Our Undemocracy

Let us consider how it is that Benjamin Quayle, son of the former vice president, opposed by a majority of Arizona's Republican voters, will soon be a member of Congress, their opposition notwithstanding.

There is a reassuring myth in American politics that the nation's policies are set, and its laws written, by men and women who have been selected for those important tasks by majority vote of the citizens they are to represent in Congress.

This is no small matter: unlike the British system, which America's founders rejected, our Constitution requires that members of Congress -- House and Senate -- be residents of the states from which they are chosen. The intent is that legislators will be an indirect means of citizen control, a system by which constituents' interests will be protected and their preferences adhered to. It is clearly not a system that works perfectly -- many citizens do not vote and a dutiful legislator will not follow even the most ardent wish of his or her constituents if thought to be contrary to the national interest, but by and large the fundamental idea -- legislators are the voice of participating citizens -- is generally accepted to be true.

It isn't.

With the exception of several states, mainly in the South and Southwest, majority support is usually not a factor in elections. In those states -- often, amazingly, dismissed as "unsophisticated" -- nobody can win an office of public trust absent that all-important ingredient: the support of the majority of those voters who took part in the elections. If no candidate wins a majority of the primary vote, a second round of voting pits the top two finishers against each other, giving the electorate a chance to compare the two without the distraction of other campaigns. It is a circumstance in which a second-place finisher often surges to the front (not surprising since, by definition, the first-place finisher, often the presumed "favorite," will have been opposed by a majority of the voters). The problem with proposed "instant runoffs," which would allow the reassigning of votes that had been given to "other" candidates, is that voters would be denied that opportunity to directly compare the policies and personas of the two remaining choices.

Back to Ben Quayle.

I served in Congress with Dan Quayle and have no quarrel with his son, but I do have a quarrel with a system that allows for the election of members of Congress (or governors or other officeholders) to whom most voters are opposed. Ben Quayle received 22.7 percent of the votes cast in his congressional primary; more than 77 percent of the Republicans who voted in that primary wanted somebody else to be their congressman. Quayle received just over 14,000 votes; more than 48,000 voted for somebody else, despite the fact that Quayle was the best known and most visible of the candidates. Running in a heavily Republican district, he will almost certainly become a member of Congress in January, representing a community that did not want him in that job.

When I moved to Massachusetts to teach at Harvard, I was immediately struck by what seemed to me to be a strange and undemocratic election system. In my home state of Oklahoma, one must get at least a majority of the vote in one's own party to win elective office. But consider the case of three of the members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation: William Delahunt, who is retiring this year, and Stephen Lynch, each won less than 40 percent of the primary vote in their initial elections (60-plus percent of the voters even in their own Democratic primaries wanted somebody else). Michael Capuano did far worse -- 77 percent of the voters in his district preferred somebody else. But there were no runoffs required and so all three men advanced to general elections in districts with virtually no Republican presence; opposed by a majority even in their own party, they went on to become America's lawmakers.

This week's Republican primary in Florida provides another example, though the result is less egregious. Supporters of Attorney General Bill McCollum have complained that it was the presence of a "minor" third candidate (who received only 10 percent of the vote) that allowed wealthy outsider Rick Scott to edge McCollum by three percentage points in the race for governor. Neither candidate got a majority (Scott received 46 percent of the vote, meaning he was opposed 54-46), and Florida has no runoff elections that would have permitted a Scott-McCollum faceoff. But at least in Florida, unlike the examples in Massachusetts and Arizona, there is enough competition from a rival party to ensure that a non-majority primary victory is not sufficient to ensure election.

There is a side effect to this thoroughly undemocratic system of elections. Because winners may be determined solely by an activist and zealous minority, candidates may be moved to ever more extreme positions on the issues, trying to outdo each other in adopting hard-core left-wing or right-wing policies.

So long as we are bound to an outdated system of allowing two private clubs -- Republicans and Democrats -- to choose our general election candidates, the least we can do is to ensure that the men and women they choose are the preferred candidates within their own partisan ranks. The last thing we need is to have our laws decided by officials who are opposed by nearly 80 percent of the people even within their own party.