E-Newsletter October 31, 2002
Welcome to the Fair Elections Digest of the Center for Voting Democracy. In these digests we provide short clips of current news and opinion regarding politics, representative democracy, and reform. This edition was written primarily by Steven Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org), senior analyst and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics."
Quote of the Day
"We are in the business of rigging elections." State Senator Mark McDaniel, North Carolina, commenting on redistricting
Growth of Women Legislators Stalls
A new study reveals that the expansion of women's representation in American legislatures appears to be losing ground, ten years after the Year of the Woman. The report "Gender, Redistricting, and Other Aspects of Election 2002" by Beloit College political scientist Georgia Duerst-Lahti (www.apsanet.net/~elections/duerstlahti.html) concludes that "the most prominent facet of gender and election 2002 is the fact that when it is over, men will still overwhelmingly rule."
The report finds that when considering female winners in state legislative races for each decade, the growth of 1992 washes out, and reveals a troubling pattern. The rate of growth in the number of female legislators has decreased, with increases by decade as follows: 1971-81, 564 more women legislators; 1981-91, 460 more women; and 1991-2001, 298 more women.
"In other words," says Duerst-Lahti, "the rate of growth is slowing dramatically, and with it gains in the pace of growth of sheer number of elected state legislative women. The gains of 1992 certainly were not sustained." Moreover, the total number of female candidates for the U.S. House this cycle was 186, substantially less than the record of 217 set in 1996 (however, a record number of 124 have won their primary elections, up from 122 in 2000). So women's representation apparently is starting to plateau while still at a mere 14% of Congress.
Compare that to Germany, where in their recent national elections women won 32 percent of seats in the Bundestag, their national legislature. The number of female members has risen in Germany for the seventh time in a row. Sweden also saw an increase in the number of women elected to its national legislature, to 44 percent.
Is it because the U.S. is a less "liberated" or women-positive nation? Hardly. Even Ireland, no feminist paragon, has more women elected to its national legislature than we do in the United States. What these other nations have that we do not is systems of __proportional representation__ (what we often call full representation in the United States). Women candidates in the United States are struggling in our 18th-century "winner take all" political system, which is notorious all over the world for under-representing the "51 percent minority."
Nancy Pelosi and Winner-Take-All
One woman who does get elected year after year is Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party House minority whip. The Associated Press reports that Pelosi has gotten in some hot water with campaign finance experts who say that she may have illegally raised and distributed tens of thousands of additional dollars to congressional candidates using a practice that skirts federal limits. A leading advocate of campaign finance reform, Pelosi raised and spent the money through two political action committees, known as leadership PACs. But under federal law, you only are permitted one bite at the apple -- i.e. PACs under your control -- not two.
But what is perhaps most interesting -- and unfortunately most overlooked -- about this episode is that Pelosi is one of the safest of incumbents who does not need to spend a dime on reelection next week. Hailing from liberal San Francisco, Pelosi regularly wins with 80 percent of the vote because her district is packed during redistricting with so many Democrats that it is impossible for her to lose. In fact, most Democratic House incumbents in California paid $20,000 apiece to the consultant preparing the state's redistricting plan in order to have "designer districts" drawn in which they could not lose.
So this begs the question -- why does Congresswoman Pelosi raise all that money? The answer to that question reveals something important and often overlooked about our winner- take-all political system. Because most district races are safe for one political party or the other, party leaders can strategize over the political map like military generals, figuring out which will be the close races and where to sprinkle the most resources. Party leaders disproportionately pour big money into the handful of close races that will determine which side will win a majority of House seats. So Democratic leaders like Pelosi and Republicans like majority leader Tom DeLay dispense money to colleagues in tight races -- to help their party gain control, yes, but also to earn recipients' support when their party's caucus votes for leadership positions.
While both parties regularly engage in such shenanigans, House Republicans in 1999 raised the bar and further debased politics by publicly and unapologetically hinging these fund-raising efforts to the awarding of leadership positions and committee chairs. The single-seat district terrain of winner-take-all allows safe-seat politicians to raise money far beyond their own needs, and then dole it out in such a way as to create their own political machines. Consequently, donors often are placing their bets with candidates they know will win, because winner-take- all districts have been drawn to produce that result. Donors buy access and influence to legislative leaders, and in some cases a chance to actually author important legislation.
All of these dynamics are encouraged by the geographic-based, single-seat district, winner-take-all nature of our political system. The preponderance of redistricted safe seats leaves the handful of close races as the small postage stamp of political real estate where political war is waged. In a nation so closely divided, whichever side wins more of these skirmishes for the swing districts will win the big prize -- majority control of the various Legislatures, control over committees and subcommittees, and control over redistricting in those states.
Will GOP Control Senate for 2 Months?
While the tragedy of Sen. Paul Wellstone's tragic death has dominated media discussion about Senate elections this past week, Jean Carnahan's run to stay in office in Missouri has more potential to detonate the balance in the Senate. That race actually is a special election to fill a vacancy; Sen. Carnahan is an appointed placeholder for her husband, who died in a plane crash shortly before defeating John Ashcroft in November 2000.
Because it's a special election, the winner immediately fills the position and does not wait until late January when all other Senators are sworn in. The Carnahan race is extremely close, with momentum seesawing with her Republican challenger Jim Talent. If Talent wins, the Republicans will have 50 seats until January no matter what happens in other Senate races. And a tie goes to the Republicans, as Vice President Dick Cheney gets to break the tie.
What's not clear is how much a Republican Senate might do in its two months of potential control, given the Senate's peculiar rules such as the filibuster and cloture that allow the minority party to stall major initiatives. Still, one can't help reflect on the fragility of our political system. With the sides so evenly divided, eyeball to eyeball in the foxholes, it doesn't take much to upend the apple cart.
Runoff Controversy in Louisiana?
That's not all. The battle for control of the U.S. Senate in the next Congress may not be decided until December. In Louisiana congressional elections, a runoff is held if no candidate earns a majority of the November vote. If Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) earns less than 50% of the vote against three Republican challengers, a runoff will be held. To find the majority winner in one day instead of two, Louisiana should extend its current use of instant runoff voting for overseas absentee ballots to all voters.
US House No "Mirror of the Population"
John Adams once wrote about Congress that "This representative assembly should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large." Adams' sentiments were fairly common among the Framers and Founders, as expressed at the Constitutional Convention by James Wilson when stating that "the legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society, the faithful echo of the voices of the people."
This view of "mirror representation" was pervasive among Members of Congress in the 19th-century as well. During the 1842 debates over whether Congress should mandate single-seat districts over winner-take-all, at-large elections, several Congressmen borrowed Adams' portrait analogy to support their theories of what Congress should look like.
Rep. John Reynolds of Illinois thought that the House of Representatives was meant to be a "kind of facsimile and mirror of the [public]" since it was "the direct offspring of the people, and nearer the people than any other assembly of men." [1842 Congressional Globe, pp. 345-346] Sen. Jacob Miller from New Jersey argued that the House should be "what the Framers of the Constitution intended it should be, a bright and honest mirror, reflecting all the lights and shades of the multifarious interests of this mighty people, as they lie spread out over this broad land."[p. 790]
So let's hold up the mirror now to our Congress, and what do we see? While the U.S. population is over 50 percent female, the U.S. House and Senate are only 14 percent female. The U.S. population is approximately 72 percent white and 28 percent racial minority, but the U.S. House is only 14 percent minority. The U.S. Senate is only three percent minority, with not a single Latino or African-American. In the wake of the controversy over no women being allowed at the club that runs the Masters golf tournament, one wonders if Tiger Woods will soon be asked to pressure the U.S Senate to be less exclusive.
The House and Senate are also disproportionately populated with lawyers, real estate developers and millionaires. Particularly for young people, there is hardly anyone sitting in the halls of power who looks, talks, or thinks like them. Thus, when we hold up the mirror, the image beaming back is distorted and not particularly flattering.
The appearance of representatives is what political scientists typically call "descriptive representation." Descriptive representation is academic jargon for what some would label a kind of "political correctness," an apparently radical notion that the People's representatives should mirror the demographics of the people they seek to represent, at least within some reasonable parameters.
Like other matters PC, descriptive representation is not very popular today. But shouldn't our "representative government" at least come closer to mirroring our population by race, age, income bracket, and occupation? Our nation's racial diversity is increasing at a galloping rate. In two decades our four largest states (Texas, California, Florida and New York) will likely hold 25 percent of the nation's population and no longer be majority-white. Can our "winner take all" political system deliver descriptive representation in such a way that the full range of our population feels connected to our legislatures? Or is there a "demographic crash" in the making?
- Steven Hill, Senior Analyst