With public opinion polls suggesting that Biden will win the US Presidential race in November, there are concerns that President Trump may not accept the results and will try to hang on to office. Trump himself has fed these concerns by talking and tweeting about the potential for fraud with postal voting, by his accusations about cheating, and by his kite-flying for a delay in the vote. He has not denied that he could dispute the result if it goes against him (see also blog of 5/1/2019 where the 1863 model of persuasion of George Eliot predicts defeat).
A key underlying issue is about the importance for democracies of what is called ‘losers’ consent’.
One of the important conventions in democratic practice is that the losers of electoral contests accept their defeat. There are both pragmatic and principled reasons to do so.
Pragmatically, losing political parties can pick up where they left off and live to fight another day. They can adjust their policy platforms in order to gain more electoral support next time. Even if they do not wish to change the policies they stand for, they can still hope the electoral wheel will turn and that public opinion will change in their favour. They can hope that next time they will be the winners. By conceding defeat gracefully they set an example that they hope will be followed by the losers when their own time in the sun arrives.
In Trump's case this kind of pragmatism does not apply since his relationship with the Republican party is one of personal convenience only. If he is defeated, there will be no next time.
From a principled point of view, a graceful concession of defeat is a way of acknowledging that upholding the system is more important than the results of any one election. When Al Gore accepted defeat in 2000 to George W Bush, despite deep controversy over the Florida result, he stated that he did so ‘for the strength of our democracy’.
The opposite case of an unwillingness to accept defeat can also be based on either pragmatic grounds or on issues of principle. Observers can point to pragmatic reasons for rejecting electoral results such as problems with voter registration, mutilated ballot slips, stuffed or ‘mislaid’ ballot boxes. Principled grounds relate to design flaws in representative democracies.
Design flaws fall into two categories: those that relate to the principles of representation and those that relate to decision rules for deciding the outcomes of electoral contests.
Principles of representation
Representative democracies give voice to individuals and, at the same time, individuals give voice to interests. Individuals may make up their minds by themselves in isolation but more likely they will listen, in addition, to those with whom they associate, or share interests, and be influenced by them. A common form of reasoning takes the form, ‘what is good for my friends is good for me’.
This kind of ‘associative’ reasoning differs from reasoning on ‘the merits of the case’ of the type familiar from the law. It also differs from some hypothetical ideal where we listen to both sides of an argument and decide on the basis of which side is most convincing. It relies on social inferences. It reflects people as social beings, responsive to the sentiments of others with whom they associate.
The difficulty for representative systems arises when particular associations and interests persistently dominate over others - such as North over South, or the metropolis over the rest of a country, or male over female, or wealthy educated elites over the non-privileged.
Persistent bias is a problem in itself. Decision rules can help perpetuate, or conversely, help counter persistent bias.
At some point in any electoral contest, the talking has to stop, voting start and there has to be some form of closure to the contest. At the voting booth everyone’s vote counts the same. The problems arise in the aggregation of votes. There is no rule for aggregating votes that will give everyone equal weight in the outcome other than a requirement for unanimity. Unanimity is impossible with large electorates and difficult to achieve even in small groups.
The decision rule that is easiest to understand allows a simple majority to decide, among the electorate as a whole, or in an electoral college, or in a constituency. The advantage of allowing simple majorities to decide is that it is the only rule where a decision cannot be blocked by a minority. The disadvantage is that many can feel left out and dissatisfied, disenfranchised and subject to the ‘tyranny’ of the majority.
Under current arrangements there has been long expressed dissatisfaction with the ‘first past the post’ system in the UK where governments are formed that represent a majority of constituency victories but do not represent the majority of opinion in the country. Similarly, in the US there has been a long-expressed dissatisfaction with the role of the electoral college in presidential races where there have been five occasions when a majority in the College did not represent a majority of the votes in the country (As in 2000 and again in 2016).
In cases where there is a persistent dissatisfaction with voting rules and interests who feel persistently underrepresented there are three main avenues for reform.
The first is to reform the voting system itself. The difficulty is to agree on what is judged to be ‘better’. Reform involving an ‘alternative vote’ system was defeated in the UK in a referendum in 2011.
The second is to introduce some form of enforced power sharing between groups (known as ‘consociationalism’). This might involve, for example, reserving seats in an elected assembly, or sharing positions in a government, or dividing a Presidency.
The third is through traditional forms of checks and balances under which the different electoral principles are used to choose different houses in a two-chamber assembly, or for different branches of government, so that deficiencies in one method of representation is compensated by another. Over time, the differences set out in the original US constitution have been eroded.
The difficulty with any of these avenues is that they will likely involve constitutional reform. In most cases, constitutional reform is deliberately made difficult and in practice, for many constitutions, reform is virtually impossible. What this means is that underneath the principled rationale for accepting defeat with grace lies a tacit acknowledgement that the acceptance of the system also involves accepting whatever flaws there are in the system.
President Trump is not making a principled case for reform of the American system of representative democracy. Nor has he taken any steps in this direction in his term of office. In the event of a tight contest he is unlikely to concede on the principled grounds of supporting the system and the public good. He is much more likely to claim 'cheating'. Thus, in the event of a tight contest we can expect a fight in the courts and a possible decision in Congress. When the contest is over and President Trump escorted, if necessary, from the White House, it would be good to make the US system more Trump proof and strengthen the legitimacy of the US system of representation by looking at the possible avenues for reform.