When is it ok for a lawmaker to vote against the will of a majority of his or her constituents?

Last year, in Aitkin in north-central Minnesota, a solid majority of people voted for a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively banning same-sex marriages. Even so, the first-term representative from the area says he will vote for the bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

His constituents are not happy.

Today’s Question: When is it ok for a lawmaker to vote against the will of a majority of his or her constituents?

  • Why, after they’ve taken a large bribe! Only a really bad politician flakes out after a good bribe.

  • John

    What happened to tar and feathering, should be legal when these SOB’s don’t represent, when they are called representatives.

  • Rich in Duluth

    Always, leaders are supposed to lead.

    They should guide their constituents and make decisions after careful consideration of the facts. Yes, they should be influenced by their general philosophy and the apparent will of the people, but if, after careful consideration, a representative finds that the will of the people is wrong, he should vote against that will.

    Large groups of people can discriminate and be tyrannical. Slavery, and Jim Crow laws, are extreme examples of the tyranny of the masses. Anti-gay laws are also examples of discrimination. Our leaders should lead us away from discrimination and tyranny.

    • Jim G

      Ditto. I sorta stepped on your post today, but I don’t read others’ posts before I write my answer to TQ. I whole heartedly agree with your reasoning.

      • Rich in Duluth

        Jim, thanks…no problem.

        You know, another issue I see, here, is that of the rights of large minorities. If even 40% of the people in this country accept gay marriage, that could be near 120-million people. Certainly, they deserve a say in this. A representative should be flexible enough in his voting to recognize this and find compromise even if it goes against his general political philosophy. This applies to many current issues.

    • Sue de Nim

      “Always” goes a bit too far, but in general I agree with you, Rich.

  • Gayle

    A lawmaker should always vote as they feel is best when looking at the “big picture”. Yes, they represent their respective district, but more importantly, they represent all of us. Representative Kline may have been voted into office by the good people in the south metro area, but he represents all of Minnesota and all of the United States. If their vote is too out of line, the next election will self-correct. They certainly have access to information most the civilians either don’t have or haven’t researched – staff analysis, expert testimony, the actual text of the bill. The same is true regarding party line votes – lawmakers should always vote they way they feel is best for all, not what is simply best for their political future.

  • The twin pillars holding up the very foundation of what we mean by democratic government are Majority Rule and Minority Rights. The fact that a basic human right, such as marriage, is even being put to a vote is repulsive. I applaud Representative Radinovich’s courage to defend minority rights in the face of a majority who feels otherwise. Just as no self-appointed group has the right to oppress others, so no majority, even in a democracy, should take away the basic rights and freedoms of a minority group or individual. Conservatives just can’t seem to wrap their heads around this foundational principle.

    – Some quotes borrowed from “Majority Rule, Minority Rights” by the Bureau of International Information Program, U.S. Department of State. Reprinted at http://www.garyjacobson.org/majorityruleminortyrights.html

  • Rufus

    If what the people want (discrimination, in this case) goes against the conscience of the lawmaker then he or she has to vote their conscience. The voters are free to kick her or him out of office come the next election – but it will be their loss.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Ironic. When elected officials seek their constituents’ opinions and act accordingly, people complain that they’re spineless and only follow the political winds. When they stand on principle and make unpopular decisions, people gripe about their representatives not effectively representing them. It’s always something.

  • There are times when what is right and good in the world isn’t, in the moment, popular. One of the significant parts of our history as a nation was the migration of religious dissidents to our shores. Since that time, I believe, we’ve held ourselves a bit differently than many other countries: that the will of the people does not, or at least should not, overwhelm the rights of minorities, be they religious, ethnic, or otherwise. Sometimes even very small or unpopular minorities.
    The amazing thing about social progress is that time and again, leaders have shown that quality of leadership that presages where we are going and in the process helps get us there.
    In this particular case, there is also the matter of collective action vs individualism. The majority of Minnesotans polled are ready for freedom to marry. Statewide, the marriage amendment failed by a 5 point margin. Individual legislators could stand athwart the bill and say “stop” but it’s coming. A right delayed is a right denied. I think there are legislators who get that, and are willing to do what they can to not make our fellow Minnesotans keep waiting.

  • david

    Every single time the “moral majority” acts like creepy idiots.

  • Jim G

    Always. I vote to elect representatives for their judgement on complicated issues, not as a rubber stamp for the majority opinion. Of course, he will face the ballot box and like Lucy in a famous episode of “I Love Lucy” he’s “got a lot of splaining to do.”

  • Lance

    When the vote supports the constitution and the rule of law versus the majority and a mob-rule society

  • Warfoel

    The US constitution once provided various layers of representation (e.g., the electoral college, age, race, gender & property restrictions) which insulated government from popular opinion. So there may be a small window where representatives can traditionally maneuver away from popular opinion. But most restrictions have been removed over time in a steady evolution towards popular democracy. I suspect what’s “okay” is what voters in a district say is okay and will put their stamp of approval on in the next election. This is a very short leash in the US House, much longer in the US Senate. I think it’s also a very short 2yr period for our State Reps.

    What’s ethical? I’ve come to view ethics as culture bound so there is great disagreement over what’s “ethical”. Ethics seems to imply that you will go to war over a principal rather than reconsider it. But in a nation which fought a civil war over slavery, I do think one might construe the official ethical position as favoring gay rights. Hopefully we are in the last throes of this culture war and hopefully the nation will attend to business that will ensure its survival, that is, begin to develop an ecologically sustainable economy.

    • mark

      I deeply regret to say that I would not count on it–an ecologically sustainable economy, that is. 🙁

  • Jason

    We elect people to office based on how they represent themselves during a campaign and how they act while in office. One of the key things the public says they want in elected officials is people with strong ethics and integrity. An elected official that votes against what they think is best on any issue, after weighing all of the facts and opinions, is weakening their integrity.

    People have to decide, do they want elected officials that have integrity or that bend to the will of public opinion. Besides, on 99% of the votes an elected official takes, he/she can not really know what the majority of their constituents think (only the vocal ones that call or write).

  • Michael

    That’s a good question. Since there are three branches of government, taking their role as being representative of the people, the legislator shall with respect to constituents as well as all effected by their decisions, act upon their highest insight and deepest understanding. Basically when its them doing their best with the role they take and being a fully mindful human.

    • Michael

      for instance, going beyond the programming and propagandic discrimination against homosexuality and cannabis hemp usage because it serves the world more than it serves outdated ethnocentric ideals.

  • It’s always okay for a lawmaker to vote against the will of the majority of their constituents. That’s because we live in a Republic, we vote for people to represent us…if we simply want our representatives to vote exactly like the constituents then why not cut out the middle man and implement a pure Democracy? We don’t want that, we don’t want mob rule and lawmakers should feel free vote which ever they feel would be best for their constituents…they just need to be prepared to lose the next election if they go too far.

  • bob hicks

    Popular sentiment is often wrong-headed, if not downright evil. We’d still have slavery and women treated as chattel if issues were decided by popular sentiment. So hats off to the Aitkin rep for exercising judgement and moral courage. I just wish we had more legislators who exhibited theses same traits.

  • Dori

    There are 20 Republican House members who’s constituents voted AGAINST the marriage amendment. Are they being asked the same question?

  • Wally

    In principle, the House, whether state or national, looks out for the interests of constituents; the Senate looks out for the interests of the State, or Nation. This principle has gone the way of the outhouse and the Sears catalog, with most legislators serving the interests of the electorate. Of course, any leader ought do what right before doing what is expedient. But in this case, Joe Radinovich is defying his constituents, to vote on the wrong side of the matter, siding with a tiny, vocal minority. The voters should sack him at first opportunity.

  • jon

    How about the US Senate ignoring 85% of their constituents to block gun control? Gay marriage will not kill anyone. An inadequate background check may.

  • Garyf@tmsj.com

    I guess for the MPR crowd is only when it benefits the left.

  • Joe

    It’s okay whenever the majority of constituents are on the wrong side of public policy. As others have pointed out, our republican democracy is designed so that we elect those we suppose to have the best judgment to make decisions in our best interest. Popular opinion is a consideration, but shouldn’t ever be the determinative one.

    • v2787

      If we’re supposed to be electing those who have the best judgment, we’ve been doing a relatively poor job of it, for the most part. It’s been my observation that many of our state legislators couldn’t adequately judge a high school debate contest, much less engage effectively in complex legislation that impacts millions of lives. There are plenty of doofuses in both parties, to be sure, but these days many of the right-wingers seem to be vying for the title of “Most Ill-informed and/or Bigoted Politician”.

  • Guest

    If you like this conversation, you might enjoy John F. Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage” wis is almost entirely about the subject.

    He makes the distinction between the roles of the House and Senate on this issues (House to closely represent constituents, Senate to represent best-interests of state or country as a whole). Fascinating stuff. Leaves plenty of questions unanswered. But I think that’s definitely part of Kennedy’s point in writing it.

    Gary, The MPR crowd is on both sides of the aisle, clearly. Let’s keep it civil. Thank you.

  • When protecting the rights of a minority or under-represented group of citizens. Duh!

    • Gary F

      Like the unborn?

      • luke van santen

        Citizenship is conferred at birth, no?

        • Logically that implies we could just get rid of anyone who isn’t a citizen yet? (just exploring a logical fallacy)

  • Luke Van Santen

    When members of a constituency are advocating that members of a minority be “lined up and shot”, that representative has a duty to vote opposite that portion of the constituency. And, they should pursue legal action against those members for making terroristic threats.

  • clear graves

    When the lawmaker is coming from second tier.

  • clear graves

    the last phase of tier 1:
    Green – Relativistic-egalitarian (Origin: 1850 on, surging early 20th century)

    At the green level, one is expected to sacrifice self-interest in order to gain acceptance, group inclusion, and social harmony. 1960s relativism and egalitarianism emerge at this stage. Socialism is typical of this stage, but so too are existentialism and postmodernism. The attempt to reconcile socialism with markets created the modern welfare state. (Note: While most libertarians would like to think classical liberalism is the highest or most sophisticated psychological stage, what emerges next is a kind of balancing—one beyond atomistic individualism or authoritarian collectivism.)

    needing to move to and come from:
    Tier Two – Being and Order

    Spiral Dynamics involves a second tier of social-psychological expression. In this tier, the stages gradually move away from a focus on the subsistence-level concerns of tier one (how do I live and organize?), and toward being-level concerns (who am I and how do I relate?). There is no research to support two tiers, but such can serve as a guide.

    Indeed, though there is not unanimous agreement on this point, most see the following stages—yellow and turquoise—as more complex versions of orange and green. The open-ended theory suggests that any new levels are currently underdeveloped and will solidify as a greater portion of society evolves toward those new stages and begins to express them.


  • Trish

    We elect our representatives to be LEADERS. Where would we be if previous legislators, at any level, had listened to their constituents on racial civil rights? Should Eisenhower have listened to his constituents regarding Little Rock, how about LBJ on the Civil Rights Act. They showed LEADERSHIP and moved our country forward. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing, and this is one of those times.

  • Max

    When it is necessary to oppose the tyranny of the majority.

  • There should be no lobbying. If it’s a significant issue that people will remember long after an ad campaign by some hate group expires, constituents will vote on it and remove the lawmaker. I vote for someone I can rely on and trust to make decisions on facts, not for someone I have to constantly manage/nanny.

    • Steve the Cynic

      Lobbying can’t be stopped. Like it or not, it’s protected free speech.

  • I support the Trustee view of Representatives. Otherwise why don’t we vote on bills like American Idol. We have representative democracy for a reason. Rep. Radinovich showed courage- something people often say they want in their political leaders.

  • Aly

    Specifically regarding the bill to legalize same-sex marriage, I think representatives must put the law before what their constituents believe. What power does the government hold to prohibit gays from marrying solely based on social fears or church stances? The law is not created on a foundation of how comfortable a law makes the public, but rather it follows the rulings of the constitution. The representative’s vote should stand first for holding up the law and inhibiting freedom, and should stand second for their constituent’s views.

  • mark

    Direct quote from the article:

    “Back in downtown Aitkin, some of Radinovich’s constituents certainly are upset with him, including one man who said gay people should be rounded up and shot.” “Well, it sounds to me like (Radinovich) must be gay too. I’m totally against that,” the man said.

    When your constituency is THAT bigoted, a lawmaker has a moral obligation to follow his conscience, and perhaps even take it one step further and try to educate his ill-informed constituents. Read the play by Robert Bolt, “A Man For All Seasons.” The play chronicles the story of St. Thomas More, a man who was executed by King Henry VIII for his moral opposition to the divorce from Catherine, whose marriage the Pope himself had agreed to dissolve.

    • v2787

      I agree with your assessment and believe that sometimes a lawmaker has a moral obligation to try to educate her/his ill-informed constituents when necessary. (The recent marriage equality legislation is a prime example. The loudest objections to marriage equality are based on religious views. While everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs, the imposition of such beliefs is unacceptable when it comes to creating and implementing legislation that impacts the lives of all citizens. We are a nation of laws–we’re not a theocracy in which the religious views of some trump the civil rights of others. This is the United States, and we don’t have to put up with any version of the Taliban here.) However, it’s been my observation that, far too often, the lawmakers themselves are the ignorant and/or bigoted ones. We, the voters, have a responsibility to educate ourselves about candidates BEFORE voting for them. If we elect ignorant bigots or religious wingnuts to office, we’ll deserve whatever we get in terms of government–and it usually won’t be good.

  • CarolinaSistah

    “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

    “it is just as wrong, or even perhaps more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

    ― Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmington Jail”