 000 to 50 000 etc.  Or they could say membership fee is 0$, but in order to vote in the primary, you must show up for at least 10 party meetings during the year, so you know the issues and positions of the party and know the candidates.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    I’m Australian. For what it’s worth, if you don’t want to vote you don’t
    actually have to — all you need to do is go to a polling place and get
    your name crossed off. Then you can collect your ballots and, if you
    don’t want to vote for anyone, submit them blank.

    Or, for that matter, you can write “Go fuck yourselves, pollie scum!!!” all over the voting form. There’s really a wide range of options.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Or they could say membership fee is 0$, but in order to vote in the
    primary, you must show up for at least 10 party meetings during the
    year, so you know the issues and positions of the party and know the
    candidates.

    Judging by a random sampling of upcoming Democratic meetings in the state, all such meetings are weekday evenings. Guess when I work? And I don’t think the Greens hold ten meetings a year.

  • The_insane_protagonist

    Either do away with first-past-the-post voting or put a “none of the above” option on every ballot and I will gladly turn out to vote every time. With the way our voting system currently works if you prefer to vote for a third-party candidate because they represent your interests better you end up helping the main party candidate you’re actually most OPPOSED to. 

  • The_insane_protagonist

    Oh, and just to clarify, I would have voted for Obama this year if only to keep Romney out, but I am currently a resident of Guam, so I am not allowed to vote for president. >_> 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    This is true. As an official election volunteer I can vouch that some people do write messages on their ballots–but not many, and I haven’t come across that particular one :)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    This is true. As an official election volunteer I can vouch that some people do write messages on their ballots–but not many, and I haven’t come across that particular one :)

  • christopher_young

    And I don’t think the Greens hold ten meetings a year.

    If I were a member of that party, I’d be worried about that. How do they make political decisions? Or who makes them on their behalf?

  • Dan Audy

    (Which is not to suggest that I want citizens to be apathetic and ignorant of the issues and candidates or that I want fewer citizens exercising their right to vote.  I wish everyone were as interested in the election as we are here.)

    I find the veracity of that statement doubtful along with your claims that you really want people to vote but ‘darn it making it easier for the vast majority of the population is bad because it oppresses the minuscule minority that want to protest the system and can’t do so by publicly protesting the system because…reasons’.

    You vigourously support a political party that is devoted to suppressing the ability to vote amongst groups that are most impacted by difficulties voting.  Your party engages in extreme (and highly unethical) gerrymandering (though the democrats do as well to a lesser extent) to prevent large portions of the population from having a meaningful vote.  Your party would lose most elections if polls based on ‘registered voters’ were correct rather than likely voters or the lesser number who actually do show up on election day.

    I don’t believe that you genuinely support peoples right to not vote for what are in several examples direct consequences of the Republican party undermining democracy.  Your claims are unbelievable and self-serving.

  • Dan Audy

    Also the easy solution to bypassing the Constitutional issues in the US is to turn to every politicians favourite toy – the tax credit.  Grant a federal tax credit equivalent to whatever the Australian penalty is and suddenly it is no longer mandating voting but merely incentivizing it.  Just have the list that you get checked off when you arrive (I’m presuming that the US does it that way too) get forwarded to the IRS and they can handle any monitoring or enforcement.

    All the systematic barriers would still need to be dealt with but it avoids one of the potential places that could derail the proces.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    It’s $20, by the way.

  • Carstonio

    Defending the conscience of a type of citizen who may not even exist? That’s too much like the self-appointed spokespersons who claim to defend the consciences of Catholic employers over the contraception mandate, critics who aren’t even employers, when many of the Catholic employers themselves already offer the coverage.

  • Ross Thompson

    There are times when the government must be able to mandate that citizens perform actions that they don’t wish to perform (pay taxes, serve on juries, register for the draft).  There are other times when it would be nice but not necessary for citizens to perform actions that they wouldn’t otherwise perform.  I consider it immoral to mandate participation in such instances.

    How do you decide what falls into which category? For example, I feel it’s immoral to force people to go to war against their will; you apparently have no problem with a draft. How do we decide if joining the armed forces should be mandated, or merely encouraged?

  • Carstonio

     I never claimed that votes are cancelled out or that they count less when some citizens deliberately choose not to vote. I was using metaphors to show that citizens owe the nation their full participation in the democratic process, because they receive benefits of citizenship. The responsibility is a shared one. The citizen who chooses not to vote is essentially asking for something for nothing.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I support the right of people to dissent from popular opinions and not to take part in patriotic expressions. There are times when the government must be able to mandate that citizens perform actions that they don’t wish to perform (pay taxes, serve on juries, register for the draft). There are other times when it would be nice but not necessary for citizens to perform actions that they wouldn’t otherwise perform. I consider it immoral to mandate participation in such instances.

    Wait, you think it’s immoral to require citizens to vote but not to force them into professionalised violence?

  • aunursa

    What’s the functional difference between serving on a jury and voting in an election?

    The Constitution guarantees each defendent a trial by jury, and it’s generally regarded that this right includes trial by a jury of one’s peers.  Without the requirement to serve, juries would be limited only to those citizens who have the desire and the available time to serve — overwhelmingly made up of the non-working and senior citizen population.  Thus the requirement to serve is necessary in order to ensure the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers.

    By contrast, elections do not require participation by all voters in order to operate.  The country can easily conduct a fair election that results in the selection of president, vice-president, and legislators without forcing those citizens to participate who, for whatever reason, choose not to exercise their right to vote.

  • aunursa

    Participation includes educating oneself on the candidates and issues.  I trust that an educated citizenry will make the best choices.  while I value citizen participation highly, I value the right of individuals not to participate even higher.

    At any rate your skepticism regarding my desire that citizens participate in the electoral process is irrelevant.  My desires are not subject to verification by you or anyone else.  [EXPLETIVE DELETED]

  • aunursa

    Defending the conscience of a type of citizen who may not even exist?

    May not exist?  It took me two minutes to Google “why i don’t vote” and post the top four linked responses in my post at 3:22 PM yesterday.  That you question the existence of citizens who choose not to vote for reasons other than inconvenience does not invalidate their existence.

  • Carstonio

     I mean citizens who have a moral objection to voting. In All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward claimed that deciding not to vote in the 1972 election enabled him to be more objective in reporting, and Carl Bernstein rightly argued that this was silly. Woodward’s stance confused opinion with bias, not recognizing that a reporter’s job means preventing the former from turning into the latter as much as possible.

    My point still stands – you don’t want citizens to be ignorant of the issues or to deliberately shirk their responsibility to vote yet you defend the irresponsibility of their choice. Almost like you’re describing the stance of a consumer and not a citizen.

  • aunursa

    How do you decide what falls into which category? … How do we decide if joining the armed forces should be mandated, or merely encouraged?

    It is generally recognized that one role of a government is to protect the citizens from external military threats.  The Constitution grants Congress the authority to declare war and to raise an army and a navy.  It is clearly established that this authority includes the ability to conduct a draft.  While our leaders have determined that the current all-volunteer military can adequately protect the people, it is certainly within their scope of powers if they determine that it becomes necessary to institute a draft.

    I feel it’s immoral to force people to go to war against their will

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

  • aunursa

    No, I do not defend the irresponsibility of their choice.  I defend their right to make that choice.

  • Carstonio

    You might possibly have a point if we were talking about a legal right. I’m talking about what I call a moral right since I don’t know what else it would be called. The idea that voting might go against someone’s conscience is ridiculous – it’s not like the ballot is asking voters whether Person A or Person B should be killed. It’s the same ridiculousness with the arguments against contraception coverage. Both arguments define the conscience so broadly that it would be almost impossible to live in a society without going against the conscience.

  • Isabel C.

    Y’know, I’m really okay with ignoring the desires of conspiracy theorists when making national decisions.

    I’m also okay with having fluoride in our drinking water. 

  • Ross Thompson

    It is generally recognized that one role of a government is to protect
    the citizens from external military threats.  In order for the U.S.
    government to carry out that role, the Constitution grants Congress the
    authority to declare war, and raise an army and a navy.  It is clearly
    established that this authority includes the ability to conduct a
    draft.  While our leaders have determined that the current all-volunteer
    military can adequately protect the people, it is certainly within
    their scope of powers if they determine that it becomes necessary to
    institute a draft.

    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?

    I feel it’s immoral to force people to go to war against their will

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

    And this is achieved by them making some kind of positive declaration on their part, right? They don’t just not turn in their draft papers? So this is exactly the same model people are suggesting for voting?

  • EllieMurasaki

    If I were a member of that party, I’d be worried about that. How do they
    make political decisions? Or who makes them on their behalf?

    Whoever shows up to the couple meetings a year, I assume. We haven’t got the numbers for anything else.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    I believe the point was that some people want their absolute non-participation to be a statement.

    Then they can be fined.  Civil disobedience is not entirely without risk, and what not.

    Enlighten me, as I’m genuinely not seeing your point: What message are they trying to send that could not be sent by going to the polling place and saying “I am not voting”? Is there some arrangement of words that could be on the ballot (or that they could give to the people that check them off on their list of registered voters) that would satisfy this message?

    Well, since they’re still *choosing* not to vote, the only people I can imagine not liking it are those who don’t believe they should be allowed to choose – i.e. fascists, royalists (but I repeat myself), or who don’t want to be part of any society at all (anarchists).

    They’re accusing you of a crime (voting when you don’t have the right to) so they have to prove it to the standards of criminal law.  Beyond a reasonable doubt.

    That’s a lot of effort (and money) to deal with the 12-year-old who thinks it’d be a funny prank.

    If you don’t want to do that, then yeah, ‘love it or leave it’ seem to be the only available choices.

    Well, there’s always ‘overthrow it by force’.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    The Constitution guarantees each defendent a trial by jury, and it’s generally regarded that this right includes trial by a jury of one’s peers. …

    By contrast, elections do not require participation by all voters in order to operate.

    In other words, the way the US does it is the way it is>.

  • mud man

    Seems to me there’s something undemocratic about winner-take-all style party primaries. Why should the general election be about A republican vs. A democrat? Why not have everybody run as individuals, who are free to identify with whatever platform they like if they wish to. Have a “preliminary” election to select a reasonable number of candidates with reasonable support, and let the general election be to choose among them.

    Death to the two-party system!

  • EllieMurasaki

    Why should the general election be about A republican vs. A democrat?
    Isn’t always. The state senate election that’ll be on my ballot is the Republican incumbent vs an Independent Party member. Which I expect the Republican will win easily (doesn’t help that the challenger’s views as expressed on his website look pretty much like the incumbent’s voting record), but. And I know there are districts where the top two primary vote-getters were the ones who made the general ballot, so the general was Democrat v Democrat or whatever. Imagine if the presidential race was like that. 2008 would have been fun if the general election was Obama v Clinton instead of Obama v McCain.

    I do take your point, though.

  • aunursa

    You might possibly have a point if we were talking about a legal right.

    But we are talking about a legal right.  Currently American citizens have the right not to vote.  Every other comment I’m responding to on this thread is from someone who argues that citizens should not have that right — that they should be required to vote or else penalized by the government.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Currently American citizens have the right not to vote. Every other comment I’m responding to on this thread is from someone who argues that citizens should not have that right — that they should be required to vote or else penalized by the government.

    Did you miss the bit where we said over and over again that the requirement should be to hand in a ballot? No one cares if there’s anything on the ballot, and a blank ballot is not a vote.


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