The Safe Seat Pandemic

By Rob Richie
Published December 12th 2005 in Tom Paine
The United States is currently experiencing the least competitive congressional elections in our nation's history, with nearly 99 percent incumbent re-election rates in every election since 1996. For years, FairVote has drawn attention to the problem of lack of voter choice in our congressional elections. But some of the key players interested in reform skipped over the parts of our analysis that didn't fit in with their view of what is politically practical. From our argument that the political geography of elections is the most important factor for determining winners and victory margins, they concluded that the problem could be fixed through establishing independent commissions to draw legislative districting lines. They failed to grasp that the problem of lopsided districts is largely rooted in the use of winner-take-all elections in the red and blue partisan divide that defines most of our nation.

We see evidence of the power of winner-take-all in how the parties target their campaigns in both presidential and congressional races. Because winner-take-all rules mean that 51 percent of voters will win 100 percent of representation, winning 40 percent of the vote is essentially meaningless for affecting representation. That makes a district or state an irrelevant sideshow if seen as having a clear partisan tilt.

In contrast, most modern democracies use proportional voting methods in “super districts” with more than one representative. In a five-seat super district, 60 percent of voters would elect a majority of three seats, but 40 percent of voters would win two and 20 percent would win one seat. Proportional systems overseas typically are based on voting for parties, but others— including the cumulative voting system used in American cities like Amarillo, Texas, and Peoria, Ill., and the choice voting system used in Cambridge, Mass.—allow voters to choose among individual candidates.  If such proportional systems were used for congressional and state legislative elections, voters would have real choices among candidates within parties as well as between different parties. They could define their representation in every election no matter where they lived.

But winning proportional voting methods will take time, including wins in cities and more voter education about how they can work. Some reformers want to try to address the very real crisis of no-choice elections sooner and to curb the corruption revealed in former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s machinations in Texas. These reformers placed redistricting reform measures on the ballot in Ohio and California this November. Both initiatives had serious money behind them, along with political stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and Common Cause's Chellie Pingree, yet both went down in flames—California by 19 percent and Ohio by a whopping 40 percent.

So what now? Despite these defeats, we can't simply throw up our hands and let the "people's house" lose all electoral connection with the American people. But we need to be both smarter and more open to challenging ideas. We must start by recognizing two key points about the limitations of any strategy founded on maintaining all single-member districts.

Winner-take-all gives huge power over representation to whoever draws the district lines. Just changing who draws district lines means taking the power over determining most people's representation from one set of political elites and giving it to another—a change unlikely to get voters very excited. We should instead give that power to voters with proportional voting methods.

Winner-take-all districts simply cannot accommodate three fundamental principles of free and fair elections: universal voter choice, leadership accountability and fair representation. Indeed, winner-take-all districts put those goals into direct conflict with each other.That means anyone truly serious about the problem of lack of voter choice must confront that we have reached winner-take-all's endgame: It just doesn't work effectively in modern politics. But even super districts designed for a proportional voting system need to be drawn fairly, and some states will seek to reform redistricting. To help avoid what happened in Ohio and California this year, redistricting reformers should do the following:
  • Put more energy into the long slog of a congressional bill setting standards for all states at the same time—thus taking state-by-state partisan calculations off the map. Already more than 60 U.S. House members have signed onto such bills introduced this year by Rep. John Tanner and Rep. Zoe Lofgren.
  • Take the partisan edge out of proposals by not requiring "mid-decennial" redistricting, as tried in California and Ohio, and focusing primarily on reforming state legislative redistricting apart from congressional districting. Going after U.S. House districts can earn big dollars from those with partisan interests, but also spurs vigorous opposition
  • Base arguments for reform on the corruption that takes place in the current process. It's simply wrong to allow politicians to help their friends and hurt their enemies in what should be a public interest process.
  • Put traditional standards of compactness, maintaining county lines and complying with the Voting Rights Act before trying to create competition when drawing district lines. Voters are unlikely to like "good gerrymandering" any more than the old gerrymanders. If competition is the goal, gerrymandering isn't the answer.
In whatever reform one does, however, we must support giving all voters access to fair representation and competitive choices, not just a select few. For such protection of voters, we must move beyond winner-take-all districts to proportional voting methods designed for today's world, not the horse-and-buggy society of two centuries ago.

Rob Richie is executive director of  FairVote.