Al Gore can relate.

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Question Day: So What If Majority Parties Lose?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Commenter Davis X. Machina asks about numbers cited in a recent Vox piece on Congress. If you add up the results of the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections, 46 Democrats in the Senate got a lot more votes than 54 Republican senators. And in the 2012 results for House elections, Republicans held their majority even though Democratic candidates won more overall votes.

What, the reader asks, are the long-term consequences of this? 

The Senate numbers are underwhelming. As Sean Trende explained, the good Republican results were in low-turnout midterm elections, with the Democrats doing well in a high-turnout presidential year. And in both midterm cycles a Democrat was in the White House. Recall that in the 2006 midterms, with an unpopular Republican in the White House, Democrats did very well. 

This isn't about big states versus small states or about differing turnout rates by party in midterms. It’s just about partisan surges temporarily lining up as they did.

Of course, it is always going to be possible for a minority party to win a majority in the House and Senate and even capture the White House. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, one party can “waste” votes by winning its seats by large margins, while the other party wins more seats by narrow margins.

Yet it isn't a big deal in the long run, especially if the effects are relatively random. To take the most obvious example: In the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won the Electoral College, it wasn’t a consequence of bias in the college in favor of Republicans. It was just the luck of the draw.

Systematic partisan bias -- rules that regularly give an advantage to one party over the other -- is more of a problem, and systematic bias based on ethnicity is a bigger problem still.  For example, each American state has two senators, putting large states and urban areas at a disadvantage. 

Yet the random outcome of close elections is a good reason for the less-majoritarian governing system that Madison's Constitution set up.  In the U.S., parties must win repeatedly, and by large margins, to be able to enact their programs without much compromise, and this is how it should be. 

In other words, it’s a problem if a party that takes 49.5 percent of the vote gets to run the government, but it’s almost as big a problem if a party that wins 50.5 percent gets to run it. In most cases, there is no real majority

This won't satisfy anyone who was on Gore’s side in 2000. Or, for that matter, anyone who supported Republicans in 2014: A solid victory at the ballot box isn’t going to mean they can get whatever they want. But this system is more democratic than the alternatives.

  1. Republicans have an advantage in low-turnout elections. It just isn't as huge as the Vox numbers might imply. Is that advantage a problem for democracy? Yes, but it isn't an overwhelming one. Still, I support efforts to make voting easier, even if the effects are small.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net