Welcome to the Fair Elections Digest of the Center for Voting Democracy. In these digests we write short items about current news and opinion regarding politics, representative democracy, and reform. This edition was written primarily by senior analyst Steven Hill ([email protected]), author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics," and executive director Rob Richie ([email protected] ).
Quote of the Day:
"It makes sense to have one [U.S. Senator] in one party, and a senator in the [other] majority party if you want to get something done." - President George W. Bush, in excerpt from December 3rd speech in Louisiana that was featured in the final ad campaign for Republican Senate challenger Suzanne Terrell. President Bush echoes comments from Illinois leaders such as former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Congressman Abner Mikva who believe policy-making was better and more responsive before 1982 when Illinois elected its state house members in three-seat districts using a full representation system that typically resulted in a two-one split between the major parties.
Partisan Lessons for 2004 from Battleground Louisiana
The results of the Dec. 7 Senate and congressional runoff elections in Louisiana support political analyst Charlie Cook's view that the November elections were not the sweeping Republican tide that some have suggested. The U.S. Senate runoff went to Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, who won a surprisingly comfortable 40,000-vote win in the face of strong White House support for her Republican challenger in a state that George Bush carried in 2000. Even more surprisingly, Democrat Rodney Alexander defeated Republican Lee Fletcher in Louisiana's 5th congressional district. According to our Monopoly Politics 2004 analysis (see ), an open seat election in this district on average would be won by a Republican with 58% of the vote.
The Democrats' upset win in Louisiana-5 balances out the only other open seat anomaly this year, in which a Republican won Georgia-12 despite its clear Democratic leanings. Every other open U.S. House seat except for three swing districts went to a candidate whose party's presidential candidate won the district in 2000. The Democrats in fact did just as well as Republicans in this year's relatively few close House races. Each party split nearly perfectly the House seats won by less than 5%, by less than 10% and by less than 20%. Of the merely four incumbents who lost to challengers (the fewest since 1806), two were from each party, and each of the five Democratic incumbents who lost (including 3 who lost to Republican incumbents) each took clear hits in redistricting. Given that the Republicans gained a clear advantage over Democrats in the national U.S. House popular vote for the first time since 1994, it may surprise some that House elections were essentially a draw, with small Republican gains directly tied to successes in congressional redistricting.
Incumbent Protection Redistricting Backfires on Dems
Republicans are sitting pretty for keeping control of the House in 2004, however. Given that their current 23-seat edge is not founded on winning a disproportionate number of close races or winning many Democratic-leaning districts, Democrats have to win a large proportion of close races or have a significant partisan tide in their direction to have much chance of retaking the House. Our Monopoly Politics model -- accurate in 1,262 of 1,263 predictions in 1996-2002 -- does not have the capacity to predict ultimate control of the House, but it makes partisan predictions in more than 350 races for 2004, the highest number by far in the 1996-2004 period that we have used it.
Ironically, Democrats can blame themselves for the vary small playing field. Democrats in several states like California decided to make deals to insulate their incumbents in redistricting against any real challenges instead of leaving them open to more competition in exchange for better chances to increase their share of seats. In state after state where they had a significant say in redistricting, Democrats generally put incumbent interests first, resulting in fewer competitive races than we have seen for decades. With so few congressional races actually requiring real campaigns, it leads to an under-mobilized electorate that has repercussions for statewide races, like U.S. Senate and governor. The New York Times's Gail Collins pithily sums up the story: "First they gerrymander us into one-party fiefs. Then they tell us they only care about the swing districts. Then they complain about voter apathy."
Speaking of Louisiana...Instant Runoff Voting on the Rise
Aside from the partisan results, the Louisiana runoffs were notable for what an expensive mess of mudslinging politics they turned out to be. Each side pulled out their daggers and hacked away at each other while spending as much as $20 million. Voters got turned off, and turnout was lower than expected. And of course taxpayers had to foot the bill -- millions of state dollars down the drain -- to witness the partisan pettiness and sandbox sniping. All in the middle of the holiday season, no less -- "goodwill to all" indeed.
Louisianans could seize their holidays back from the politicians and improve their politics by following San Francisco's lead in adopting instant runoff voting (IRV) instead of its two-round runoff system. IRV produces a majority winner in one round of voting, as voters are able to indicate their runoff choices on their ballot at the same time as their first choice. They do this by ranking their ballots: 1, 2 ,3. With IRV, candidates have incentives to win by building coalitions instead of tearing down their opponents, because they may need the second, i.e. runoff ranking from their opponents' voters. And voters are saved the exorbitant costs, headaches, and nuisance of a second election. IRV is not wholly new to Louisiana, since that state already uses a form of it for its military overseas ballots, asking those voters to rank their candidates since there often is no time to mail them and have them return a second (runoff) ballot.
Instant runoff voting is gathering momentum as a reform, with serious talk about replacing plurality elections with it in states such as California, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont. Certainly any city or state debating their runoff laws should study why San Francisco voters supported IRV in March 2002 () and are preparing to use it for mayoral elections in November 2003. Newspapers recently endorsing IRV include USA Today and the Minneapolis Tribune. See for the latest.
Governance and Partisan Politics: The Latest Example
John J. DiIulio, the former head of President Bush's faith-based office has charged in an Esquire Magazine article that the Bush administration's domestic policies are determined by political considerations, with "everything" being run by the office of senior adviser Karl C. Rove. DiIulio is a Democrat, but he is not alone in his observation. Conservative columnist Bruce Bartlett writes in the December 11 Washington Times that "Since the beginning of the Bush administration, insiders have complained to me that the policymaking process was not working. Talking points and press releases had become substitutes for interagency working groups and policy papers that explored issues in depth." He adds that "This vacuum in terms of policy analysis has tended to be filled by those in the White House who look at issues solely in terms of their political implications. However, the problem is not that people like Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, have undue influence. Rather, it is that the White House is structured so as to short-shrift analysis of issues in favor of sound bites and shoot-from-the-hip responses to issues."
Part of George Bush's attraction to many voters has been that he can seem more driven by principle than Bill Clinton, his Democratic predecessor who famously turned to polling to judge prospective policy decisions. But the reality is that both parties are enthralled by pollsters, caught up in the dynamics of winner-take-all elections where a small shift in opinion can mean a huge shift in power. It in fact is sadly naive to expect a lasting politics of principle in today's bitterly partisan climate under winner-take-all rules that generally limit choices to two parties that struggle to be all things to at least half the voters.
European Political Tidings
Several months ago, many American journalists were sounding alarms about the rise of the far right in Europe. But recent election results in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and elsewhere reveal that the panic button was pushed prematurely. In Germany, the red-green coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party eked out a close victory in September. In Sweden, the ruling Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, handily beating the predictions of the pollsters. Recent elections saw center-left governments take the reins in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the far right have fallen on harder times. Following the media frenzy over France's Jean-Marie Le Pen making the runoff in their presidential election, his party failed to win a single seat in the National Assembly races. In Austria, the bogeyman of Europe who started the far-right alarm, Jorg Haider of the Freedom Party, saw his party plummet in recent elections. After a stunning upset in the Netherlands for the assassinated Pim Fortuyn's party, bickering internal politics led to its collapse, and Fortuyn's party is expected to virtually disappear when new elections are held on January 22. True, these parties have been influential, but not in a way to threaten the more moderate views of the majority.
The scary forecasts were overblown considerably, but this is nothing new. American reportage on Europe usually is fraught with half-truths and Hogan's Heroes stereotyping. In reality, the European political spectrum, founded on the bedrock of proportional representation voting methods in which nearly all voters elect candidates of their choice, is complex, broadly representative, and defies American branding or stereotypes.
To subscribe to the bi-weekly digest, send an e-mail with "subscribe digest" in the subject line or message text to [email protected].