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Absolute vs Simple Majority

Absolute Majority vs. Simple Majority: What's the Difference?

2 min read
Absolute vs Simple Majority Politics Team · Apr 16, 2024

There are a variety of voting systems and democratic processes that a government can use to assess voters' preferences. Those systems are not interchangeable. Election systems and voting mechanisms impact the way elections pan out and shape electoral representation for cities, states, and even countries.

Even something as simple as deciding what counts as a majority can have an impact on democratic representation. In this guide, we’ll analyze the difference between absolute and simple majorities — two common types of majority used to determine the winners of elections.

What are Simple and Absolute Majorities?

A majority is a majority, except when it is not. There are a couple of different ways to decide if a candidate reflects the majority of voters’ preferences and wins an election:

Simple Majority

A simple majority occurs when one candidate in an election receives more votes than any other candidate. When a simple majority is required to win an election, the winner does not necessarily have to earn 50% or more of the vote. A candidate could win an election with just 40%, 30%, or even fewer of the total votes, depending on how many other candidates are on the ballot.

This is one of the simplest and most intuitive democratic processes, which is why it has been one of the most common majority voting systems throughout history. It remains popular to this day, but more and more governments are starting to use alternatives.

Absolute Majority

An absolute majority is the more stringent of these two types of majority voting. If one candidate earns more than 50% of all possible votes in an election, then they have obtained an absolute majority. 

This is much more likely to occur in election systems that consolidate votes, such as ranked voting systems or run-off elections. An absolute majority is a significantly higher standard than a simple majority because no candidate can win an election without support from at least half of the electorate.

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How Do Voting Systems Shape Elections?

A voting system's nuances play a role in determining electoral results and whether those results truly reflect voters' preferences. Some systems encourage many small, diverse political parties. Other election systems incentivize a two-party system

Different systems can lead to different results even if they both use majority voting, so understanding the advantages and disadvantages of majority voting systems is vital for politicians and voters alike.

Simple Majorities in Practice

Many majority voting systems aim to produce a simple majority. This is a popular option because it is easy to run and intuitive for voters; the candidate who gets the most votes takes office. A first-past-the-post or winner-take-all electoral system is the logical conclusion of that idea. These systems produce a single winner to provide representation for the whole electorate, including their opposition. 

These voting mechanisms tend to encourage a political environment with only two parties. This is in part due to Duverger’s Law. Third-party candidates are unlikely to win a plurality of votes, so voters are reluctant to support them. That tendency keeps the major parties in power, thereby reinforcing the existing system. In the long run, candidates that more accurately reflect voter preferences can be shut out of office because they cannot compete within the two-party system.

When Absolute Majorities Matter

Some majority voting systems, such as ranked choice voting, only allow a candidate to win after obtaining an absolute majority. This ensures that a candidate can represent voter preferences as accurately as possible without transitioning to a proportional representation system. Ranked choice voting seeks an absolute majority by eliminating candidates until a winner with true majority support is obtained. A run-off election can also guarantee an absolute majority by eliminating all but two of the candidates, forcing voters to choose between just two options.

Absolute majority voting can make it easier for independent candidates to compete, which reduces the risk of having only two dominant parties. Independents can often find success by acting as a compromise choice between establishment candidates or by providing local representation to groups that major candidates tend to ignore. 

Pros and Cons of Simple and Absolute Majorities

All democratic processes involve compromises between competing factors. They need to strike a balance between ease of implementation, accurate reflection of voters' preferences, and fair winner determination. Many of the controversies surrounding majority voting systems happen because different people prioritize different aspects of those systems. Informed voters should understand the advantages and disadvantages of majority voting systems to work through those controversies.

Pros and Cons of Simple Majority Rule

In practice, simple majorities usually come with the same pros and cons as winner-take-all or first-past-the-post electoral systems. As with all majority voting systems, they provide a sense of legitimacy that can help stabilize a country. A winner-take-all system also ensures that there is a single winner who does not need to worry about building a coalition with other candidates for support. Voters usually find a first-past-the-post system easy to understand, both because there is only one winner and because it limits the number of options on the ballot.

On the other hand, limited choices are not always a good thing. Majority voting is meant to create a government that reflects voters' preferences. If the voters can only choose from two candidates, they might not be able to pick anyone that they like. Such a system still relies on majority voting, but it can't provide accurate electoral representation to the people. Many voters may feel the need to cast a vote for the “lesser of two evils.” The lack of decision-making in elections of this type can also encourage voter apathy.

Winner-take-all systems may also discourage some candidates from focusing on the needs of minorities. Candidates can earn their majority without votes from smaller groups, which means those groups have little political value. Other types of majority voting are necessary to ensure fair representation for all people.

Pros and Cons of Seeking Absolute Majorities

Absolute majorities support more accurate electoral representation in diverse communities, especially when they rely on ranked choice voting instead of a first-past-the-post system. Ranked systems also expose voters to more candidates, which encourages conscious decision-making in elections and facilitates the participation of third-party candidates.

Young voters tend to prefer ranked choice voting, which makes it a useful tool for attracting them to the polls. Voter turnout is usually low among young people, so anything that can boost youth turnout is appealing to groups that value voter participation. That also gives RCV practical value for people who want to court the youth vote; they can make ranked voting part of their platforms to attract young voters.

Ranked choice voting does come with some drawbacks. Most voters are used to simpler winner determination systems. The process of learning about new voting mechanisms can be stressful and discourage some people from voting. The government must also spend time and money updating voting infrastructure that was designed for other types of majority voting. These are surmountable problems, but they do discourage governments from seeking absolute majorities.

Maximizing Voter Representation

The practical differences between absolute and simple majorities have a large impact on democratic representation. A system that requires an absolute majority, such as ranked choice voting, will tend to produce more representative results. This is especially important in large, diverse areas with significant minority populations whose voices can be overwhelmed by the majority.

Some of the most representative systems require absolute majorities. Proportional representation assigns seats or offices to each party in proportion to the number of votes that they receive. These systems ensure that no party can control a majority of offices without also attaining an absolute majority of the vote. Those majorities are rare, so ruling coalitions become more common than single ruling parties under proportional representation systems.

What Are the Rules of Majority Rule?

The nuances of voting systems may seem trivial to some, but they shape the way that elections function, and they have a big impact on democratic representation. 

Simple majority systems are easy to understand and administer, but they tend to consolidate power in small groups. Absolute majority systems are slightly more complicated, but they also offer more representation and a better reflection of voter preferences. 

Interested in learning more about electoral systems and election reform? Explore more resources here

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By Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.