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Democracy is more than adding up popular votes

Sean Parnell - Jul 27, 2020

What every other democratic country in the world has really figured out is that democracy is more than simply achieving nationwide vote pluralities or majorities and calling it a day.

Advocates for the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) frequently assert that it violates democratic principles to have the president be someone other than the candidate who received the most popular votes. Often this claim is accompanied by a statement along the lines of “this only happens in the United States” or, as I recall one particularly vexed Virginia legislator this year putting it, “every other country in the world has figured this out!”

Apparently, however, what every other democratic country in the world (it probably isn’t worth considering the voting systems of Russia and other undemocratic nations) has really figured out is that democracy is more than simply achieving nationwide vote pluralities or majorities and calling it a day.

The example that most Americans are probably familiar with these days is Canada following the 2019 parliamentary elections. Like the United States, Canada has a two-step process for determining its chief executive – the people vote for members of the House of Commons, who then vote for a prime minister, typically the leader of the party with the most members in parliament.

Following the 2019 elections that was the Liberal Party, even though the Conservative Party had received 34.34 percent of the popular vote compared to the Liberals 33.12 percent. The Conservatives had the misfortune of racking up overwhelming wins in a number of districts in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan but being less competitive in the rest of the country. The Liberals didn’t do well in those two provinces but had a broader appeal, doing well in Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic and Northern regions, and British Columbia in the West. The Liberals wound up with 157 seats (out of 338 total) compared to the Conservatives’ 121.

Canada in 2019 is hardly alone among the world’s democracies (besides the U.S.) in having a head of government that received fewer popular votes than their rival. In recent decades it has also happened in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

Norway is particularly interesting. An organization called the Economic Intelligence Unit (it is affiliated with The Economist, a terrific news magazine) puts out an annual “Democracy Index” ranking the world’s nations according to how democratic they are. The U.S. is number 24 (towards the top of the “flawed democracy” classification), while Canada is tied for number seven with Denmark.

Norway is number one. That must boggle those who denounce as incompatible with democracy the elections of Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump despite losing the popular vote (I don’t count the 1824 Adams win, but that’s another blog post), because Norway’s current prime minister is Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party whose coalition did not win the popular vote the last time out.

Solberg leads a coalition government with three other parties (Progress, Liberal, and Christian Democrat), and in the 2017 elections those four parties combined to receive 1,428,288 votes and win 88 seats in the Storting (Norway’s national legislature, which elects the prime minister). The Labor Party led a five-party coalition (joined by Centre, Socialist Left, Green, and Red parties) that received more popular votes (1,444,498) but only won 81 seats (Labor also beat the Conservatives head-to-head, winning 800,949 votes to 732,897).

How is this possible in highly democratic Norway? Well, like just about every democratic nation on the planet, Norway understands that democracy is more than just popular vote pluralities or majorities. It also includes checks and balances, separation of powers, a free media, protection for human rights, and other key elements (the United Nations, to pick one example, has a list of ten characteristics of democracy, none of which involve the majority always getting its way in everything).

One of the ways Norway enshrines protections for minorities and limits on majority power is by the way it allocates seats in the Storting. Each county gets between four and nineteen representatives based on the population and its land area. This last factor has the result of providing a modest boost to Norway’s rural population in terms of political power, and contributed to the Solberg-led coalition winning more seats despite winning fewer popular votes.

The truth is, nearly every democratic nation has elements of their political system that diverge from the “one person, one vote” principle to varying degrees, and for important reasons. Frequently, those divergences ensure some minimum level of representation for regions that might otherwise be left out or marginalized, such as the Scottish island of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Iceland’s Northeast, Northwest, and Southeast constituencies, or the Northwest Territories, Nunuavut, and Yukon in Canada.

The Electoral College is simply a part of the United States’ way of doing what every other democratic nation on the Earth has done, which is to incorporate a number of features that limit in important ways the power of majorities or pluralities. The sum of those features, not simply adding up popular votes and giving the majority whatever it wants, is true democracy.