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Maine’s New Law Shows Democracy Is Not Just Majoritarianism
Sean Parnell • Jan 14, 2022

A common claim by advocates of the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) is that the Electoral College is “undemocratic” because it violates the principle of “one person, one vote.” For example, the League of Women Voters of Maine* stated in its 2021 testimony in favor of NPV that the Electoral College “results in undemocratic outcomes” because the candidate with the most popular votes doesn’t always win the presidency.

What this criticism misses is that “one person, one vote” is not the only democratic principle, and that there are other principles that come into play, including federalism, separation of powers, protections for minorities, representation for otherwise ignored communities, and the placing of some decisions beyond simple majorities.

A majority of Maine voters recently recognized that “one person, one vote” isn’t the only important democratic principle. Last November, voters in the Pine Tree State passed an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to approve new power transmission lines. In doing so, the voters of Maine embraced a very simple, very democratic concept: sometimes, a majority isn’t enough to carry the day. The other side of this coin is that sometimes, a minority of voters will wind up thwarting a majority, and that’s okay.

The two-thirds requirement for new transmission lines is hardly the only way Maine embraces democratic values other than pure majoritarianism. One example is guaranteed representation for three Native American tribes in the state legislature (they can introduce and sponsor, but not vote on, legislation, and can speak on the floor during debate). Another is the town meeting form of government in which a majority of those voting is sufficient to carry most but not all motions – some require supermajorities. And of course, the state’s Ranked Choice Voting system arguably allows some people – those whose first choice is eliminated and who instead have their next highest-ranked choice counted – to have more than a single vote (that is not intended as a criticism of Ranked Choice Voting, merely an observation).

Other states have laws that can frustrate majorities and pluralities but that serve important democratic principles. Examples from a few other New England states include:

  • New Hampshire requires a 2/3 vote of all voters to amend the state's constitution;
  • In the Rhode Island legislature it takes a 2/3 vote to approve a budget;
  • The Vermont legislature chooses the governor if no candidate receives a majority of votes.

These practices might seem like trivial deviations from “one person, one vote,” but they are part of a system of government that recognizes and embodies in numerous ways the truth that democracy is more than just always giving a majority or a plurality of voters everything it wants. Critics of the Electoral College seem to miss this important truth when arguing it is “undemocratic.”

*Interestingly, the League of Women voters does not elect its own national leadership through direct election by its membership. Instead, it uses a convention process (as do many national organizations) that looks remarkably similar to the Electoral College. The details on how delegates to the LWV national convention vote for the organization’s president and other officers can be found in the group’s bylaws in Article IX.