Majority rule

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Majority rule is the principle that the group that has the most supporters gets its way. It is the binary decision rule most often used in decision-making bodies, including many legislatures of democratic nations.



Pie charts plurality (left) and majority (right)

One alternative to majority rule is plurality (first past the post or FPTP). This is often used in elections with more than two candidates. In this case, the winner is the one with the most votes, whether or not that constitutes a majority.[1]


Parliamentary rules may prescribe the use of a supermajoritarian rule under certain circumstances, such as the 60% filibuster rule to close debate in the US Senate.[2]


Majority rule is common in liberal democracies. It is used in legislatures and other bodies.[1] It is one of the basic rules of parliamentary procedure such as Robert's Rules of Order.[3] Many referendums are also decided by majority rule.


May's Theorem[edit]

According to Kenneth May, majority rule is the only "fair" decision rule. Majority rule does not let some votes count more than others or privilege an alternative by requiring fewer votes to pass. Formally, majority rule is the only binary decision rule that has the following properties:[4][5]

  • Fairness: This can be separated into two properties:
    • Anonymity: the decision rule treats each voter identically. Who casts a vote makes no difference; the voter's identity need not be disclosed.
    • Neutrality: the decision rule treats each alternative equally. This is unlike supermajoritarian rules, which can allow the status quo to prevail even though it received fewer votes.
  • Decisiveness: the decision rule selects a unique winner.
  • Monotonicity: If a voter changes a preference, MR never switches the outcome against that voter. If the outcome the voter now prefers would have won, it still does so.

Majority rule meets these criteria only if the number of voters is odd or infinite. If the number of voters is even, ties are possible, violating neutrality. Some assembilies permit the chair to vote only to break ties. This substitutes a loss of anonymity for the loss of neutrality.

Other properties[edit]

Voting paradox[edit]

In group decision-making voting paradoxes can form. It is possible that alternatives a, b, and c exist such that a majority prefers a to b, another majority prefers b to c, and yet another majority prefers c to a. Because majority rule requires an alternative to have majority support to pass, majority rule is vulnerable to rejecting the majority's decision. (The minimum number of alternatives that can form such a cycle (voting paradox) is 3 if the number of voters is different from 4, because the Nakamura number of the majority rule is 3. For supermajority rules the minimum number is often greater, because the Nakamura number is often greater.)


Rae argued and Taylor proved in 1969 that majority rule maximizes the likelihood that the issues a voter votes for will pass and that the issues a voter votes against will fail.[1]

Utilitarian welfare[edit]

Schmitz and Tröger (2012) consider a collective choice problem with two alternatives and show that majority rule maximizes utilitarian welfare among all incentive-compatible, anonymous, and neutral voting rules, provided that voters' types are independent.[6] When votersʼ utilities are stochastically correlated, other dominant-strategy choice rules may perform better than majority rule. Azrieli and Kim (2014) extend the analysis of independent types to asymmetric environments and by considering both anonymous and non-anonymous rules.[7]


Arguments for limitations[edit]

Minority rights[edit]

Because a majority will win a vote under majority rule, majority rule can lead to tyranny of the majority, the oppression of or negative outcomes for the minority or minorities.[1] Requiring a super-majority is a potential response. However, supermajority rules do not guarantee that a particular minority will be protected; instead they privilege the status quo and prevent a simple majority from overturning it. A Super=-majority rule actually empowers the minority, making it stronger (at least through its veto) than the majority. McGann argued that when only one of multiple minorities is protected by the super-majority rule (same as seen in simple plurality elections systems), so the protection is for the status quo, rather than for the faction that supports it.

Another possible way to prevent tyranny is to elevate certain rights as inalienable.[8] Thereafter, any decision that targets such a right might be majoritarian, but it would not be legitimate, because it would violate the requirement for equal rights.

In response, majority rule advocates argue that because the procedure that privileges constitutional rights is generally super-majoritarian rule, this solution super-majoritian problems. Constitutional rights cannot by themselves offer protection. Under some circumstances, the legal rights of one person cannot be guaranteed without injustly imposing on someone else. McGann wrote, "one man's right to property in the antebellum South was another man's slavery." Amartya Sen noted the liberal paradox, stating that a proliferation of rights may make everyone worse off.[9]

Erroneous priorities[edit]

The erroneous priorities effect (EPE) states that groups that act upon what they initially consider important almost always misplace their effort. Such groups have not yet determined which factors are most influential. Only after identifying those factors can they take effective action. EPE was articulated by Dye at the Food and Drug Administration.[10][11] This discovery led to the recognition that even with good intentions, effective action requires a different paradigm for language and voting.[12] EPE is a negative consequence of phenomena such as spreadthink and groupthink. Effective priorities are dependent on recognizing the influence patterns of global interdependencies and are defeated by EPE when priorities simply aggregate individual stakeholder's subjective voting that does not consider those interdependencies. Dye's work resulted in the discovery of the 6th law of the science of structured dialogic design, namely that "Learning occurs in a dialogue as the observers search for influence relationships among the members of a set of observations."[11]

Other arguments for limitations[edit]

Seeds For Change argued that majority rule can lead to poor deliberative practice or even to "an aggressive culture and conflict."[13] Along these lines, majority rule may fail to measure the preferences intensity. The authors of An Anarchist Critique of Democracy argue that "two voters who are casually interested in doing something" can defeat one voter who has "dire opposition" to the proposal of the two.[14]

Voting theorists claimed that cycling leads to debilitating instability.[1] Buchanan and Tullock argue that unanimity is the only decision rule that guarantees economic efficiency.[1]

Supermajority rules may be used in binary decisions where a positive decision is more significant than a negative one. Under supermajority voting, a positive decision is made if and only if the supermajority threshold is reached—for example, two thirds or three fourths.[citation needed] For example, US jury decisions require the support of at least 10 of 12 jurors, or even unanimous support. This supermajoritarian concept follows directly from the presumption of innocence on which the US legal system is based. Rousseau advocated supermajority voting on important decisions when he said, "The more the deliberations are important and serious, the more the opinion that carries should approach unanimity."[15]

Arguments against limitations[edit]

Minority rights[edit]

McGann argued that majority rule helps to protect minority rights, at least in deliberative settings. The argument is that cycling ensures that parties that lose to a majority have an interest to remain part of the group's process, because any decision can easily be overturned by another majority. Furthermore, suppose a minority wishes to overturn a decision. In that case, it needs to form a coalition with only enough group members to ensure that more than half approve the new proposal. Under supermajority rules, a minority needs its own supermajority to overturn a decision.[1]

To support the view that majority rule protects minority rights better than supermajority rules, McGann pointed to the cloture rule in the US Senate, which was used to prevent the extension of civil liberties to racial minorities.[1] Saunders, while agreeing that majority rule may offer better protection than supermajority rules, argued that majority rule may nonetheless be of little help to the least minorities.[16]

Other arguments[edit]

Saunders argued that deliberative democracy flourishes under majority rule and that under majority rule, participants always have to convince more than half the group, while under supermajoritarian rules participants might only need to persuade a minority (to prevent a change).[16] McGann argued that cycling encourages participants to compromise, rather than pass resolutions that have the bare minimum required to "win" because of the likelihood that they would soon be reversed.[9]

Within this atmosphere of compromise, a minority faction may accept proposals that it dislikes in order to build a coalition for a proposal that it deems of greater moment. In that way, majority rule differentiates weak and strong preferences. McGann argued that such situations encourage minorities to participate, because majority rule does not typically create permanent losers, encouraging systemic stability. He pointed to governments that use largely unchecked majority rule, such as the Netherlands, Austria, and Sweden as empirical evidence of majority rule's stability.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Anthony J. McGann (2002). "The Tyranny of the Supermajority: How Majority Rule Protects Minorities" (PDF). Center for the Study of Democracy. Retrieved 2008-06-09. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ Robert 2011, p. 401
  3. ^ Robert, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-306-82020-5. The basic principle of decision in a deliberative assembly is that, to become the act or choice of the body, a proposition must be adopted by a majority vote. . .
  4. ^ May, Kenneth O. (1952). "A Set of Independent Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Simple Majority Decision". Econometrica. 20 (4): 680–684. doi:10.2307/1907651. JSTOR 1907651.
  5. ^ Mark Fey, "May's Theorem with an Infinite Population", Social Choice and Welfare, 2004, Vol. 23, issue 2, pages 275–293.
  6. ^ Schmitz, Patrick W.; Tröger, Thomas (2012). "The (sub-)optimality of the majority rule" (PDF). Games and Economic Behavior. 74 (2): 651–665. doi:10.1016/j.geb.2011.08.002. ISSN 0899-8256.
  7. ^ Azrieli, Yaron; Kim, Semin (2014). "Pareto efficiency and weighted majority rules". International Economic Review. 55 (4): 1067–1088. doi:10.1111/iere.12083. ISSN 0020-6598. S2CID 54538209.
  8. ^ Przeworski, Adam; Maravall, José María (2003-07-21). Democracy and the Rule of Law. p. 223. ISBN 9780521532662.
  9. ^ a b McGann, Anthony J. (2006). The Logic of Democracy: Reconciling Equality, Deliberation, and Minority Protection. ISBN 0472069497.
  10. ^ Dye, K.M. and Conaway, D.S. (1999) 'Lessons learned from five years of application of the cogniscope', Approach to the Food and Drug Administration, CWA Report, Interactive Management Consultants, Paoli.
  11. ^ a b Dye, K. (1999). "Dye's law of requisite evolution of observations". In Christakis, A.N.; Bausch, K. (eds.). How People Harness their Collective Wisdom and Power. pp. 166–169. ISBN 9781593114824.
  12. ^ Flanagan, T.R., and Christakis, A.N. (2010) The Talking Point: Creating an Environment for ExploringComplex Meaning, Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, CT.
  13. ^ "What's wrong with majority voting?". Consensus Decision Making. Seeds for Change. 2005. Retrieved 2006-01-17.
  14. ^ "An Anarchist Critique of Democracy". 2005. Archived from the original on 2008-04-29. Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  15. ^ Rousseau. The Social Contract. bk. 4, ch. 2.
  16. ^ a b Ben Saunders (2008). "Democracy-as-Fairness: Justice, Equal Chances, and Lotteries" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on September 10, 2008. Retrieved September 8, 2013.

Further reading[edit]