It's a bird, it's a plane ... it's another super majority
Two-thirds approval for ballot measures is unfair and undemocratic
By Barry Gordon 06/03/2010
I’m generally pretty compulsive about reading the ballot initiatives, studying the pro and con arguments carefully and making a well-reasoned decision. However, I already know that I will vote “No” on Proposition 16, and I’ve only read the first four words in the Quick-Reference Guide.
All I need to know is that Proposition 16 “requires two-thirds voter approval” to do whatever. It doesn’t matter to me what it is meant to allow or prevent. I simply will not participate in continuing California’s anti-democratic streak that began with the passage of Proposition 13 32 years ago, which imposed a two-thirds voter approval to pass any local tax increase.
Two of our most prominent founders, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, recognized the problem with super-majority requirements. Madison noted that they caused a reversal of majority rule, which he called “the fundamental principle of free government.” And Hamilton, while recognizing the charms of a super majority, said that “what at first sight may seem a remedy is in reality a poison.” He expressed the problem in terms we can all easily understand — “To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is in its tendency to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number.”
Part of the problem lies in the terminology we use. After all, anything with the prefix “super” before it must be preferable to the garden-variety version. Superman is no ordinary man and the supercollider is not your basic collider (whatever that is). So a “super majority” must be better than a plain old majority, which we tend to describe with less-than-flattering terms like “simple” or “bare.”
So, just for fun, let’s change the wording a little. Let’s say, truthfully, that Proposition 16 allows one-third of the voters (plus one, of course) to decide whether Pasadena can use public funds or bonds to provide electricity. You may still agree with the idea, but you have to admit that it just doesn’t sound as good. Or let’s say that one-third of the voters (plus one) can decide whether the Pasadena school district has to lay off more teachers and close libraries. In our recent election, Measure CC received support from nearly 54 percent of the voters — a clear majority. Yet the will of the 46 percent minority prevailed. Something’s wrong with that picture.
Of course, it could be argued that a minority can’t actually do anything; it can merely stop the majority from doing something. And isn’t that a good thing? Well, think of it this way. You have a child who needs a life-saving experimental treatment and you need approval from a ten-member insurance company panel. Six of the members approve and four disapprove. You are told that, because of a two-thirds requirement, the treatment has been denied. You persuaded a majority of the panel of the necessity of the treatment, but your child may well die because of the will of four out of ten people. The four will argue that they didn’t actually do anything — they just prevented something they didn’t like from happening. How good would that make you feel?
A more difficult argument to refute is the fact that a “simple” majority (here the term may be apt) has decided to require a super majority to approve certain actions. Doesn’t a majority of the people have a right to do that and isn’t that what democracy is all about? Yes, we have a right to do that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The real question is why we choose to give up our right as a majority in the first place.
Partly we do it out of fear. We don’t want to be on the losing side, so we figure that there is safety in higher numbers. If two-thirds or three-quarters of the people think that something is a good idea, at least it’s not a mere majority that’s “running roughshod” over us or “cramming something down our throats.” In other words, we assume that we need protection from the majority. And to a certain extent, that’s true. That’s why the authors of our Constitution instituted checks and balances, created an independent judicial branch and established a Bill of Rights that no law could violate. That is also why they required a super majority to amend the Constitution (By the way, California only requires a simple majority to amend its Constitution. Apparently, violating one’s fundamental rights isn’t as important as having our taxes raised.). But, nevertheless, when it came to making policy decisions about raising revenue or regulating commerce, they rejected requiring more than majority approval.
In the end, there are only two real choices: either the will of the majority or the will of the minority prevails. But the job of the opposition should not be to set up roadblocks and thwart the will of the majority. Its job is to make an argument so powerful that it wins the support of the majority of the people. When it comes to any decision, should one-third be able to dictate terms to the other two-thirds? Or should 46 percent of voters be able to override the will of the other 54 percent? I think not.
Barry Gordon teaches political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.