Majority Rule

views updated May 23 2018

Majority Rule

History of theory and practice

Contemporary issues


The term “majority rule” stands for a rule of decision making within a specified group. At its simplest, the rule requires that the vote of each member shall be counted as equal to that of every other and that no vote or decision by a minority may override that of a majority. By extension, majority rule is sometimes contrasted with any rule requiring that decisions be unanimous or by any number larger than a simple majority. According to this extended version, then, not only may a minority never override a majority but also it can never check a majority: a majority vote is conclusive for the whole group. It is common to distinguish this usage by referring to it as “bare majority” rule, rule by “simple majority,” or “strict majoritarianism.” Within democratic regimes most of the controversies about majority rule relate to whether it is desirable to apply the “bare majority” rule at some particular stage of the political process, or even whether the ethical premises of democracy demand its application. For electoral purposes it is common, especially where a twoparty system prevails, to permit choice (election) by a plurality that is less than a majority. Strictly speaking, this procedure violates the majority principle, and such devices as run-off elections are often used to increase the probability that the elected candidate will have majority support.

History of theory and practice

Among the ancient Greeks, democracy entailed rule by majority vote of a popular assembly, of which all adult male citizens were members. Even in democratic Athens, however, there were institutional as well as practical limits on the power of majorities. A select group determined the agenda of the assembly, thus playing a significant role in framing the issues. Moreover, many important officials were selected by lot rather than by vote. This practice tended to limit the power of an organized majority or of a class or interest that comprised a majority, because in accordance with the laws of chance it gave proportionate representation to minority groups, as simple majority rule fails to do.

During the medieval period, whether in the great council of the church, in abbey chapter, or in secular parliament, decision by a bare or simple majority was slow to gain acceptance in practice and even slower to be vindicated in principle. The concurrence of all, the unanimity principle, seems universally to have been considered the ideal for positive action. It was common, however, to recognize that action could not be taken against the expressed wishes of a majority. (In this basic sense, majority rule prevailed.) The result was a kind of rule by “concurrent majorities” (Calhoun [1851] 1953, pp. 16-31). Typically, there was no fixed, mechanical formula for determining when a decision could be made, but unanimity was sought even if it could be obtained only by the process of wearing down and shouting down the dissenters—or by resort to threats or physical force. It was not until the sixteenth century that the ideal of unanimity and the practice of “veto groups” (the requirement of concurrence of the representatives of each town, county, etc.) gave way to the rule that the vote of a majority of individual representatives should prevail for positive as well as for negative action. Doubtless the rising ndividualism of this period, reinforced by the practical necessities of a state in which legislation was playing a far more important role than it had in the medieval period, led to this development.

The doctrine that the state should be based upon the consent of the majority of the people and that the specific acts of government should express the will of the majority (of adult males) was most systematically expounded and justified in the writings of John Locke (1690). Locke’s fundamental position was founded upon the equality principle, which he assumed to be self-evident and which seemed to him to dictate the majority principle as opposed to any form of minority rule. Popular acceptance of this decision-making rule, he felt, was based upon both convenience and the superior strength of a majority.

This theory spread rapidly and became the foundation of political liberalism. Rousseau adopted it, with the important refinement that he specifically indicated that the support of more than a bare majority for all important political decisions should be insisted upon, unless the urgency of reaching a decision dictated otherwise [seeRousseau]. In England, Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarian school accepted the equalitarian principle unquestioningly and, as a corollary, accepted also the rule that for all political decisions the concurrence of a majority should be a sufficient as well as a necessary condition [seeBentham]. The theory and practice of constitutional democracy, however, as it spread throughout most of the Western world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, generally recognized certain individual and minority rights and gave them some form of constitutional protection, thus placing limitations on bare majorities. [SeeConstitutions and Constitutionalism.]

Contemporary issues

Today, within the context of democratic principles, majority rule as the rule for decision making is the subject of continuing analysis and discussion from two points of view. One debate relates to whether it is legitimate, from the point of view of the democratic ethic, to require more than a bare majority for certain decisions. The other area of discussion deals with the question of whether majority rule is, in any sense of that difficult word, the best, most “rational” technique for expressing the equality principle, maximizing satisfaction, or attaining any other posited objective of democratic government.

Merits of majoritarianism . Various writers have argued that the essence of the democratic ethic requires that the will (vote) of a simple majority should always prevail over the opposition. Any other rule, they urge, places a minority in a position to frustrate a majority and thus, in a sense, to rule. Accordingly, the logical and only legitimate derivative of the equalitarian, democratic assumption is held to entail bare majority rule.

Others defend the same decision-making rule on more pragmatic grounds. They maintain that a requirement, for any purpose, of more than a simple majority places undesirable obstacles in the way of government. The dice are sufficiently loaded against progressive change without placing in the hands of self-interested or traditionally oriented minorities a powerful instrument of obstructionism. As long as opportunity for free association, discussion, and deliberation prevails, they argue, the rights of minorities will not be trampled upon. In a fluid and pluralistic society, a majority will not consist of a solid, fixed interest but will be made up of shifting coalitions of groups well aware of the fact that tomorrow they may be part of a minority and, therefore, sensitive to the interests and rights of minorities.

Opponents of strict majoritarianism advance numerous arguments. First, they point out that the majoritarian principle might be used to destroy the conditions of its own existence, such as freedom of association and expression. Moreover, other individual rights widely accepted as fundamental, such as the right to freedom of religion, the protection of fair procedure (“due process”), or property rights, might not always be respected by the majority. They also contend that bare majority rule is potentially unfair: it does not really institutionalize the equality principle, for instead of giving to the minority its rightful proportionate weight, it gives it none at all. The strict majoritarian position is questioned on still another ground: not only does it fail to give weight to minorities; it also takes no account of the intensity of interest or demand. Finally, quite apart from the equality principle, the desirability of rule by a bare majority may be challenged on purely pragmatic grounds. Where feelings are intense, a decision to override a large minority poses a serious threat to basic consensus. On the question of racial segregation in United States public schools, for instance, the minority feels so intensely that the basis for law and order itself is threatened when the attempt is made to compel complete integration.

Majoritarians have frequently argued in an abstract manner that renders at least part of their position so unrealistic as to be inapplicable in real life. If it is the majority that should in all situations and at every turn rule, because of the principle of political equality, presumably it is the majority of the electorate who should rule. In other words, nothing short of direct democracy could satisfy this condition, for representatives do not always express the will of the majority of their constituents. Even if each representative did always vote the wishes of a majority of his constituents and if all constituencies contained exactly the same number of voters, the majority might not rule because minorities might be unevenly dispersed among the electoral districts. Moreover, on most questions that confront legislatures, many or most of the voters have no opinion, as opinion surveys are continually showing. The majority principle under these circumstances leads to pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp. From these and similar considerations emerges the conclusion that the principle of political equality cannot lead to any clear and invariable rule for decision making. What institutional and voting arrangements should be adopted becomes a pragmatic matter, whether the goal is to reflect the desires of the greatest number of voters or whether different objectives, such as preservation of consensus and other conditions for continuing democracy and giving effect to intensity as well as numbers of opinions or desires, are taken into account.

Rational decision making . The other approach from which the problem of majority rule is currently being studied is a refinement of one of the arguments enumerated above, using the techniques of mathematics and of game theory. Even with models assuming rational men (denned as men who know what they want and pursue their ends by the most efficient means available), it appears that majority rule is not always an optimal decision-making process’that is, it does not maximize satisfaction. In particular, where the problem is one of allocation of goods, the results of majority decisions may be quite fortuitous, because everything depends upon the procedure adopted for proposing alternatives and submitting them for decision. Moreover, under certain circumstances, majority decisions may consistently lead to results that are less satisfactory (e.g., by the standard of the “Pareto optimum”) than decisions arrived at in some other way (Buchanan & Tullock 1962, chapter 12; Ward 1961).

Serious problems could arise where voters’ preferences are socially intransitive—that is, where the ways in which different voters would rank a series of possible choices are scrambled rather than patterned. For example: X prefers A to B, B to C, and A to C. Y prefers B to C, C to A, and B to A. Z prefers C to A, A to B, and C to B. It will be seen that a majority prefer A to B and B to C. It would seem, then, that the community, if it is rational, prefers A to C. But in fact a majority prefer C to A; and this result (known as the “voters’ paradox”) would be arrived at by the normal legislative procedure of voting on each of the possible pairs in turn (Arrow 1951, p. 3). This analysis suggests an important question: How often are preferences affecting political decisions in fact distributed in this socially intransitive fashion? Currently data bearing on this question are almost wholly lacking [seeDecision Making].


It has been shown that it would be impossible to carry majority rule to its logical conclusion—to insist that all public policies be determined by majority will. Further, many arguments have been adduced that suggest serious ethical and practical limitations to the principle. Although the shortcomings of the principle are increasingly recognized, disagreement and sheer puzzlement as to desirable substitutes still prevail. Clearly no single alternative is acceptable. Beyond this point, generalization becomes difficult. Liberal democrats are widely agreed that individual and minority rights should have some protection against tyrannous majorities. Most constitutional democracies today seek to give a special status to some of these rights, protecting them from infringement by simple majorities. The government of Great Britain comes closer than most to enthroning simple majorities, yet even there the House of Lords remains as a slight check upon pure majoritarianism, while strong traditions of constitutional morality, fair play, and respect for minority rights place even more effective checks upon majorities. Many contend that informal checks are enough and that legal checks, whether in the form of requirements for extraordinary majorities or of the concurrence of different branches of a government responsible to separate constituencies, are unnecessary and undesirable. Some would cite the British experience in support of this position, but others would maintain that all depends upon the conditions of the country in question. In France under the Fourth Republic, for instance, institutional arrangements not very different from those that prevail in Britain permitted (and some would say encouraged) a degree of governmental instability that eroded consensus and respect for government to the point that the regime collapsed.

Granted, however, that constitutional devices to limit majorities may be desirable, it is difficult to show what devices are best, even under a given set of circumstances. Protection for the freedoms necessary for the continued effective functioning of majority rule are easily defended, but even here there is room for dispute as to means. It is difficult to determine whether requirements for extraordinary majorities, for bicameralism, or for the separation of powers are more or less likely to give proper weight to intense desires and to maximize satisfaction. Such devices do, however, have one important virtue, from the democratic point of view: they compel delay, giving time for deliberation; they force the majority, or those who are seeking governmental action, to try to win support for their proposal. This process is likely to contribute to the dissemination of information, to analysis of the probable effects of alternative courses of action, and to considered judgment of the various values and disvalues that may be involved. On such questions, however, one must rely at best on highly qualitative judgments. The need for research in this area is great.

Since modern industrial societies are typically highly pluralistic, majorities for any course of action can normally be obtained only by aggregating the support of a number of powerful groups. This process requires educational campaigns, argumentation, and deliberation. In itself it may meet the needs pointed out in the criticisms of majoritarianism, and it may do so without offering minority interests the opportunities for obstructionism provided by the numerous constitutional restraints embodied in, say, the constitution of the United States.

With respect to the shortcomings of the majority principle as a means for solving allocation problems in a way that maximizes satisfaction, a similar dilemma appears. It is easier to criticize the principle than to offer a better one. Here, again, the need for research and speculative imagination is great. Can ways be found to obtain fairer results without sacrificing the protection that majority rule provides against a consolidated and tyrannous minority? Can this be done without also giving up the values of popular interest and participation in the policymaking process? Ideally, different decision-making rules would be demanded for different situations, depending upon such variables as the type of question to be decided and the nature of the prevailing party and pressure-group systems.

One concluding point helps place the subject in perspective. Relatively small groups whose members view each other with respect and as equals tend to make their decisions unanimously, especially on important matters and, where unanimity is impracticable, to approach it as closely as possible. At the other extreme, small groups whose consensus is low are also likely to insist upon unanimity, more from mutual distrust than from mutual respect. In large groups unanimity is impracticable. If consensus is high, as in Great Britain, the polity may tolerate rule by simple majority. Where the society is more heterogeneous, or the divisions are sharper, concurrence by more than a simple majority will often be required and will, in fact, be essential for the preservation of a viable polity.

J. Roland Pennock

[See alsoConsensus; Democracy; Elections; Equality; Liberalism; Representation.]


Aarow, Kenneth J. (1951) 1963 Social Choice and Individual Values. 2d ed. New York: Wiley.

Baty, Thomas 1912 The History of Majority Rule. Quarterly Review 216:1-28.

Black, Duncan 1958 The Theory of Committees and Elections. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Buchanan, James M.; and Tullock, Gordon 1962 The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Calhoun, John C. (1851) 1953 A Disquisition on Government, and Selections From the Discourse. New York: Liberal Arts Press. → Published posthumously.

Clarke, Maude V. (1936) 1964 Medieval Representation and Consent: A Study of Early Parliaments in England and Ireland With Special Reference to the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum. New York: Russell.

De grazia, Alfred 1963 Apportionment and Representative Government. New York: Praeger. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by the American Enterprise Institute.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1942 The New Belief in the Common Man. Boston: Little. → See especially Chapter 4.

Heinberg, John G. 1932 Theories of Majority Rule. American Political Science Review 26:452–469.

Kendall, Willmoore 1950 Prolegomena to Any Future Work in Majority Rule.Journal of Politics 12:694–713.

Lindblom, Charles E. 1965 The Intelligence of Democracy: Decision Making Through Mutual Adjustment. New York: Free Press.

Locke, John (1690) 1964 The Second Treatise of Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government. Pages 283–446 in John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mcclosky, Herbert 1949 The Fallacy of Absolute Majority Rule. Journal of Politics 11:637–654.

Mims, Edwin jr. 1941 The Majority of the People. New York: Modern Age.

Pennock, J. Roland 1952 Responsiveness, Responsibility and Majority Rule.American Political Science Review 46:790–807.

Ranney, J. Austin; and Kendall, Willmoore 1951 Democracy: Confusion and Agreement.Western Political Quarterly 4:430–439.

Riker, William H. 1961 Voting and the Summation of Preferences: An Interpretive Bibliographical Review of Selected Developments During the Last Decade. American Political Science Review 55:900–911.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762) 1962 The Social Contract. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published in French. See especially Book 4, Chapter 2.

Ward, Benjamin 1961 Majority Rule and Allocation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 5:379–389.

Majority Rule

views updated May 11 2018


MAJORITY RULE , deciding a matter according to the majority opinion. In the field of the halakhah this rule is applied in three principal instances:

(a) determination of the binding law according to (the view of) the majority of halakhic scholars;

(b) adjudication of dispute by the majority decision of the courts' judges; and

(c) imposition by majority decision of the community, or its representatives, of a communal enactment (see *Takkanot ha-Kahal), binding on all members of the community. The basis for the majority rule is to be found in the exegesis of the scriptural phrase, aḥarei rabbim le-hattot (to "follow a multitude…" Ex. 23:2).

In Deciding the Halakhah

In the Talmud the phrase aḥarei rabbim le-hattot was converted into a decisory canon: "where there is a controversy between an individual and the many, the halakhah follows the many" (Ber. 9a). The sages of the Talmud explained the existence of this rule as a practical necessity, for if the Torah had been given in the form of an exhaustive codex, "the world could not have existed" (tj, Sanh. 4:2, 22a; cf. Mid. Ps. 82:3). The halakhic opinion that has prevailed is that the law is decided in accordance with the view expressed by a majority of the scholars, and this is so even if in a particular matter a heavenly voice (see *Bat-Kol) should declare that the law is according to the minority opinion (bm 59a).

The individual may continue to express his opinion that the majority has erred, but may not instruct in practice according to the minority opinion; if he actually instructs others to follow the minority opinion, he becomes (when there is a Sanhedrin) a *zaken mamre (i.e., a "rebellious scholar"; Maim., Yad, Mamrim, 3:5–6). If a majority of scholars should arrive at the same conclusion but each for a different reason, some scholars hold this to be a majority opinion which is binding while other scholars hold the contrary view (Maggid Mishneh, Ishut 7:12; Maharik, resp. nos. 41, 52, 94, 102).

Some of the geonim and rishonim took the view that a minority opinion is to be preferred above a majority opinion of scholars of lesser wisdom. This question first arose in a responsum of Hai Gaon concerning a court decision on the concrete matter in issue, and not as concerns deciding of the halakhah in general (Ge'onim Kadmoniyyim, resp. no. 144; Ramban nov. Sanh. 23a; Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh, no. 67). Some of the scholars opposed this opinion, holding that the law is always as decided by the majority (Haggahot Asheri, Av. Zar. 1:3; Siftei Kohen, supplementary note to yd 242), while other scholars laid down that whenever the minority opinion is qualitatively superior to the majority opinion, the position is as if opinions are divided equally and either may be followed (Ramban nov. Sanh. 23a; Ritba, rh 14b). In the Shulḥan Arukh, the most authoritative code of Jewish law, determination of the halakhah is generally made by application of the majority rule, the author (Joseph Caro) having adopted for himself the principle that the binding halakhah was to accord with the opinion held in common by any two of three great halakhists preceding him, namely Alfasi, Maimonides, and Asher b. Jehiel – or with the majority opinion selected on a different basis if a particular matter had not been dealt with by the three above-mentioned scholars. See *Codification of Law.

Decision by the Court

Within its plain meaning and read within its context, the above-mentioned scriptural passage (Ex. 23:2) has reference to a judgment of the court. The sages of the Talmud derived therefrom an additional interpretation relating to the field of criminal law – in which there is need for a specific majority, i.e., of two at least: "Thou shalt not follow after the many to do evil – I conclude that I must be with them to do well. Then why is it written [to follow] after the many to change judgment? [It means that] thy verdict of condemnation shall not be like thy verdict of acquittal, for thy verdict of acquittal is reached by the decision of a majority of one, but thy verdict of condemnation must be reached by the decision of a majority of two" (Sanh. 1:6 and cf. Mekh., Kaspa 20). Some scholars explain the need for a specific majority in matters of the criminal law on the basis that in matters of the civil law no judgment solely condemns or solely absolves, since any suit involves two litigants and what is to the one's benefit is to the other's detriment; whereas in criminal law matters the judgment is condemnatory, i.e., to the detriment of the accused (Tos. to Sanh. 3b).

A majority is only required in the event that a judicial decision has to be made in a concrete case before the court, whereas in deciding the halakhah in the criminal law field – outside the context of instant litigation – a simple majority of one suffices as it does in all other cases (Resp. Radbaz, Li-Leshonot ha-Rambam, no. 1690).

The amoraim question how a judgment in a civil law matter, arrived at by majority decision, should be worded. It was decided, in accordance with the opinion of R. Eleazar, that the judgment must be written in the name of the court without mention being made of the names of the judges favoring one view or the other (Sanh. 30a; Maim., Yad, Sanh. 22:8); similarly, that a judgment given by a majority decision must be signed also by the judge dissenting therefrom (tj, Sanh. 3:10; Avkat Rokhel, no. 19; Mabit, vol. 2, pt. 1, resp. no. 173; Ḥm 19 – Urim, n. 4). Hai Gaon's opinion (see above) that a preponderance of wisdom should be preferred above numerical majority, also with reference to court decisions, and even that the opinion of one individual may prevail against that of the many, remained generally unaccepted in later generations. Even those who favored wisdom above a numerical majority as the basis for deciding the halakhah, agreed that the majority opinion was to be preferred as the basis for a judgment by the court in the concrete matter before it (Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh, no. 67; Ramban nov. Sanh. 23a).

Communal Decisions and Enactments

The view that has prevailed in Jewish law is that communal resolutions and enactments are passed by a decision of the majority and bind the minority (see Elon, in bibl., 11 n. 34).

This general view was dissented from by Rabbenu Jacob *Tam, who held that only after an enactment had been passed by the whole community might the majority lay down fines for transgression thereof, and that the minority could not be compelled by the community to comply with a decision of the majority to which it had been opposed (Mordekhai, bk 179 and bb 480). The doctrine of aḥarei rabbim le-hattot has been relied upon by the scholars in support of the right to pass a communal enactment by majority decision (Rosh, resp. no. 6:5).

According to some of the scholars, the ordinances of a guild or an association – as distinguished from communal enactments – must be passed with the consent of all members in order to be binding (Ramban, nov. bb 9a; Nimmukei Yosef, bb 9a; Leḥem Rav, no. 216).

In the case of a judicial tribunal, it was laid down that a majority decision is not binding unless all the judges have participated in the proceedings and the judgment is that of the majority of the full complement (Sanh. 5:5). Some scholars deduced therefrom that also a communal enactment passed by majority decision is not binding unless the minority has participated in the proceedings (Rashba, vol. 2, resp. no. 104; Maharik, resp. no. 180; Maharit, vol. 1, resp. no. 58). Since this ruling, if followed, might enable the minority to impose its will on the majority by absenting itself from the discussions of the community, it came to be laid down in the course of time that the decision of the majority shall be binding despite the minority's nonparticipation in the discussions leading thereto. The scholars supported the conclusion either on the basis of a presumption that the absentee minority impliedly agrees to accept the decision of the majority which exerts itself to participate (Mishpat Shalom, no. 231; ibid., Kunteres Tikkun Olam, "vav"), or on the basis that the minority impliedly delegates authority to the majority (Hatam Sofer, Ḥm, resp. no. 116); custom too is relied upon by some scholars in support of the majority rule of those participating in the proceedings in communal legislation (Mabit, vol. 1, resp. no. 264). If the community has delegated authority to its representatives, the latter decide by majority decision, but only if the minority too is present (Penei Moshe, vol. 2, resp. no. 110; Birkei Yosef, Ḥm 13:7).

[Shmuel Shilo]

Halakhic Decision-Making and the Importance of Minority Opinions

The determination of practical halakhah by the majority does not contradict the concept of freedom of expression nor detract from the importance of any view, even if that view is a lone view.

Early Jewish law, as reflected in the sources, is characterized by its anonymity and its uniformity. Prior to the era of *Hillel and *Shammai, halakhic disputes were rare, since any problem which arose was resolved by the Sanhedrin, which enjoyed complete judicial authority (Sanh. 88b; Tosefta, Sanh. 7:1). From the generation after Hillel and Shammai – i.e., the beginning of the first century – and until the end of that century, following the destruction of the Second Temple and a concomitant decline in the status of the Sanhedrin, the halakhic world split into two schools of thought – the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai (see *Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai). Each school practiced the law in accordance with its own beliefs, while differences even extended to legal questions with fundamental and basic ramifications:

When the disciples of Shammai and Hillel, who had insufficiently studied, increased in number, disputes multiplied in Israel and the Torah became as two Torot (ibid.).

Practically speaking, this period of pluralistic halakhic rulings could not continue for long, as it led to the possibility that families belonging to one school of thought could not marry into the other, thereby dividing the nation into two separate endogamous groups. At the beginning of the second century, when the center of Jewish law moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh, with Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel ii as its head, the original uniformity in practical application that had previously existed in the halakhah was restored.

In deciding between the opinions of the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, the Sages ruled that "both are the words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the School of Hillel" (tj, Ber. 1d).

It was this trend toward deciding between opposing views that led to the early stages in the process of redaction of various legal collections which later constituted the basis for the redaction of the Mishnah. Nevertheless, during the process of redaction of the Mishnah, the divergent views and disputes among the various tannaim were preserved and recorded. One reason for this is stated explicitly in the Mishnah itself (Eduyyot 1:5), namely: that should a later court of law see fit to rule in accordance with the individual opinion, it would be at liberty to do so. In the words of the Tosefta: "Rabbi Judah says: Why is the minority view recorded [in the Mishnah] alongside the majority view…. So that a [later] court that agrees with the minority view can rely on" (Tosefta, Eduyyot 1:4).

Rabbi *Samson of Sens (France, Palestine; 12th and 13th centuries) interprets the aforementioned sources as follows:

Even though the individual opinion was not accepted in the first instance, and the majority disagreed with the individual, a later generation may arise, the majority of whom might agree to the opinion of the individual, and then the matter will be decided in accordance with their opinion. All of the Torah was transmitted to Moses in this fashion: there are considerations to purify and considerations to render impure. (Moses) was told: How long will we have to clarify every situation? He said to them: "The rule is according to the majority; however, both opinions are the words of the living God."

According to this interpretation, there is no such thing as an absolute and unequivocal ruling. In every case there are multiple considerations. While the final ruling in halakhic decision-making is indeed determined by the majority, a different majority at another period in time might arrive at a different conclusion. In the Supreme Court of the State of Israel, this justification for citing minority opinions has been presented – on the basis of the sources cited above – as an explanation for the crucial need to present minority opinions in fundamental court rulings (fh 13/80 Hendeles v. Bank Kuppat Ha'am 35 (2) pd 785, p. 796; hc 669/85 Kahane v. Knesset Speaker, 40 (4) pd 393, 404–420 per Justice Menachem Elon).

An additional explanation, that is both connected to and founded on the previous one, is the pluralistic nature of the halakhah – not in terms of practical actions, but in terms of opinions. The halakhah accepts uniformity in halakhic decision-making as an operative necessity. On the theoretical plane, however, it considers each and every opinion as important, and it sees the importance of presenting the full spectrum of halakhic views. A sage who disputes the opinion of his fellows – even after the Sanhedrin has ruled against his opinion – may continue to adhere to his opinion, so long as he does not rule accordingly for others. Such a sage will not be considered to be a "rebellious elder" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:2).

This position, which sees the multiplicity of opinions and the importance of transmitting all of those opinions to the learning community as a value, may be found in the words of halakhic authorities of later eras.

Rabbi Ḥayyim ben Bezalel Ashkenazi states that, if a halakhic authority were to rule in accordance with a particular opinion on one day, and in accordance with a different opinion on the next day – "this would not be evidence of any change or deficiency which would cause us to say that the Torah has become, God forbid, as two Torahs; on the contrary – such is the way of the Torah, and both are the words of the living God" (Vikku'aḥ Mayim Ḥayyim (Introduction), par. 7; Poland, 16th century).

Rabbi Solomon Ephraim of Lonshitz (Keli Yakar, on Deut. 17:2) applies the same statement to the legal decision of a judge in a case adjudicated before him. In his opinion, in every case there are considerations in either direction, and there is no absolute ruling of pure or impure, permitted or prohibited. That is why, when a court of law rules, we must always rely on its rulings; the court has ruled in accordance with the intellectual discretion of the majority of its members, a fact that endows their opinion with obligatory validity. This, however, does not detract from the essential truth of the opposing opinion, in and of itself. Rabbi Jehiel Michal Epstein (Arukh ha-Shulḥan, Ḥm, Introduction; beginning of 20th century) sees the diversity of opinions as the glory of the Torah. He compares it to a choir made up of many voices:

For those who truly understand, all of the disputes of the tannaim and amoraim, the geonim and the posekim are truly the words of living God, and each of them have validity in the halakhah. In truth, that is the glory of our holy and pure Torah. All of the Torah is called "song," and the glory of a song is when the voices are different from each other. That is the essence of its beauty.

These words regarding the phenomenon of multiple opinions as an integral part of the world of the halakhah, have been cited and discussed at length in the rulings of the Supreme Court of the State of Israel by Justice Menachem Elon, in the Neiman case, in the Shakdiel case, and in the Kestenbaum case. In all of these cases he relied on those sources in order to establish the legitimacy of different and divergent opinions in the realm of halakhah, in the spectrum of political opinions in the State of Israel, and in the field of public administration in the State of Israel (ea 2/84 Neiman v. Chairman, Central Elections Committee, 39 (2) pd 225, 292–296; hc 153/87 Shakdiel v. Minister of Religious Affairs, 42 (2) pd 221, 263–264; ca 294/91; ca 294/91 Burial Society v. Kestenbaum, 46 (2) pd 464, 505–506).

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]


A.H. Freimann, in: Yavneh, 2 (1947/48), 1–6; I.A. Agus, in: Talpioth, 5 (1950), 176–95; 6 (1953), 305–20; B. Reicher, in: Sinai, 33 (1953), 174–7, 244–6, 383f.; A.I. Zaslanski, ibid., 36 (1954/55), 451–4; I.A. Agus, in: jqr, 45 (1954/55), 120–9; et, 9 (1959), 241–339; B. Lipkin, in: Ha-Torah ve-ha-Medinah, 2 (1960), 41–54; S. Federbusch, in: Mazkeret… T.H. Herzog (1962), 575–81; M. Elon, in: Meḥkarei Mishpat le-Zekher A. Rosenthal (1964), 1–54; M.P. Golding, in: jsos, 28 (1966), 67–78; A.J. Blau, in: Torah she-be-al Peh, 10 (1968), 128–34. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:227f., 320, 397, 443–44, 552, 562, 583f., 718f., 813, 820; 2:870–78, 947f., 1007, 1016, 1018, 1094f., 1212; 3:1465, 1553f.; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:256, 383; 2:485, 541f., 672, 683, 886f., 996, 1004; 3:1061–1072, 1147f., 1218, 1228, 1230, 1317, 1452; 4:1740, 1845f.; idem, Jewish Law (Cases and Materials) (1999), 493–522, 524–33; A. Grossman, "Majority and Minority in the Teachings of 11th-Century Ashkenazic Sages" (Heb.), in: Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Section b (1973), 135–140; J. Kaplan, "Majority and Minority in the Decisions of Medieval Jewish Communities" (Heb.), in: Shenaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1997), 213–280.

Majority Rule

views updated Jun 11 2018

Majority Rule


The principle of majority rule in elections and decision-making was introduced in medieval Germanic law and canon law as a consequence of failures to make decisions by unanimity. In fact, in any community, the formation of two or more factions or parties may lead to procedures requiring the counting of votes and the achievement of a majority threshold.

The majority principle has been praised for being the only system that satisfies the following criteria: (1) decisiveness, but only when there are no more than two alternatives (e.g., candidates, parties, or policy proposals) to choose from; (2) anonymity or voter equality; (3) neutrality with respect to issues, so the status quo or the largest group does not have an advantage; and (4) monotonicity, or a positive response to changes in voter preference.

If there are only two alternatives along a single issue or ideological dimension, such as the left-right axis, majority rule tends to give the victory to the alternative closer to the median voters preference. By definition, the median voterthat is, the voter whose preference is located in an intermediate position with less than half of voters on each of the two sidesis always necessary to form a consistent majority in a single dimension. Since the median voters preference minimizes the sum of the distances from all other individual preferences, the winner by majority rule in a two-alternative contest minimizes aggregate distance and thus maximizes social utility.

However, this model relies on two strong assumptions: a single-dimensional issue space and only two alternatives. If the set of issues submitted to a majority decision is not bound, the introduction of new issues creating a multidimensional space can change the winner. In a multidimensional space, an alternativesuch as a party or candidates platform that includes a package of proposals on several issuescan make the majority winner unpredictable, depending on which issue takes higher salience in voter choice. In the long term, there can be a series of successive winners relying on different salient issues, with no foreseeable trajectory.

When there are more than two alternatives, even in a single-dimensional space, majority rule can be indecisive and unable to produce a winner. Several procedures loosely related to the majority principle can then be adopted. With plurality or relative majority rule, the winner is the alternative that obtains a higher number of votes than any other alternative while not requiring a particular proportion of votes, a result that may imply minority support. Plurality rule has traditionally been used for political elections in the United Kingdom and in former British colonies, including the United States, Canada, and India. Majority runoff requires an absolute majority of votes in the first round of voting, while in a second round the choice can be reduced to the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes in the first round, so as to secure majority support for the winner. Such a system is used for presidential elections in France and in some other countries, including many in Latin America. A majority-preferential vote also requires an absolute majority of voters first preferences, while successive counts of further preferences are made to find a candidate with majority support. This system is used in Australia.

With both plurality and majority-runoff or majority-preferential voting, the median voters preference can be defeated or eliminated in the first or successive rounds. This implies that the nonmedian winner by any of these procedures might be defeated by another candidate by absolute majority if the choice between the two were available. Extreme minority candidates who are broadly rejected by citizens can paradoxically win by these procedures, based on the majority principle. Majority rule is, thus, dependent on irrelevant alternatives; it encourages strategies aimed at altering the number of alternatives, such as divide and win and merge and win, as well as nonsincere or strategic votes in favor of a less-preferred but more-likely-to-win alternative.

Even when majority rule is decisive and maximizes social utility, as in a single-dimensional space with only two alternatives, it can produce a tyranny of the majority, where one group always wins and there is a permanent losing minority. There has been a long history of concern with the perils of the tyranny of the majority for good democratic governance. Remedies include constitutional guarantees on individual and minority rights, judicial review of decisions made by a majority, mechanisms requiring supermajorities and consensual decisions, and separate elections for different issues, as can be provided by institutional frames of division of powers and decentralization. With separate elections, different majorities and minorities may emerge on different issues, thus creating a broad distribution of political satisfaction or social utility.

If a permanent minority subsists, it may try to secede and establish its own independent democratic system. A previous minority within a large country would then become a local majority and increase the total number of citizens identified with collective decisions and social utility. However, a consistently outvoted minority may not be able to secede because it lacks the military capability to do so or would have to accept resource-poor land or territory.

The major alternative to the principle of majority rule is proportional representation. This system implies representative government, that is, decision-making in two stages: election by voters and decisions made by elected representatives. If the two stages are decided by majority rule, the winner is a majority of the majority, who may be, and often are, but a minority of the whole (Mill 1861, chap. 7). In contrast, if the voters election is held with proportional representation and the elected representatives make decisions by majority rule, typically by forming multiparty legislative and cabinet coalitions, the system will generally produce a close fit between electoral and legislative majorities. Nonmajority principles are, thus, necessary to guarantee majority government.

SEE ALSO Democracy; Majoritarianism; Majority Voting; Plurality; Tyranny of the Majority; Utilitarianism


Arrow, Kenneth. 1963. Social Choice and Individual Values. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley.

Dahl, Robert A. 1989. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

May, Kenneth O. 1952. A Set of Independent, Necessary, and Sufficient Conditions for Simple Majority Decision. Econometrica 20: 680684.

Mill, John Stuart. 1861. Considerations on Representative Government. London: Parker, Son, and Bourn.

Riker, William H. 1982. Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. San Francisco, CA: Freeman.

Josep M. Colomer

Majority Voting

views updated May 29 2018

Majority Voting


In the majority voting system, voters cast their ballots for their preferred candidate and the winner of the election is the candidate who receives a majority of the votes, which is 50 percent plus one vote. When there are only two candidates in an election, majority voting is an attractive voting scheme. With more than two candidates, complications may arise.

Social choice theorist Kenneth Arrow, writing in 1951, lists some simple features of a fair and just voting system, and majority voting meets most of his criteria. Majority voting is what Arrow calls monotonic, or responsive. This means, simply, that one voter cannot cause candidate A to win by changing her vote from supporting candidate A to supporting candidate B. This may seem obvious: if candidate A loses support, that candidate ought to be less, not more, likely to win. Yet in many voting schemes this is not the case. Majority voting with runoff elections, a very popular voting scheme, violates monotonicity. This would occur in a three-candidate election, when candidate A could win a runoff election against candidate B alone, but not candidate C alone. Suppose A and C get the most votes, so move on to the runoff, where A loses. But now suppose a set of voters changes their votes from A to B in the first round of the runoff election, and that this means A and B now face off in the runoff. Despite having lost votes, A now wins the election. Arrow further specified that a fair and just voting system must count all votes equally, which majority voting does. No one voter is a dictator, and no group of voters gets more power than any other group. Similarly, majority voting is not biased toward any of the possible outcomes. For example, some systems name the status quo the winner in the event of a tie, thus introducing a bias for the status quo.

Majority voting has attractions beyond the properties Arrow points out. It is simple for voters. All they must do is select one preferred candidate, and they need do so only once. Provided there are only two candidates and an oddnumbered electorate, majority voting always results in elections with clear winners. By definition, one of the two candidates must get a majority of the votes cast. In elections with more than two candidates, majority vote winners accurately reflect the aggregate preferences of the group. If most voters prefer one candidate over all other candidates, that candidate wins. More technically, this means that majority voting always results in the selection of what social choice theorists call a Condorcet winner. This means that the candidate who wins is the candidate who would receive a majority of votes over any other candidate if the election were between only those two candidates. In other words, in an election among candidates A, B, and C, candidate A is a Condorcet winner if A could win an election against candidate B alone and also win an election against candidate C alone.

There is, however, one serious downfall to majority voting: Often where there are more than two candidates, no candidate will receive a majority of the vote. In this sense, majority voting is not decisive. If no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote, there is no winner of the election. This means that in most cases, pure majority voting is not practicable. In response to this problem, electoral systems must provide a means of deciding elections when majority voting does not offer a winner. Two of the most popular variants are plurality voting and majority voting with runoff elections. In plurality voting, the winner is declared to be whichever candidate receives the most votes, regardless of whether or not that candidate receives a majority of the vote. In majority voting with runoff, the two candidates with the most votes run again in a second election. The candidate who receives a majority of the votes in the second election is then declared the winner.

These two variants on majority rule, unfortunately, often produce very different outcomes, a troubling contradiction to the concept of democracy: The voting mechanism used in the election, not the attitudes and beliefs of the electorate, may well be the deciding factor in determining who wins. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that allowing the body politic to select its own government would supply a government that provides for the common good of all the voters, a concept he described in his 1762 work On the Social Contract as the general will. But if electoral outcomes rely at least as much on voting schemes as they do on the will of the body politic, the notion of democratic elections providing an infallible general will becomes suspect. In response to this problem, social choice theorist William H. Riker argues in his 1982 Liberalism against Populism that the outcome of all elections is thus dubious and that government ought, therefore, to be as limited as possible.

SEE ALSO Democracy; Elections; Electoral Systems; Majoritarianism; Tyranny of the Majority; Voting; Voting Patterns; Voting Schemes


Arrow, Kenneth J. 1963. Social Choice and Individual Values. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Orig. pub. 1951.)

Riker, William H. 1982. Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1987. On the Social Contract. In The Basic Political Writings. Trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. (Orig. pub. 1762.)

Saari, Donald G. 2001. Decisions and Elections: Explaining the Unexpected. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kristin Kanthak

Majority Rule

views updated May 23 2018


MAJORITY RULE. A fundamental American concept, evolved from the principle of the sovereignty of the people, is that when two candidates are running for an office, the one who receives more than half of the total votes cast shall be elected, and that person's policies shall be entitled to a fair trial. If three or more candidates are seeking the same office, the concept holds that an absolute majority is not required but that the one who receives a mere plurality, or more votes than any other candidate, shall be elected.

The operation of majority rule was well illustrated when the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency was accepted as sufficient warrant for refusing to approve Federalist changes in the judiciary. Majority rule is limited somewhat by the Constitution. Civil liberties are specifically protected by the fundamental law and cannot be suppressed by a temporary majority. The Constitution itself cannot be amended without the consent of three-fourths (thirty-eight) of the states. Because of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press and other liberties, minority groups in the United States are able to oppose the majority. Minority criticism and the ever present possibility that the minority will become the majority have operated to make majority rule work well.


Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Rakove, Jack. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley, 1838.

Erik McKinleyEriksson/a. g.

See alsoConstitution of the United States ; Elections ; Elections, Presidential ; Judiciary Act of 1801 .