Evolving Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

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April 12, 2005

Faux Majorities and Supermajorities

A friend sent me a version of Bob Frankston's "The Tyranny of the Faux Majority" (Bob's expanded draft of his April 6 entry on satn.org). While it is mostly a partisan complaint about the current Republican attack on the US Senate's filibuster practice, it contains the fascinating concept of the "faux majority." Here are a few significant excerpts:

We must rethink the filibuster as a mechanism for demanding extra caution on vital decisions by requiring a super-majority such as a 2/3rd vote.... [In the existing system], those who seek simple answers gain disproportionate power when they vote in perfect alignment and vote disproportionately at key leverage points such as party primaries [which choose candidates but usually get low voter turnout]... I call [this] a faux majority because the electoral process gives those who are passionate about a single issue to the exclusion of all others huge leverage in the political process.... Our all or nothing voting system didn’t anticipate [the distorting role of] strongly aligned voting blocks. The [Internet] technology that is supposed to liberate us also serves to assure [or at least assist] this alignment.

Two things interest me about this:

1. Imaginary majorities: When only a few people vote in an election, a majority vote by those people is often mistakenly seen to represent a majority of the whole population. This happens constantly in primary elections (as noted above). But it even happens in final elections. When 60% of the eligible voters vote, 52% of them may be "a majority," but it is less than a third of the total electorate. So this is not really a majority of The People. This is a fake, false or imaginary majority - a faux majority.

Groups sometimes try to ameliorate this problem by establishing a
quorum - a minimum number of participants which need to be present to do official business. But quorums are seldom set high enough to ensure that a majority vote is a true majority and not a false majority. And there is no quorum for national elections; whoever shows up makes the official choices - creating a powerful point of leverage for well-organized minorities (as Frarnkston notes) and providing powerful motivation to engage in voter suppression to increase the impact those (especially well-organized minorities) who do vote.

This raises interesting questions about what exactly
majority rule means, and suggests certain limits to its legitimacy. It seems like the term "majority" is a very slippery one. Perhaps we need a concept like actual majority, to describe a number that is actually a majority of the relevant electorate or population.

2. Supermajorities: A supermajority usually requires a vote of 60%, 67% (2/3), 75% (3/4) or 80% of those voting before a proposal is approved or a candidate elected. The highest forms of supermajority are unanimity (100% of the vote) and true consensus, a shared sense or agreement that comes from handling everyone's concerns, rather than voting.

In most contexts, supermajorities are used for decisions that are particularly important or delicate (e.g., changing constitutions, impacting minority groups, etc.). But lately I've been thinking we should use supermajorities when a majority of the decision-making group does not necessarily represent the majority of the population. An extreme example of this application is juries, which have only twelve randomly selected citizens. This is a small group, so we require them to arrive at a consensus - the highest form of supermajority. As a thought experiment, I can imagine that a jury of a hundred people might be required to achieve only a 67% or 75% supermajority.

As I contemplate new, more grassroots forms of citizen deliberative council, I wonder if there is a sort of "law" here - something like:

  • The smaller the deliberative group, and/or
  • the less rigorous their random selection, and/or
  • the less professional their group process,

the greater the level of agreement they should be required to achieve before their findings can be considered a legitimate representation of the will of the People.


A faux (false) majority means an apparent majority that, for various reasons, doesn't actually represent the will of the majority. The presence of faux majorities undermines the legitimacy of "majority rule". Supermajorities (60% or more) may be required, in order to compensate for this. Supermajorities may open up new possibilities for legitimizing small citizen deliberative councils.


posted by Tom Atlee on Tuesday April 12 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005

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