Let majority rule ... as long as I’m in it

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Caution: Whenever a journalist starts writing about math, remain highly suspicious. Not necessarily about his views, just his numbers.

Through many years of cooking adventures, I have misinterpreted countless recipe numbers and thrown away enough inedible meals to fill a dozen compost tumblers. Those culinary disasters all began with my lousy math. This flaw is also why I am allowed nowhere near a family budget.

So, please beware because I’m about to get all math-y on you here with some political observations.

Often I have excoriated the Electoral College for one simple reason: There can never be anything wrong with the leading vote-getter winning an election. Not in a democracy or a representative republic. Ever. The sanctity of this principle is upheld in every national election (involving candidates) except one: the decision on who will become the world’s most powerful person. But this column is not about the Electoral College. It’s about the supermajority. You’re probably hoping I will explain why supermajority is one word and simple majority is two. No such luck. Maybe in another column.

On its face, the supermajority (usually three-fifths or two-thirds approval) violates the sanctity of the one man, one vote concept. It allows a smaller group of people to wield power over the rest, and the people no longer are equal.

Here’s where it gets tricky: What if a majority of voters — remember, the sacred seat of power, at least in my opinion — approve a supermajority requirement? Oops. We’ve got a problem.

No, we don’t, not in Washington, where a majority of voters have four times approved requiring a two-thirds approval by legislators for tax increases. That happened most recently last Nov. 3 when Initiative 1053 was approved. Boy, was it ever. Statewide, the approval was 63.7 percent, which coincidentally (but irrelevantly) approaches two-thirds supermajority assent. Here in Clark County, I-1053 was approved by 71.3 percent of voters.

Fix it in the courts?

Gov. Chris Gregoire said last week she believes a court challenge to I-1053 is needed. At first, I and all the other supermajority haters would seem to agree with her. After all, why should as few as 33.3 percent of legislators keep the rest from raising taxes? The answer is simple: because a simple majority of voters said it’s OK.

In March 2009, the state Supreme Court agreed unanimously (9-0; I gotcher supermajority right here) that requiring two-thirds legislative approval for tax increases was constitutional. But state Rep. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, believes that case did not fully address the constitutionality issue, and there might be another call for examination by the courts. “We have certainly not made a decision to pursue one,” Pederson said in an Associated Press story last week. “As far as I know, no one else has made a decision to pursue one. It’s fair to say we had an interest in developing a set of facts that could be the basis for a challenge.”

The division along party lines on this issue is pure. Democrats hate the supermajority, especially when they want to raise taxes, a prevailing mood. Republicans love it. But how partisans feel really doesn’t mean as much as what the voters say.

Democrats simply can’t have it both ways. They can’t hail as supreme a simple majority of tax-raising legislators while ignoring the simple majority of voters who approved the supermajority requirement for tax increases.

What happens, though, when the simple majority of voters are wrong? Well, in my mind, they could never be wrong, except in the Electoral College, I suppose. Hey, 50 percent plus one vote is simple math, even for me. But the Founding Fathers wisely created a court system that allows a remedy in case a majority of voters are wr … are wro … are wron … are behind the times. For example, many schools probably would still be segregrated today if voters had their way, and if courts had not overturned the will of the simple majority.

That court remedy is a good thing. It’s also a good thing that, for the most part, courts stay out of elections involving candidates and tax increases.