08 April 2016

Robert's Rules of Order, the Republican National Convention, and Donald Trump

So I've been eagerly following the results of both U.S. primary elections, the first time I've ever really done this. In the case of the Republicans, it's not because I feel invested in the future of our country, but because in all likelihood there will be some parliamentary shenanigans, and what is more exciting than that?

According to FiveThirtyEight, it's unlikely that Donald Trump, despite currently having the most delegates, will have the 1,237 required to secure the nomination in the first round of voting. That's because the rules of the Republican National Convention require a majority (i.e., more than 50%) and Trump only has a plurality (i.e., more than anyone else). As a result, there is a possibility that someone who is not Trump could end up winning the Republican nomination even if he has more delegates than anyone else.

So: people are angry about this. In the comments on this Newsmax article (I don't know what that is, I just found it while trying to figure out if the RNC used Robert's Rules of Order), someone opines, "It's outrageous that the top vote-getter (either in the popular vote or in a delegate count that reflects the vote), doesn't automatically get the nomination. There is no point in having an election if following the voter's preference is optional. A plurality always wins." Or as someone else puts somewhat more levelly in the comments on the FiveThirtyEight article I linked above, "The controversy is that no one would expect the delegates for a candidate with the most votes would ever switch to another candidate. For instance, suppose one candidate had 45% of the delegates and 11 other candidate had 5% each." According to these Internet commenters (and I think many out there agree with them), the recipient of the plurality of votes ought to be winner.

This is actually an issue I've faced myself, as I was Parliamentarian of my university's graduate student deliberative body during a three-way midterm election for Vice President. This group operated by Robert's Rules of Order; the RNC does not,* but I suspect the principle was the same. Say you have a three-way race, and no candidate receives a majority, which is what happened to us. Like this:

Now, you might look at that and think, "Candidate B has more votes than anyone else; they should win." But what that neglects is that Candidate B is not the will of the majority of the assembly: in fact, a majority of the assembly voted against Candidate B. So why should they be in charge?

Some would say you should have a run-off election where Candidate C is removed because they received the fewest portion of the votes, and then so everyone can re-vote for just Candidates A and B, and almost inevitably one of them will get the majority. But Brigadier General Robert is not down with that at all. The eleventh edition of Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised specifies
if any office remains unfilled after the first ballot, as may happen if there are more than two nominees, the balloting is repeated for that office as many times as necessary to obtain a majority vote for a single candidate. When repeated balloting for an office is necessary, individuals are never removed from candidacy on the next ballot unless they voluntarily withdraw-- which they are not obligated to do. The candidate in lowest place may turn out to be a "dark horse" on whom all factions may prefer to agree.
For example, say Candidate A prefers Star Trek and Candidate B prefers Star Wars, and all of Candidate A's supporters consider Star Wars cheesy children's entertainment with an overstated cultural importance and Candidate B's supporters think that Star Trek is self-important, overmoralized nonsense. But Candidate C is a Stargate SG-1 fan and no one in the room really has a strong opinion on Stargate SG-1 (because, who does). For Candidate A's supporters, C is a better option than B (otherwise lightsabers are going to become mandatory accessories at meetings), and for Candidate B's supporters, C is a better option than A (because otherwise, "live long and prosper" is going to replace the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings). Candidate C becomes an acceptable compromise candidate because they just want everyone else to remember SG-1 exists.

So: despite the fact that Candidate C did not receive a plurality in round one of voting, Candidate C turns out to be the candidate the majority are most comfortable with, and after some haggling, they are elected to the office of whatever weird deliberative body this example is about. (In the case of the three-way election I presided over, nothing this clear cut took place, because no one had really staked out clear policy positions. Everyone had got about a third of the vote in the first round of voting, and after the second, things had shifted a little, but not very much. One candidate dropped out at that point, though, and thus a majority vote finally emerged in the third round. But the way things were going, we could have been there all night.)

"Point of order!"

All this is to say that if Donald Trump does not obtain a majority of delegates, and then does not get elected as the Republican nominee, that does not mean that the outcome doesn't reflect the preferences of the voters, or that democracy has been circumvented. It means the majority of people voted against Donald Trump, and they compromised on a candidate that would make that preference come to pass.

* They apparently use the same rules as the U.S. House of Representatives (see here), which is like... terrible. I mean, seriously awful.

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