Friday, April 29, 2005

A Lesson from Vatican Electoral Politics

I have written numerous times about the importance of supermajorities in avoiding the divisiveness of partisan politics and the extremism of bare majorities. Andrew Sullivan makes an interesting observation, that this same principle may have been at work in the recent papal election. In a 1996 act that got little attention, Pope John Paul II modified the rules of papal elections, specifically weakening a supermajority requirement that had been in place since the 12th century. The old rules had required that the College of Cardinals elect a pope by a two-thirds majority. This supermajority mechanism operated to ensure that a pope was broadly acceptable to the cardinals. A candidate thought to be too extreme (in any direction) by a third of the cardinals could be blocked, even if supported by a majority, and a compromise candidate would have to be selected instead. Under the new rules put in place by John Paul II, the college would try for a two-thirds majority election, but if a pope were not elected after a specified number of days, the supermajority requirement could be relaxed to a simple majority. This subtle change meant that any candidate that had a bare majority no longer needed to compromise, since he could just hold out. Since everyone knew that, there would be no incentive to compromise, and even incentive to "cut to the chase". It is quite likely that this "little tweak" of procedure affected the outcome of the papal election.

Thoughtful students of election theory can apply this lesson to the current American debate over the filibuster. The Republicans (who have the bare majority at the moment) would like to eliminate this supermajority mechanism at least for judicial appointments. But it is lifetime judicial appointments where the danger of partisanship makes a supermajority requirement most important.

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