This newsletter is going to press before the November elections, but already it's safe to predict winners in nearly all congressional elections and forecast abysmally low voter turnout. We have been busy highlighting these trends, with C-SPAN airing our release of Monopoly Politics numerous times and with op-eds and comments featured in publications across the nation.
While others criticize our lack of fair choices and the way major parties often obscure differences on many important issues facing our nation, we uniquely focus on the inescapable impact of using winner-take-all elections in which viable candidates must be all things to at least half of the voters. For a powerful indictment of winner-take-all, read Steven Hill's book Fixing Elections.
Below is a commentary from Hill and his Center colleague Rob Richie, followed by a New York Times letter by the Center's president John Anderson. And visit the Center's website to get its predictions for the 2004 elections, to be published within days of this year's vote.
On Nov. 5, Americans will elect our national legislature. With a looming war against Iraq, soaring budget deficit and razor thin division between the major parties in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, this is one of the most momentous elections in memory.
Yet, to a startling extent, the fix is in. We safely can make three troubling predictions about Election Day.
First, barely a third of adults will participate the lowest national election turnout in the world among longtime democracies. Most Americans simply have tuned out elections for Congress. Turnout in primaries was just 17 percent.
Second, our elected officials once again will be like a funhouse mirror of the electorate, poorly representing a range of racial and political minorities.
Third, well over 95 percent of incumbents will again cruise to victory, usually by huge margins. In fact, our Center has projected this year's winners and victory margins in 76 percent of U.S. House races without relying on a shred of information about challengers and incumbents' voting record, constituent service and campaign financing. Applying the same method to House elections from 1996 to 2000, our predictions were 99.8 percent accurate.
This year we project 332 winners for 435 seats, including 195 candidates winning by landslide margins of at least 20 percent, and an additional 100 winning by margins of at least 10 percent. Most remaining races won't be competitive due to weak challengers.
We make these projections so confidently because of a simple fact: Most districts tilt clearly toward one major party. While such partisan imbalance can be inescapable, as lonely Massachusetts Republicans and Utah Democrats will attest, it often comes courtesy of legislative redistricting.
In redistricting, incumbents and party leaders have the God like power to draw their own district lines to decide which party will win most elections. Once district lines are set, most congressional and state legislative races become predictably cozy snoozers. Voters are bunkered down in one party districts where their only real choice is to ratify the candidate of the dominant party.
While we think of ours as a two party system, most voters' frame of reference for legislative races is that of a one party system, directly undercutting voter enthusiasm and full debate about major issues. The sad fact is that if you care about which party controls the House, the odds are that it will be more effective to donate money to a candidate in a competitive race halfway across the nation than vote yourself. It's little wonder that so many lose interest.
To improve voter choice, we should start by following Iowa's model and take redistricting powers out of incumbents' hands. Congress historically has set national redistricting standards and could do so again with a mere statute.
But we won't bring equality, choice, and power to voters unless we reform "winner take all" elections so that like minded voters have a fair chance to win representation even when part of a political minority in their particular area. To achieve that goal, we need to pass laws to implement systems of full representation in legislative districts electing more than one person. Most modern democracies use systems in which more than 90% of voters elect a candidate from a broad spectrum of choices. The result typically is much higher turnout, more substantive debate on issues, fairer representation of women and racial minorities and more inclusive policy-making.
For more than a century, Illinois used one modest, but effective approach: a full representation system in three-seat districts in which a candidate could win a seat with support from a little more than a quarter of the vote. As a result, nearly every district represented both major parties and minority opinion within the major parties and gave third parties a fighting chance. Among those seeking to restore full representation are Illinois' secretary of state (a Democrat) and state treasurer (a Republican), former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Congressman Abner Mikva.
Congress has the authority to implement full representation for U.S. House elections, but more realistic steps are for it to give states back the power to use multi-seat House districts (as suggested in bills introduced since 1995) and to create a commission to study fair representation in elections. States and localities can more quickly adopt full representation.
For now, make your bets. It's easy money when the fix is in.
The following letter by the Center's president John B. Anderson appeared in the New York Times on October 29.
In assessing this year's Congressional elections ("A Senator's Death and the Fight for Congress,'' Oct. 27), you conclude that we should again expect low voter turnout because the major political parties increasingly mimic each other during campaigns, ``giving voters a choice between beige and brown.''
Events since my independent presidential campaign in 1980 have only reinforced my belief in the need to reform politics to expand viable choices across the spectrum. As long as we have two choice, winner take all elections where the winner must be all things to at least half the people, today's marketing technology and expertise will make most campaigns a distasteful concoction of poll driven sound bites, negative attacks and avoidance of important issues.
It's time to adopt instant runoff voting to give independents and alternative parties a chance to compete without being ``spoilers,'' and time to begin a national dialogue about the many forms of proportional representation, in which political minorities can win a fair share of legislative seats.
Glossary of Key Terms
• Full / Proportional representation: A family of voting system used in most modern democracies in which like-minded groupings of voters win representation in proportion to their voting strength in a multi-seat district: 20% of votes earns two (20%) of 10 seats, 50% of votes earns five (50%) of 10 seats and so on. A multi-seat district is one with more than one representative. With a five-seat district, full representation allows a fifth of voters to earn one seat. That victory threshold rises in a district with fewer than five seats and drops with more than five seats. Full representation contrasts with winner-take-all elections which usually are contested in one-seat districts.
• Instant runoff voting (IRV): A majority system that simulates a traditional runoff election, but doesn't require two rounds of voting. People vote for their favorite candidate and indicate their runoff choices by ranking candidates first, second and third. If no candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters, voters' rankings are used to simulate a runoff election.
Federal Electoral Reform Puts Focus on the States
Despite unnecessary provisions which could make it harder for some people to vote, there is much to celebrate in the new federal election reform law. With nearly $4 billion authorized for states and counties to modernize their voting equipment and their procedures and movement toward establishing uniform standards for our patchwork election system, voting will be more inclusive and millions of more Americans will cast valid votes.
The battle for fairness now moves to states, which must develop plans to earn federal support. Reformers should ensure that one standard is an explicit requirement that new equipment be ready to conduct elections using instant runoff voting and full representation systems. We need these systems to have a fair and vibrant democracy, and voting equipment should not be a barrier. To help support this standard in your state, contact us at 301-270 4616 or [email protected] .
Note from the Director
For the past 10 years the Center for Voting and Democracy has worked hard to fuel the movement for alternative voting systems. We are making great strides, with a second successful election in Amarillo, Texas in May showing the power of full representation systems to provide fair representation, the big win in March for instant runoff voting in San Francisco and a growing chorus of interest in alternative voting among leading elected officials, journalists and public interest leaders.
Resulting from a new strategic plan, the Center has divided its program work into two areas: Public Education and Field. The Public Education program will expose problems with traditional winner-take-all elections and communicate the benefits and mechanics of full representation and instant runoff voting. Reaching out in particular to influential opinion leaders, civic leaders and lawmakers, the program will focus on the impact of our winner-take-all system on participation, campaign discourse, policy and national unity, as spelled out in our senior policy analyst Steven Hill’s new book Fixing Elections .
The Field program will lay the groundwork in targeted jurisdictions for legislative, legal and ballot efforts to adopt forms of full representation and instant runoff voting. In general, we see the best opportunities for full representation in resolving minority voting rights challenges and for instant runoff voting when replacing traditional "delayed" runoffs. Seeking to work as often as possible with local partners, we are organizing regional workshops in the Southeast and Northeast and plan additional ones later in the year.
The best short-term opportunity for a major political victory likely is in Vermont, where momentum grows for adoption of instant runoff voting for statewide offices (see page 3).
We had hopes this summer for the first measure seeking to implement instant runoff voting for statewide elections in Alaska. Despite a vigorous campaign in the month before the election, however, advocates fell short.
Backers gathered more than 40,000 signatures to put Measure 1 on the ballot and gained the support of the Republican Party, all small parties across the political spectrum and the Juneau Empire in the capital city. But the campaign had limited resources, making it hard to persuade enough voters that plurality voting rules should be replaced. Opponents also spent heavily to portray Measure 1 as costly and confusing, despite all evidence to the contrary. In the end, undecided voters broke no.
Kudos to the campaign's supporters, including Arizona Senator John McCain (whose message about Alaska can be heard on our website), Ken Jacobus (the Alaska Republican Party's general counsel), Jim Sykes (Alaska Green Party) and Chip Wagoner (Republican National Committee member). Their efforts may pay off in Alaska cities, as more are interested in replacing runoffs. Indeed the case for instant runoff voting is most easy to make when replacing runoffs, as indicated by this spring's victory in San Francisco despite opponents spending more than $100,000. We are working with local officials to ensure smooth operations in the city's first elections with instant runoff voting in the November 2003 mayoral race.
We have not been immune from the belt-tightening that is common among non-profits right now, and have a leaner, but still extremely effective staff. I want to thank in particular two departing staffers, Texas community organizer Joleen Garcia and deputy director Eric Olson, who plans to write a book on political reform. They will certainly be missed, as we do the many interns -- including seven this summer -- who have enlivened our office and supported our program in many ways.
Certainly our commitment to instant runoff voting and full representation is unwavering. American elections keep demonstrating the imperative of our reforms -- thanks for your support as we look for more breakthroughs in 2003!
Voting System Reform Update
Fixing Elections gathers attention / A New Edition of Real Choices, New Voices: Steven Hill's Fixing Elections: The Failure of American's Winner Take All Elections (Routledge, 2002) recently garnered rave reviews from long-time political observers Tom Brazaitis in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Neal Pierce in the Seattle Times. Douglas Amy has substantially revised his classic Real Choices, New Voices: How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy (Columbia Univ.). For information on these must-read books, visit our on-line library at FairVote.org.
German elections highlight mixed- member system : In September's German elections, the Social Democrat-Green coalition won a narrow victory, and neo-fascists fell far short of the 5% of the national vote necessary to earn representation. Three out of four German adults elected a candidate due to a combination of high voter turnout and most voters electing their preferred candidate among a range of choices.
In contrast only one in four Americans will elect a U.S. House member this year despite our more limited choices. Germans elect half of their seats in one-seat districts, as we do in U.S. House elections, while half are awarded to parties based on their percentage of the vote. Mixed member systems have become popular, with recent adoptions in Scotland, Wales, Mexico, Japan, Russia, Italy and more.
Fair elections in the United Kingdom and former colonies : Some former British colonies -- and the United Kingdom itself -- keep moving away from plurality, winner-take-all elections. In the wake of three national elections with a mixed member system of full representation, New Zealand has voted to allow localities to use the choice voting full representation method. Eight local councils in New Zealand have adopted choice voting, while others are letting citizens vote on it, including the capital city of Wellington.
Scotland also has adopted mixed member for electing its regional assembly and now may adopt choice voting for local elections after an agreement between two major parties to ditch traditional winner-take-all voting.
Finally, Fair Vote Canada continues to make strides. At its June convention, for example, the Canadian Labour Congress backed a resolution to support Fair Vote Canada's efforts to seek full representation for national elections -- for more, visit www.fairvotecanada.com.
Amarillo's Cumulative Voting Elections : In May, Amarillo (TX) used the cumulative voting system of full representation for the second time to elect its school board. A Latina challenger dislodged a white incumbent, and the board now has four white members, two Latino member and one black member. Before cumulative voting, no racial minority had been elected for two decades even though more than 40% of the student age population and more than 20% of the voting-age population is non white. All racial and ethnic groups in Amarillo seem to have accepted the new system.
Vermont governor, public interest Groups and AFL CIO endorse IRV for statewide elections : Building on the momentum of a near-sweep of town meeting votes in March on whether to adopt instant runoff voting for statewide elections, Vermont reformers keep finding new allies. Backers now include Vermont Governor (and presidential candidate) Howard Dean and Vermont branches of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, PIRG and the Grange. In September, the Vermont AFL-CIO endorsed the change.
This year's elections may throw at least one statewide election into the Vermont legislature, as the constitution requires a majority to win outright. The resulting controversy is likely to make chances of adoption all the stronger. See www.FairVoteVermont.org
Minnesota voters prefer a multi-party system : With a close four way gubernatorial race in which Tim Penny of the Independence Party has a good chance to follow in Jesse Ventura's footsteps, Minnesota shows signs of a true multi-party political culture. Voters like it, according to a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll showing 73% prefer a multi-party system to a two-party one. Recognizing the incompatibility of plurality elections with increased choices, the Star-Tribune is among a growing number of backers of instant runoff voting, and FairVote Minnesota is building support for full representation. See www.FairVoteMN.org for more.
Potential runoff controversy in Louisiana highlights value of IRV : The battle for control of the U.S. Senate could be decided in 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 use of instant runoff voting for overseas absentee ballots to all voters.
More universities adopt better voting systems : Many of our leading universities elect their student government by instant runoff voting and/or full representation systems, including Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and MIT. The Universities of Illinois and Maryland and Whitman College moved to these fairer systems last spring, and this fall the Center's student coordinator Mike Fabius helped persuade Vassar College to change. For more on college reform efforts, see FairVote.org.
Irish voting system website : Ireland has one of the world's best voting systems: choice voting for the parliament and instant runoff voting for president. To explain this system, the Center has launched www.IrishVoting.org .