nonmajoritarian disadvantages

Mike Ositoff ntk at
Tue Jul 21 23:28:07 PDT 1998

On Mon, 20 Jul 1998 Saari at wrote:

> >But even if you like the nonmajoritarian methods, majority rule
> >still can't be avoided. For one thing, the decision to enact
> >such a mathod would have to be made under a majoritarian system.
> Certainly, any existing group wishing to change their methods would have to
> use the existing methods to move forward, whether that is unilateral by the
> "leader", a 2/3 vote by the board of directors, a majority vote by the
> members, or whatever.  Any new groups being formed can establish a starting
> set of rules by fiat or by consensus or whatever.

Yes, and when you started a mailing list that was going to be
an "experiment in democracy", the voting method was decided by
fiat, by you. You said it had to be the -100 to 100 system, or something
like that, with your supermajority requirement to pass anything.
I suggested that, with what I've called "voter's choice", or something
like it, there wouldn't be a need to dictatorially establish an
initial method, but you said that discussion wasn't permitted.
And you talk about "bully mentality" :-)

> You forget that not all existing groups use majority rule today.  For example,
> "consensus" is a popular method used by a variety of groups.  And many

But we were talking about methods for public political methods, and
though Plurality, Approval with y/n, and Runoff, which are currently
in use in this country, aren't what we'd choose to reallly protect
majority rule, they can still be called "majoritarian", in the sense
that a majority with good information can make what it wants happen.
So the use of consensus by some groups isn't relevant to the discussion
so far.

And are you now saying that if something is in use in some group
somewhere, however small, that means it's desirable to emulate?

Yeah, some groups use Consensus. I call it the false-consensus, or
forced consensus method. Those who use it seem to miss the point that
there isn't always a genuine consensus, and that there times when
it's actually necessary to make a decision or a choice. Groups don't
always have the luxury of inaction. This is something that you too
seem to be missing, with that absurd 3/1 (75%), or 5/1 (83.3%)
requirement to enact anything. Well you must really like sameness
and decades with nothing enacted. How often do 83.3% of the voters
agree on a candidate, or even an initiative, in a y/n vote?
Fine, use that on your mailing list, if it still exists; but
if you believe that requiring a 75% or 83.3% majority to elect
a candidate to an office, or choose a course of action from among
several, is workable, or would be accepted, then I suppose that
you're beyond reach.

> >And, even when the nonmajoritarian system is in effect, a vote
> >on repealing it couldn't properly be done as just one of the
> >issues between which points or currency are allocated in that
> >system--it's a separate issue deserving a y/n vote by itself.
> >A majoritarian vote.
> Not if whatever rules are in effect say otherwise. For example, in the U.S.
> changes to the Constitution require a complicated 2/3 state-by-state vote.
> You can't change this with a majority as much as you might believe it would be
> fair.

Legally you couldn't. But if a supermajority rule were consistently
& firmly opposed by a majority, then, to many people, it would
be rather lacking in legitimacy. This is a subjective matter, and
maybe you don't feel that way.

Likewise for Consensus. If most members of a Consensus group insisted
that Consensus wasn't any good, and wanted to dump it, how much
sense would it make to tell them "Sorry, but you don't have a
consensus for that"? They could begin holding their meetings elsewhere,
and correctly tell people that they, not the minority, comprise most
members of that group, and are the group with the legitimate right
to use its name.

As much as you'd like a mini-minority dictatorship to be able to
prevent a group from acting, minority dictatorships don't have
legitmacy when a majority consistantly & explicitly calls for
repeal of the minority-rule Consensus system.

Anyway, even if that majority didn't walk out, all it would take
would be for them to always vote for actions that they want, and
when it got around that a majority, which opposes the Consensus
method, is regularly being denied its wishes, it would be well-
understood by everyone that that group's Consensus system is
a failure.

> Arguments about the inherent worth and logic of "majority rule" fall apart in
> the face of the "consensus counterexample".  Many small or informal groups use
> consensus as a decision method - meaning that a single objection is enough to
> block passage of any given proposal.  Many groups are happy operating under
> consensus - there is no fundamental contradiction, just a different standard
> for making decisions.

And Plurality & Runoff are very widely used in this country, but
I hope you aren't going to say that that means that they're

> Under consensus, a minority of objectors can PREVENT the reaching of a
> decision, but a minority of proposers CANNOT FORCE a decision over the
> objections of the rest of the group.  This serves to protect the rights of the
> minorities in the group, but does NOT allow a minority to "take over" either.

If you're part of a majority, in a Consensus group, a majority that
opposes that system, and if that system consistently fails majority
wishes, then I urge you to walk out.

> If we use the "support/oppose ratio" model of scoring, then some versions of
> "majority rule" will equate to a passing threshold of 1:1 (or 51% if you
> prefer % notation).  "Consensus" can be modelled as a passing threshold of N:1
> (or 100%), where N is arbitrarily large (the entire group cannot override a
> single objection).  This is a simplistic model - when you consider that
> opinions are really tri-state (support or oppose or "neither") it gets more
> complicated.  "majority" can have a variety of meanings - but I digress.

I thought it just meant more than half, whether that majority wants
a particular result, or opposes one, or prefers one to another.
> Consensus is not a great system for large groups because as the group gets
> larger and larger, it becomes more and more impossible to reach decisions.
> But in my view, this is simply a matter of the very large N:1 passing ratio is
> TOO LARGE.  A more reasonable value, such as 3:1 or 5:1, would in my
> estimation yield fine results regardless of group size.

As I said, it would yield complete deadlock in this country's
elections. No winning candidate or alternative would ever be

> >My point is that even if you believe in nonmajoritarian
> >systems, you can't get away from majority rule, which is an
> >unchangeable fact of life.
> Respectfully, this is bully-mentality nonsense.  There are lots of nonmajority
> rules in place today in lots of situations.  

And there are a number of things in place here & there that we
agree are undesirable. The fact that something is in place somewhere
does nothing to establish its merit. Plurality is in wide use.

Majority rule is an unchangeable fact of life because, whatever
Consensus, or 83.3% supermajority rule is in effect, it could
only result in deadlock in our public elections. In the little
groups using Consensus, if a majority insisted on scrapping
Consensus, and always voted for the majority wishes, people would
soon accept the unworkability of violating majority wishes. Either
when the majority walked out, or when deadlock resulted from its
always voting for majority wishes.

As I said, nonmajoritarian systems can only operate at the
sufferance of the majority.

> A good case can be made that a 3:1 semi-consensus system would result in
> overall satisfaction by nearly an entire group instead of merely half-plus-
> one.  Every argument that "majority rule" is inherently wise and sound and
> inevitable cannot stand up to the simple counterexample that a group of 5
> people operating under consensus can still reach sensible decisions.

What? Public elections involve more than 5 people. What works for
5 won't work publicly, as you've admitted. In fact, I've often known
groups of 5 or smaller to not be able to reach consensus, and to
have to go with the wishes of the larger faction. So it isn't at
all clear what you mean by saying that "consensus can still reach
sensible decisions". Yeah, when there's a genuine consensus, or
when one friend or family-member gives good reasons for strong
opposition, and others _voluntarily_ decide to go along with
them. But trying to make consensus, or 83.3% agreement into
a _rule_ is unworkable unless a majority accepts that rule.

> Mike Saari

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