[LI] Democracy’s “wins”​ depend on how well electoral systems work

Lloyd Pierson‘s Jan. 20 LinkedIn article about the peaceful transition of power in the US – in which he remembers former Beninese president Nicéphore Soglo‘s opinion that “democracy always wins” – prompts some thoughts about candidates respecting the outcomes of elections, and on the electoral structures and election mechanics that make possible the reflection of the will of the people in a republic.

Respecting the outcomes of elections, despite imperfections

Soglo (l.) & Kérékou (r.). In center is Thomas Boni Yayi who later also was elected President of Benin. (Source: Legend of Polyglot [blog])
Soglo (l.) & Kérékou (r.). In center is Thomas Boni Yayi who later also was elected President of Benin. (Source: Legend of Polyglot [blog])
The Republic of Benin has been held up as a positive example of democratization in Africa since its transition from years of dictatorship under Mathieu Kérékou in the early 1990s. Whatever else might be said about Mr. Kérékou, his decision to open up the country and to stand in an election for president in 1991 that he lost, and then his relinquishing of power to the winner, Mr. Soglo, should be a lesson to other strongmen such as Yahya Jammeh in Gambia (who has just been forced out of office by regional action after refusing to step down following loss in his country’s presidential election).

Mr. Soglo lost his bid for reelection in 1996 against the very same Mathieu Kérékou, amidst charges of vote fraud. Irregularities in an election, or even serious allegations that they occurred, don’t reflect well on the functioning of a democratic system. Yet in this case, Benin’s Constitutional Court did not find in favor of the charge that there had been fraud, and Mr. Soglo ultimately respected that outcome, leading to his statement about democracy winning (as Lloyd recounted). Given the context, however, I hear in that a subtext of “whatever is done in its name.”

Although the problem with voting was different, one is reminded of the situation in the 2000 US presidential election, when after long problems tallying ballots in the pivotal state of Florida, the US Supreme Court ended the count, leading to George W. Bush winning the Electoral College (EC). Al Gore respected that result, despite having narrowly won the popular vote nationwide.

In such cases, the willingness and ability of candidates for office to put aside their personal ambition or investment in the process for the greater good is fundamental to democracy winning. But there are also other prerequisites to the system working.

Systems require maintenance

The problems in Florida with “hanging chads” etc. revealed an unexpected glitch in one key aspect of the functioning of the system, and that led to abandonment of the punchcard system for voting. That’s a change in the mechanics of voting.

One hopes that in Benin, measures have been taken to assure the transparency of voting so fraud can be prevented and candidates can be more assured of accurate tallies (although in its 2001 election there were again allegations of fraud that led to Mr. Soglo and another candidate withdrawing in protest after the first round of voting). That would be an improvement in the functioning of the system to assure the integrity of the vote.

Democracy may win, but that doesn’t just happen (and sometimes it takes a while). Good design and fine tuning or even repairing the system and mechanisms through which the will of the people is expressed, help make that winning possible in an orderly and fair way, and ultimately promote a sense of legitimacy.

Reforms in US electoral system?

Which brings us to our most recent US presidential election. Although there were no issues with voter fraud or hanging chads, there was again the anomaly of the candidate who won the EC, Donald Trump, receiving fewer votes – almost 3 million in this case – than the other main candidate, Hillary Clinton. Leaving aside the other issues and allegations concerning what may have influenced this outcome, the very fact that one candidate can be legally elected with about 2% less popular votes than the candidate with the plurality, is a problem for a democracy and a republic. No matter how one might try to shine it up, it seems to me to be as negative a reflection on our system as the peaceful transition of power is positive.

Given that 2 of the last 5 US presidential elections have produced such results, the EC itself is revealed more clearly as an unpredictable filter on the will of the people, with potential longer term costs to public perceptions of legitimacy of election results. Even Mr. Trump not many years ago, saw problems with the EC. Add to that the “cat out of the bag” dynamic of an unusually high number of Electors in 2016 voting for candidates other than the ones to which they were nominally pledged, and there is a recipe for potential chaos in upcoming elections. All that is a structural problem.

A reform of the presidential election system in the US would therefore seem necessary and even urgent, One possible change among several would be to replace the EC with a two round presidential popular vote system like that used in Benin, Brazil, France, and many other countries. A proposed workaround would not replace the EC, but promotes states allocating their electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide.

There are of course other problems with the system in the US – from gerrymandering superpowered by the data revolution, to the unedifying spectacle of suppressing certain voters and energizing certain others against the backdrop of low overall turnout – that could also figure in a comprehensive set of reforms. For democracy to keep “winning,” such issues will need to be addressed.

Other countries like Benin have their own issues, but how Americans deal with our electoral problems is an important example internationally.


This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 23 Jan. 2017

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