This column is meant to clarify the difference between simple and absolute majorities. It is not a commentary on the majority decision of the Guyana Court of Appeal in the matter concerning the no confidence motion of December 21, 2018 in the National Assembly.
This columnist has NOT read the legal reasoning behind the decision of the learned Justices of the Appeal who ruled in favour of the invalidity of the no confidence motion. A comment or analysis of that verdict therefore cannot be offered until the legal reasoning behind the calculations in that majority verdict are made public.
Following the decision of the Court of Appeal, there have been a plethora of comments in the blogs in the media, many of which do not seem to understand what is meant by a ‘simple majority’ and what is meant by an ‘absolute majority’. In the exchanges, persons are avoiding offering a clear definition of what constitutes a simple majority and what constitutes an absolute majority.
The difference between a simple majority and an absolute majority is important in understanding decision-making in the National Assembly. Article 168(1) of the Constitution states that save as otherwise provided, all questions proposed for the decision of the National Assembly shall be by a majority of the members present and voting. This is what is meant by a simple majority – it is a majority of those who are present and voting.
Article 106(6), on the other hand, provides for the passage of a no confidence vote by a majority of the elected members of the National Assembly (65). While the said Article, does not use the word ‘absolute’, it can only mean an absolute majority since an absolute majority is a majority of all those who are eligible to vote.
To use as an example to illustrate the difference between a simple and an absolute majority, let us assume there are seven members who are eligible to vote on a committee. If on a specific question, only five persons vote – three in favour and two against. The three in favour constitute a simple majority, that is, a majority of the five who voted. If all seven had voted with four votes for and three against, then the four for would constitute an absolute majority since it is a majority of all those who were eligible to vote.
If on the other hand, three had voted ‘yes’ and two had voted ‘no’ and two had abstained, then there is no absolute majority in favour. This is because when dealing with an absolute majority the ‘nays’ and the abstentions and absences are counted together. Thus, four votes would have been needed against the combined three nays and abstentions combined for an absolute majority.
By logic, if everyone who is eligible to vote does so, then a simple majority becomes an absolute majority. If everyone in the National Assembly voted, then the simple majority becomes the same as the absolute majority, since those who were present and voted is the same as those who were eligible to vote.
In a paper entitled, “Absolute Majority Rules”, Adrian Vermeule, a Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, says “Absolute majority rules and simple majority rules perfectly converge where all duly qualified members of the institution are present and cast votes. A major difference between the simple majority scheme and the absolute majority scheme is the effect of abstention from voting or physical absence from the voting institution. Under any absolute voting scheme, the requisite majority needed to enact a proposal is a fixed quantity, whereas under a simple majority scheme the requisite majority is variable.”
Two other academics, Keith Dougherty from the Department of Political Science of the University of Georgia, and Julian Edward from the Department of Mathematics at Florida International University, in a paper entitled: “The Properties of Simple vs. Absolute Majority Rule: cases where abstentions and absences are important”, put forward a formula for calculating an absolute majority. They argue that in cases where the voting population (N) is an odd number, the smallest absolute majority (M) is equivalent to (N+1)/2. So, in case where the total number of persons eligible to vote is seven, then an absolute majority is 4.
In cases where the voting population (N) is an even number, then the smallest majority (M) is (N+2)/2. Thus, if there were eight members eligible to vote, an absolute majority would be 5 i.e. [(8+2)/2]. Adrian Vermeule, the constitutional expert, agrees with this formula.
So, if your child is asked in the Common Entrance examination to determine whether a motion, requiring an absolute majority, is carried in a committee of 17 persons where there are nine (9) persons voting yes and eight (8) persons voting no, the answer is that it is carried. Since there is an odd number of the voting population (17), an absolute majority would be (17+1)/2 = 9.
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