An injustice that put Bush in poll position

Just Elections
September 26, 2003

Desmond King examines the clash between democratic theory and elections.

There could hardly be a more timely subject for a book about American politics than that addressed by Harvard University's Dennis Thompson in Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the United States. The presidential election in November 2000 was so close that the US Supreme Court had to decide on the outcome (from the result in Florida state). The justices' decision enabled George W. Bush to enter the White House instead of his competitor, vice-president Al Gore. This result has proved momentous. Bush led his Republican party to historically astonishing mid-term election victories and demonstrated the US' military might internationally in a way that would have been unthinkable during the Clinton presidency. From the closely fought presidential election, the world has changed profoundly.

In Just Elections, Thompson argues that democratic theory and electoral practice clash. He thinks elections, as presently organised, produce unjust outcomes because they often violate the values of equal respect and free choice. This argument is developed in a book that is elegantly written, subtle and admirably grounded in political theory and empirical knowledge.

Thompson notes that the 2000 presidential election was accepted as legitimate by many voters but concurrently judged unfair. He demonstrates the way in which very basic aspects of electoral procedure - whether a county can afford optical scanners for voting or to pay for competent staff - were exposed in the crisis of the Florida 2000 vote. In his account of the exercise of free choice in an election, Thompson draws attention to several practicable problems in implementing what seems like an uncomplicated standard. These problems include how to order candidate names on ballot papers and whether racial "districting" - that is, drawing electoral districts deliberately to favour a racial minority so that someone from this group will be elected - is compatible with a fair and just electoral system.

Thompson devotes a substantial section to the issues raised by racial districting as it has evolved since the 1962 Baker v. Carr decision through to Shaw v. Reno (1993) and to more recent disputes. Thompson points out the mixed motives among those supporting and opposing racial districting. These include partisan calculations, redress of historical injustices and effects of membership of the Congress. He argues that to understand and resolve the conflicts surrounding majority-minority districts turns on the conception of representation favoured, implicitly or explicitly, by institutional designers.

Furthermore, because the principle of equal respect does not automatically discriminate between different conceptions of representation, "we cannot conclude that racial districting violates equal respect". This inference implies pushing the decision back to citizens and voters to determine their preferences about representation. This requires deliberation about electoral procedures.

Thompson identifies four norms of electoral deliberation. First, electoral procedure must be justifiable to participants, that is voters. Second, many aspects of electoral procedure should be addressed not in terms of abstract theory but in resolving the precise problems they pose with reference to criteria of equal respect and free choice. He suggests thinking about campaign finance in the context of the problems it creates for these principles. Third, concentrate on institutional practice because it will "reveal the expressive meaning of electoral practices - the importance of having one's vote counted as much as having it count", for instance. Last, recurring institutional characteristics of elections - for example, in the US they are usually held simultaneously for several offices - should inform electoral procedure.

Just Elections is strikingly US-focused. Thompson avoids lumbering the reader with accounts of electoral practices in other countries. He does, of course, refer to alternative electoral systems such as some form of proportional representation. But non-American readers naturally find themselves thinking about how other polities deal with some of the same problems. Electoral procedures are rarely criticised for the same level of mechanical malfunctioning Thompson describes in the American system, and many systems deal with the claims of competing groups in the polity for proportionate representation. But from the US experience Thompson finds a good deal of merit in the use of commissions, such as redistricting commissions, to provide forums for deliberation about electoral procedures and their revision. He prefers them to voter initiatives because they give an opportunity for objective discussion and the exercise of popular authority. Thompson writes: "Less responsive but more deliberative than the initiative, less accountable but more disinterested than legislatures, such commissions can provide a partial solution to the problem of many majorities."

Given his work as a political philosopher, it is not surprising that Thompson is primarily interested in the moral foundations of electoral institutions. Thompson asks citizens to think about the fundamental values represented in electoral procedures, an agenda all too rarely given to voters. His analysis leads him to advocate a more general "institutional political theory", that is, a detailed analysis of political institutions in terms of commonly defended normative criteria. This is an exciting proposal that would require a significant break in the trajectory taken by liberal political theorists in the past three decades. But Just Elections provides a thoughtful and worthwhile starting point for forging a new trajectory to link political scientists and theorists.

Desmond King is professor of American government, University of Oxford.

Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the United States

Author - Dennis F. Thompson
ISBN - 0 226 79763 5
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.50
Pages - 262

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