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Ballpark Democracy: Switch-Hitters and the Game They Play

by Ross Margulies // Published June 22, 2006

Third in a series of guest blog posts by FairVote interns. June 16th marked a victory for the GOP, with House Republicans pushing through a non-binding resolution formally declaring the occupation of Iraq part of the global fight against terrorism. Despite growing public anti-sentiment over the continued occupation of Iraq by US troops and Democrat John Murtha's recent call for the immediate withdrawal of US forces, Republicans forced vulnerable Democrats to step up to the plate for the 'other side,' further discrediting the polarized Democratic party. Faced with an up and coming House election this November, candidates are continually forced to play favorites between strict party lines and their constituents at home. In a 256-153 vote in favor of the resolution, the GOP victory left a divided Democratic party looking weak. Rather than indicating a lack of consensus among the Democrats, this vital vote points to a very troubling aspect of our current winner-take-all system.

After the vote, Republicans crowed that they had held ranks while highlighting Democratic division. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said, "We are pleased that 42 Democrats defied their leadership and stood with House Republicans to support both our troops and their mission to win the global war on terror." - The Washington Post, June 17, 2006

While only three GOP representatives strayed from party lines by voting against the resolution, a whopping 42 Democrats stepped up and 'batted' for the other team. This division shows the increasing vulnerability of both Democrats and Republicans in sensitive districts - those districts where the representative faces a district partisanship leaning heavily towards the the other party. In a brief analysis of those 42 Democrats voting for the Iraq War Resolution, FairVote calculated an average Democratic partisanship of 49% for those switch-hitters, with an average Democratic partisanship of 62% for House Democrats at large. While only three Republicans voted down the resolution, their average district partisanship of 57% (Republican leaning) stands in marked contrast to the average partisanship for Republican districts of 69%. A differential of 13% and 12%, respectively, indicates the propensity of candidates in vulnerable districts to stray far from party lines. In simple terms, FairVote has observed that those candidates that fail to vote along party lines, in general, serve in districts with political leanings far from their own. Congressman Gene Taylor (MS-4), for example, is a heavily entrenched (first elected 1989) Democrat sitting in enemy waters -- with a district partisanship leaning 68% in favor of Republicans, it comes as no suprise that Taylor voted in favor of the resolution. Political survival in our current system is dependent on accomodation and compromise, often a move that goes beyond one's political and moral beliefs.

Representatives such as Democrat Chet Edwards (TX-19) and Republican Jim Leach (IA-2) offer the typical example of incumbents forced to cater to their constituents on such an important vote, suggesting the caution with which both parties must approach the upcoming 2006 House Elections. By calling for stricter party lines, both parties may put in dire condition those candidates forced to cater to districts of an unfavorable partisanship. In our current winner-take all system, this type of political maneuvering is all too familiar; candidates must play the safe middle ground to please increasingly polarized districts.

Redistricting reform to remove the partisan bias is simply not the answer -- multimember districts with proportional voting are needed to maximize the effectiveness of these reforms. Indeed, the Iraq War Resolution indicates the essential need for both candidates and constituents for a system that better ensures that all voters have choices and that no strong prospective candidate is shut out of a chance to participate, or in this case, bat for the other team.

Ross is a summer intern at FairVote, working as the assistant to Director Rob Richie. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, he is engaged in FairVote's up and coming Monopoly Politics report, as well as current development work at the organization. Ross is entering his final year at McGill University in Montreal, pursuing his honors in Political Science and Economic Development. He is the author of Dude in Djibouti, a daily blog which, in the Republic of Djibouti, is as popular as reruns of the 1980s classic, Punky Brewster.