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Testimony of John B. Anderson to the  National Commission on Federal Election Reform (Ford-Carter Commission)

May 24, 2001

Executive Summary and Statutory Proposals

Summary of remarks: I am President of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national non-partisan, non-profit organization founded in 1992 that studies elections -- local, state, federal, and international -- and advocates reforms to promote increased participation with strong and fair representation. I served in Congress for two decades and ran for president in 1980, appearing on the ballot of all 50 states as an independent candidate.

We have been far too careless with our right to vote.

  1. Our election administrators have come to accept as normal a two percent failure rate in the casting and counting of votes -- which amounts to some two million votes not counting in each of the last three presidential elections. 
  2. We limit access to the polls through such devices as shortened polling hours. 
  3. Our voter registration system is a failure in most states, both because so many citizens fail to register because of inaccuracies and redundancy. 
  4. We have been far too casual in disenfranchising people due to past felony convictions -- not only creating inequalities, but influencing future lack of participation by children of those disenfranchised. 
  5. Most of our laws governing legislative redistricting are as outmoded and primitive as we know our laws governing election administration to be.

The Center for Voting and Democracy has two areas of particular concern: 1) ensuring the accuracy of voter intentions by requiring that winners have majority support from those they represent and 2) providing full representation to voters. Strong arguments for these reforms can be made by supporters of the current two-party system, but I support them because of a strong belief in multi-party democracy. New parties offer voters better choices and bring important perspectives to political debate. They provide a check on any drift of major parties away from substantial numbers of people. To give the major parties the same kind of competition we believe so important in our free market economy, we must eliminate the many barriers that thwart efforts to build new parties.

We should require winners of unitary offices -- such as president, governor and U.S. Senator -- to have majority support. Failing to do so allows distortions of popular will and keeps minor candidates in the role of "spoiler." Instant runoff voting generates a majority winner in a single round of voting and has been tested for decades in major elections. States could adopt it for all federal and state races or Congress could enact it for all federal races except for president. It is a particularly sensible alternative to runoff elections, which can be an expensive headache for election administrators.

To address the pervasive lack of competition and to provide full representation of our diversity through constitutional means, we should adopt full representation systems such as the cumulative voting method that Illinois leaders such as former Governor Jim Edgar and former Congressman Abner Mikva recommend be restored for electing that state's House of Representatives. There are powerful arguments for these systems as a means to ease the growing regional polarization apparent in our politics, to generate more competition and to provide fuller representation of our diversity through constitutional means. Although fully proportional systems are used in most established democracies, we at least should allow states to consider multi-seat district, candidate-based systems for congressional elections that would have the primary effect of broadening representation within the major parties.

Summary of statutory proposals

Voting equipment: States should use modern voting equipment, paid for primarily by the federal government, that minimizes voter error and provides maximum access for all citizens, including people with disabilities, senior citizens and people whose primary language is not English. Newly-purchased equipment should accommodate all ballot types currently used for elections in the United States, included ranked-choice ballots.

Minimum standards for election administration: The federal government should set minimum standards for voting equipment and various areas of administration and voter education. The federal government should provide funding to assist states in meeting these standards. States should extend their polling hours to at least 8 pm.

Voter registration: We should take steps either to register far more Americans in a reliable manner or enact same-day voter registration.

Reenfranchisment: States should restore voting rights to ex-felons. Congress should debate banning this form of disenfranchisement in federal elections.

Redistricting: As with election administration, the federal government should set minimum standards for how redistricting must be done. States should move toward criteria-driven methods that remove partisan politics from consideration.

Fair access: Independents and third parties should not be denied fair access to electoral politics. There should be reasonable thresholds of support necessary to gain access to the ballot and to candidate debates. The Federal Elections Commission should have representatives of political independents and minor parties as well as the major parties. Anti-fusion laws should be repealed, either by states or by Congress.

Campaign finance reform: I personally support public financing, based on the clean elections model in place for state elections in such states as Maine and Arizona.

Majority rule: Congress should require that winners of federal unitary offices have the support of an absolute majority of voters through instant runoff voting. States should adopt instant runoff voting for presidential elections in their state and for other significant elections for unitary state offices; it is particularly appropriate as an alternative to traditional runoff elections At a minimum, new voting equipment should have the capacity to conduct a ranked-choice election.

Full representation: Congress should repeal the 1967 law requiring single-member district elections for the House of Representatives. States should consider systems of full representation in multi-seat districts for congressional and state legislative elections, particularly when seeking to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Ongoing evaluation: Congress should establish a review process to evaluate the full range of federal and proposed federal laws affecting participation and representation.

Full Testimony

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this most critical of issues: the health of our electoral process. I am President and Chair of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national non-partisan, non-profit organization founded in 1992 that studies elections – local, state, federal, and international – and advocates reforms to promote increased participation with strong and fair representation. I served in Congress for two decades, representing the great state of Illinois, and ran for president in 1980, appearing on the ballot of all 50 states as an independent candidate. I will return to that race for president, as its lessons may be of particular interest to one of your honorary chairs -- and indeed to several of you who have directly experienced how our system can fracture majorities and under-represent political minorities. That campaign also provided me with insight into the political rights of independents and parties other than the Republicans and Democrats.

Like many Americans, I was startled last November to learn just how deeply and extensively the fundamentals of our electoral democracy have deteriorated. Martin Menzer and the staff of the Miami Herald summarize well in their new book Democracy Held Hostage:

"In fact, few Americans knew it, but most of their electoral systems were designed to accommodate voter apathy rather than voter enthusiasm. These systems were based on the premise that turnout would always be low, margins of difference would always be high and the exact vote count would never really matter."

The ways in which we register voters, educate them about their responsibilities, provide them access to the polls and count their votes too closely resemble those of a tinpot dictator rather than the most powerful nation in the world with a proud democratic tradition. In the midst of our economic success, military might and individual freedoms, we have been careless with the right that grounds all other rights: the right to vote. The very existence of that carelessness should tell us something about how reformers must do more than demand necessary improvements in administering elections. Our electoral mechanics could be so poor for so long only in a climate where elections do not matter as much as they should: one where our choices are too limited and our votes too weak. I applaud you and your fellow commissioners for your mission to help bring our elections into the 21st century and hope that you will entertain my proposals that at first glance may seem excessively visionary, but which are grounded in American traditions, have drawn rapidly growing attention in many states and speak powerfully, but practically, to our urgent demand to make elections matter and votes truly count.

You have heard from many of our nation's leading experts about the state of voting in America, but allow me to briefly review how the word "carelessness" is not too strong a word to describe our attitude toward elections.

Our election administrators have come to accept as normal a two percent failure rate in the casting and counting of votes. That means that for every 100 voters who come to the polls, two will not have their votes count for the office about which they care most deeply. That number at first may sound small, but in our recent elections for president, some two million Americans thus have failed to have their voting intentions register in the presidential contest. For all of Florida's abysmal problems in 2000, it is far from alone. The error rate in fact was higher in my home state of Illinois and, given modern technology, was unacceptably high in every state. Yet this error rate has been accepted to the point where rational, well-intentioned people can make decisions like that in Virginia, where the state's elections division does not permit counties to use features on their voting equipment that would inform voters if they had over-voted or under-voted in a particular race.

Our access to the polls is too limited and arbitrary. Among many examples, consider polling hours. As we settle in to watch the electoral returns -- or should I say, the parade of premature exit poll projections -- we first hear from Kentucky and Indiana. Why? Because their polls close at the absurdly early time of 6 pm. Consider a working parent who in the morning must help their child get ready for school before going to work. Is it too much for them to ask that their polling place be open past the time they might ordinarily arrive home from work? Many other states close their polls at 7 pm, which is an improvement, but still can lead to long lines of several hours in population centers with too few polling places and polling stations. For federal elections, Congress should require reasonable polling hours, and pay for them if necessary.

Our voter registration system in most states is a failure. If every single registered voter participated in 2000, our turnout rate of adult Americans still would lag behind the rate of most democracies in Europe and Latin America. At the same time, a state like Alaska can have more registered voters than adults due to infrequent purging -- a recipe for corruption.

Voter turnout is a useful indicator of a democracy's health. While high rates of voter participation certainly do not prove a democracy is healthy (dictatorships can, after all, have show-elections with 99% turnout), low rates indicate a potential serious problem, particularly when combined with inequities based on wealth and education. Some would argue people don’t vote because they’re satisfied with things as they are and abstention really shows the strength of our American democratic policy. Of course, no one has satisfactorily explained why contentment with politics is consistently so concentrated among the least well-off.

The United States ranks near the bottom -- 103rd -- among democracies in voter turnout. Barely one-half of Americans vote in our most important national election, and little more a third cast ballots in federal off-presidential election years. Even fewer vote in state and local elections, as indicated by the plunging turnout here in Austin, where city council election turnout has steadily dropped, year by year, from 39% of registered voters in 1983 to only 5% in 2000. Important as it is to retain the trust of the fifty percent who do vote, it is equally crucial to examine reforms that will bring the rest of our citizens to the polls. Of course, every ballot must be counted, but that is a hollow achievement if most voters fail to cast ballots at all.

The partisan battle raged over "motor voter" legislation, yet in the very first election after its passage, Republicans re-took the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades and in the years since have fared very well in many state and federal elections. We should not fear voter participation, and must embrace reforms -- be they making the government responsible for registering voters, as commonly done in modern democracies, or same-day voter registration with reasonable checks on potential fraud -- that would at least allow the possibility of turnout as high as the norm in most other modern democracies.

We have been far too casual in disenfranchising people. One can be tough on crime without supporting current policies that result in as many Americans being unable to vote due to having been convicted of a felony as the total number of Americans at the start of the 19th century. I was pleased to see that several states in the past year have moved to re-enfranchise their citizens, but still, too many states ban a person convicted of a felony from voting for life. In Florida, that means that more than 600,000 adults cannot vote, including nearly a third of African American men. Yet studies show that one of the best indicators of future voter participation is whether one's parents voted: by making ex-felons permanent outcasts from our elections, we are sending a chilling message not only to them, but to their children.

The public has far too little say in the redistricting process despite its critical impact on their representation. The year 2000 marked the decennial Census and its enumeration of our increased population. Every state grew in population, with various shifts within states, and now nearly every legislative district in the country -- from Congress to village council -- will need to be reconfigured to uphold the one person, one vote doctrine established in the 1960's in the landmark Supreme Court rulings in Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims.

Unfortunately, most of this redistricting -- particularly for Members of Congress -- will be done by the elected officials most directly affected by how the lines are drawn. Incumbent legislators literally get to choose their constituents before their constituents choose them. I would argue that our laws governing redistricting are as outmoded and primitive as our laws governing election administration. Last year, the election administration train clearly was derailed. Whether we come to a similar understanding about redistricting is an open question, as its failings are unlikely to have the same visceral impact as those from Florida despite the millions of people whose representation will be largely pre-determined for the next ten years no matter what happens in subsequent elections.

In contrast with our lackadaisical regulation of redistricting, the state of Iowa and most democratic nations with single member districts have clear standards and criteria for how lines must be drawn, with little discretion for political concerns. Congress in the 19th century used to set redistricting guidelines, and it should restore that practice, particularly given modern technology which makes precise political gerrymandering all the more capable of making people's participation irrelevant. Two decades ago I joined Jim Leach and many of Congress' leading lights in supporting such legislation; no such bill has even been introduced for years.

I will now turn to evidence of our carelessness in two central areas of concern for the Center for Voting and Democracy: 1) ensuring the accuracy of voter intentions by requiring that winners secure majority support from those they represent and 2) providing full representation to voters as we did for so many years in elections to the Illinois House of Representatives. Strong arguments for each of these reforms can be made by those who support the current two-party system, but first let me explain why I personally support a multi-party democracy and changes in our laws and practices to accommodate the potential energy and innovation they could bring to our politics.

A friend of mine since my own independent bid 20 years ago -- distinguished political scientist, Theodore Lowi, Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University -- last year wrote an article called “Deregulate the Duopoly.” Professor Lowi argues that there are many reasons why third parties are destined, in the memorable words of Richard Hofstadter, “to sting like a bee and die.” The only third party to become a major party in the last century and a half was of course the Republicans who replaced the fractured Whigs torn asunder by the most cataclysmic issue to literally divide our Union and threaten the very foundations of the American Republic -- slavery. To establish their viability as a national political force Republicans first competed and won a plurality of the congressional seats in the mid-term elections of 1854. It was then possible six years later to capture the White House with a former Illinois Congressman and prime contender for the U.S. Senate in his historic contest with Stephen Douglas two years before his presidential run -- something which had brought Abraham Lincoln national attention and stature.

New parties offer voters better choices and bring important perspectives to political debate. They provide a check on any drift of major parties away from substantial numbers of people. But one simply cannot build a third party or independent force from the top down. Still resounding in my ears after more than two decades was the challenge, nay the taunt, “but how will you govern?” We are a government with three branches not just one. To give the major parties the same kind of competition we believe so important in our free market economy, we must eliminate the many barriers that thwart efforts to build new parties and thus provide better choices for the rising tide of independent voters -- and, perhaps, re-channel the ever-increasing numbers of political drop-outs back into the process. The anti-party ethos of our constitutional framers has been replaced today by a hostility to any part other than the two behemoths which Lowi terms “the duopoly.”

How does this manifest itself? How can I count the ways! There are anti-fusion laws in most states that regrettably were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Timmons case: as practiced in states like New York, fusion gives all parties an equal right to nominate candidates of their choice, including nominees of other parties. Ballot access laws were improved after litigation in 1980, culminating in a case where I was a victor by a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, Anderson v. Celebrezee. Nevertheless all too many examples can be cited of laws that remain on that books that are discriminatory to the point of being rightly termed exclusionary for parties other than the existing duopoly. We must not take from Florida's problems with designing ballots to accommodate more presidential candidates in 2000 the lesson that candidates with reasonable levels of support should not be able to earn a right to be considered by voters.

The commandeering of the administration of our federal campaign laws by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) -- admittedly toothless on many matters, but only made up of major party members -- is certainly a hindrance. Also extremely relevant is our entire system of campaign finance. Suffice it to say that despite the floodtide of money the duopoly has given us, despite this most unbelievably costly election in 2000, with leaps in expenditures of hard and soft money, more than 100 million Americans avoided the polls in November.

I do not believe that many of these Americans will vote without an expansion of choices and real debate that would come with such better choices. The last election certainly was riven, but it was not riveting in terms of the issues actually debated and discussed. As the election season proceeded, it became a dreary and repetitive contest in which the major party candidates seemed to strive, to mix a metaphor, to square the circle by finding the most centrist position.

Such a campaign might have been different if not for the exclusion of Ralph Nader and other minor party candidates from all three presidential debates under an arbitrary standard based on near-unachievable poll numbers and fashioned by the two majority parties through their inflexible control of the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates. Where was the voice to bring into the debate such issues as the death penalty, our failed war on drugs, the necessity for a broader approach to health care than a prescription drug benefit for old folks -- in short, a debate on health care for all through a national health insurance program. Who can recall any real discussion of tax reform through a re-examination of corporate tax benefits which cost the treasury hundreds of billions? Why was the in-depth discussion of the appropriate role for the U.S. a pay in a globalized world economy still bereft of the global political institution we need to assure world peace through world law? There was not even a word from either major party candidate about their willingness to sign the Treaty of Rome establishing the International Criminal court -- despite its support from all of our major European friends and allies and the overwhelming majority of democratic nations on all continents.

Also among this list of ignored issues of course was true campaign finance reform. The only candidate to endorse public financing as a basic concept to replace private money was not allowed in the debates. To borrow from Public Campaign -- the organization seeking to offer candidates the clean elections model now used in Maine, Vermont, Arizona, and Massachusetts in elections for state offices -- the present system is simply out of control. We need a new politics to replace spiralling campaign costs -- in 1996 our federal elections were said to cost two billion, while in 2000, that cost had risen three billion -- that fails to produce the kind of policy results that enhance the faith and trust of the American people in our democracy.

You know where I stand on the issue of multi-party democracy. That helps drive my interest in the following reforms, but I want to stress that these reforms are also in the interest of those in the major parties who want to heal some of the divisions current in America and to inspire, mobilize and inform our people in a way that will improve both campaigns and policy-making.

Ensuring winners have majority support from those they represent .

Many of our most important elections -- like those for president, governor and U.S. Senator -- are for unitary offices where only one individual can be elected. When only two candidates compete for such an office, the winner automatically will have an absolute majority of the vote. But if more candidates appear on the ballot, candidates can win despite a majority voting for other candidates. This phenomenon indeed is common. It repeatedly happens in party primaries, particularly when there are open seats that draw many prospective candidates. There are several Members of Congress who won their all-important first primary election with less than 30% of the primary vote.

It also happens in our most important elections. Last year, for example, your commission's vice-chair Slade Gorton narrowly lost his re-election bid in Washington state in a race in which votes cast for a Libertarian were far greater than the difference between Sen. Gorton and Democratic nominee Maria Cantwell. In 1997, another commission member Bill Richardson resigned his U.S. House seat in New Mexico to become our ambassador to the United Nations. In the special election to fill the seat, a Hispanic Democrat lost to a Republican by 3% while the Green Party candidate won 17%; a similar scenario played out in a special election in New Mexico in 1998, triggering great interest in the state legislature in a majority requirement. Numerous gubernatorial races have been won with less than half the votes in recent years; in fact, close to half of governors won one of their gubernatorial primaries or general elections by less than half the votes, with several winning with less than 40%.

More than half of states in the last three presidential elections have allocated all of their electoral votes to a candidate who did not win majority support in that state. In 1992, only a single state -- Arkansas -- allocated its electoral votes to a candidate who won majority support in that state. Last year, the presence of votes for third party candidates could have changed the results in several states -- Pat Buchanan won enough votes to keep George Bush from winning such states as New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin, while Ralph Nader won enough votes to keep Al Gore from winning New Hampshire and, of course, Florida.

Some might say, "well, that's the way it goes, and our republic survives." That's true, of course, and part of the reason our republic survives is that in nearly all cases, any major candidate will do a reasonable job in governing. But if majority rule is to have any meaning and if the accuracy of voter intent is a concern, then surely we should consider ways to better ensure that the candidate who wins is the one that most people would prefer to win.

A traditional approach to trying to ensure majority winners is two-round runoff elections in which the top two candidates face off in a new election if there is no majority winner. Sen. Gorton has suggested runoff elections in the presidential race if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, and even as we speak, his state of Washington is in a legal battle that could result in adoption of Louisiana's primary system in which only two candidates will face off in the November general election. Most southern states use runoff elections for their primaries, while runoffs are common in cities, including for mayoral contests in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

But runoff elections have clear downsides. Here in Texas, for example, runoffs greatly add to demands on voters. Last spring many Texans were asked to go to the polls four times in three months -- for the first and runoff round of a statewide Democratic U.S. Senate primary, then for the first and runoff round of municipal elections. Not surprisingly, voter fatigue is common. Turnout was only 3% in the statewide primary -- so much for majority rule. Voter turnout in a statewide runoff in North Carolina also was well under 10% -- with taxpayers footing a bill of some $3.5 million bill to hold the runoff. Voter turnout likely wouldn't drop much with Sen. Gorton's proposed national runoff, but imagine both the costs to the states for administering a second election and the greater debt that candidates would accumulate to their campaign contributors.

Florida, in fact, just eliminated runoff elections for primaries, although only for the 2002 election cycle. The justification for this change were complaints from election administrators about the costs and difficulties of conducting three elections in two months, as they often are forced to do in the current system, but it is instructive to quote from Thomas Edsall's article on the prospective candidacy of former attorney general Janet Reno in Florida's gubernatorial race that appeared on May 19th in the Washington Post. Edsall wrote:

"The Republican controlled Florida Legislature recently passed an election reformmeasure that included a provision that many believe would enhance Reno's chances to win the Democratic nomination. The bill eliminated the requirement that       a second, or run off, primary be held if no candidate wins a majority in the first primary. Instead, the nomination goes to the candidate winning a simple plurality in the first primary. Republicans added the provision, which applies only to the 2002 election, in the hope that it would increase the chances that Democrats would pick a weak candidate in the moderate state by nominating the most liberal candidate who could win a plurality, but not a majority."

Seeking to use electoral rules to gain partisan advantage is common, of course. But note the key point: Republicans allegedly believe that runoff elections would produce a stronger, more representative nominee, and they would rather incumbent governor Jeb Bush face a weaker nominee who only can gain plurality support in the Democratic primary.

Is that what we want from elections in general -- a better chance to elect weaker candidates who do not accurately reflect what the majority prefers? Defenders of plurality voting must answer this question, particularly when there is such a ready-made alternative to runoff elections that accomplishes the goal of majority rule in a single round of voting.

I refer to instant runoff voting, the preferential voting system used to elect the Australian House of Representatives, president of Ireland and mayor of London. Instant runoff voting has gained rapidly growing attention in the United States. Alaskans will vote on whether to adopt it for all their federal elections -- including president -- and most of their state elections in November 2002. A dozen other states have debated legislation on it this year, including a bill to use it to fill congressional vacancies introduced by California's speaker of the house and legislation in New Mexico that narrowly lost on the house floor. Several cities are considering instant runoff voting; the Austin city council, in fact, is weighing a charter commission's unanimous recommendation to adopt instant runoff voting for city council elections.

The idea is quite simple. In their one trip to the polls, voters cast a vote for their favorite candidate, but at the same time specify their runoff choices. If their favorite candidate gets eliminated, they can support their next favorite in the “instant” runoff. Voters specify these choices by ranking candidates in order of choice: first, second, third.

Consider having the instant runoff in last year's presidential race among George Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Libertarian Harry Browne. Voters would rank those they prefer in order of choice. If a candidate received a majority of first choices in a state, he would win that state's electoral votes. But if not, the instant runoff would begin and the weak candidates would be eliminated. Ballots would be recounted, with each ballot counting for the voter’s favorite candidate remaining in the race. Supporters of Bush and Gore would continue to support their favorite candidate, assuming they were the top finishers, but supporters of the other candidates would have their vote count for their runoff choice among the major candidates.

In addition to producing majority winners, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in election costs, reducing the need for campaign cash and curtailing voter fatigue, instant runoff voting has two other benefits particularly important in today's politics:

  • It promotes less negative campaigning and reaching out to more voters because candidates know that winning may require being the runoff choice of their opponents' supporters.
  • It solves the “spoiler” problem in which a third party candidate like Nader or Buchanan can split the vote and cause the stronger major party candidate to lose. That helps both major party victims of spoilers and voters who might want to consider a minor party or independent candidate.

I have a particular interest in this latter question, having had the charge leveled at me in 1980 until my ears were ringing. Partisans of one of your honorary chairs, my Democratic Party opponent Jimmy Carter, still believe it, notwithstanding post-election analyses proving otherwise. Ralph Nader, a far more recent example, has practically suffered excommunication – David Corn of Nation has referred to it as “crucifixion”. However unwarranted these characterizations, they are a product of a system that produces a plurality winner in our “first-past-the-post” method.

I would hope that this commission would consider that federal elections be held using instant runoff voting to ensure more representative winners and better politics. But short of such a recommendation, there is a very important recommendation I ask you to make: that any new voting equipment purchased by states and counties be required to have the capacity to handle a ranked-choice ballot and other ballot types already used in the United States. Nearly all modern voting equipment can indeed have this flexibility without additional costs, but counties and states need to ask for it. It is a classic case of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

Providing full representation to voters

Why have so many Americans given up on voting? There is no single reason, but we can say categorically that turnout is correlated to how meaningful voters feel their choices are, and how competitive elections are. Today most legislative races are non-competitive, as are races for Electoral College votes in most states. Talk of a two-party system is a bit misleading, since most Americans live in one-party jurisdictions for any given level of elections. State legislative races are rarely competitive. Indeed since 1996 more than 40% of state legislative elections had only one major party candidate on the ballot -- thus effectively winning with no contest. Most House races are similarly non-competitive, with near 99% re-election rates since 1996 and more incumbents dying in office since 1992 than being defeated at the polls in party primaries.

The Center for Voting and Democracy biennially issues a report entitled Monopoly Politics , in which we make projections of which party will win elections in most congressional districts, over a year before the election, without regards to who the challenger is, the level of fund-raising or the issues in the race. We even predict the margin of victory. Our predictions are nearly perfect, particularly in the majority of races we know will be lopsided. Of the 235 House races last year that we predicted would be won by "landslide" victory margins, all but one indeed was won by such a landslide -- only my former colleague Henry Hyde fell short, winning by 18% in the wake of his role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton angering many Democrats in his safely Republican district. The point is not that we at the Center are so clever, but that the election system is so predictably non-competitive.

The underlying reason is our single-seat, winner-take-all election system. We inherited this voting system from our colonial rulers - the British parliament. Interestingly, within the United Kingdom today there is steady movement away from winner-take-all elections, due to flaws that have led nearly all well-established democracies to use alternatives. Forms of proportional representation were used to elect the newly-established legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London and Britain's representatives to the European Parliament. A commission led by Lord Roy Jenkins has recommended a form of proportional representation for electing the House of Commons itself. The Labour Party has pledged referendum on the question, although its disproportionate share of seats has its leaders hedging. Around the world, all but three democracies -- Canada, Jamaica and the United States -- that have more than two million people and a high human rights rating from Freedom House use proportional representation to elect at least one of their national legislatures.

Proportional representation is a general term that describes voting systems in which like-minded groupings of voters can pool their votes from across a constituency to elect candidates in accordance with their voting strength. A 50.1% electoral majority remains well-positioned to win the majority of seats, but it cannot shut out a substantial political minority. I am not talking about a parliamentary system, with the executive selected by the legislative branch, but rather a reinvigorated presidential system, with a more competitive and hence more fully representative legislature. With proportional systems -- or what, in the American context perhaps could better be known as "full representation" -- many voters gain new power to elect the representation of which they currently are deprived due to their minority status in their area. As American society grows increasingly diverse and communities of concern increasingly develop along non-geographic lines, full representation systems are drawing even more attention. Certainly freeing more voters to define their representation with their votes has fundamental appeal.

Forms of full representation are used in many localities in the United States. Cambridge, Massachusetts uses Ireland's system of choice voting for electing its city council and school board. Amarillo, Texas and more than 50 other Texas localities have moved to cumulative voting in the wake of George W. Bush signing legislation to allow school districts to use cumulative voting. Cumulative voting has been adopted to settle voting rights cases for commission and school board elections in Chilton County, Alabama and city council elections in Peoria, Illinois, hometown of your fellow commissioner and my former colleague Bob Michel. The Illinois Task Force on Political Representation and Alternative Electoral Systems, convened by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and co-chaired by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Congressman, White House counsel and federal judge Abner Mikva, will soon publish a report calling for the return of cumulative voting for electing the state's House of Representatives.

The potential of full representation can be glimpsed through looking at Illinois' experience with cumulative voting. Cumulative voting opens the door to representation of political minorities by allowing a voter to concentrate votes on fewer candidates than seats. Illinois used cumulative voting in three-seat districts from 1870 to 1980. Voters could put three votes on one candidate, one vote on each of three candidates, or some combination in between.

Illinois adopted cumulative voting at the urging of influential newspaper editor and politician Joseph Medill as a means to hold the state together in the wake of the polarization that had emerged in the Civil War, when the southern part of the state leaned toward the Confederacy and the northern part to the Union. More than a century later, it was eliminated as part of a ballot measure that sharply cut in the number of legislators. Thoughtful political leaders and activists from across the political spectrum now support its return, citing less regional polarization, a fuller political spectrum and less partisan rancor. With Democratic strongholds like Chicago electing Republicans and conservative suburbs and rural areas electing Democrats, both major parties had a direct interest in serving the entire state. Former representative Harold Katz described the legislature as "a symphony, with not just two instruments playing, but a number of different instruments going at all times." Recurring themes heard in Illinois include ones that would resonate deeply when applied to concerns about national politics:

1) Filling out the spectrum : In a two-party system, the parties are supposed to be "big tents." But winner-take-all leaves whole sections of the electorate without strong representation -- be they Catholics who are both pro-life and pro-labor, anti-welfare women in favor of gun control, reform- minded independents drawn to John McCain and so on. In contrast, Illinois' districts typically had three representatives from distinct parts of the spectrum: two representing wings of the majority party and one from that area's minority party. Political minorities in office included Chicago Republicans concerned with urban issues and independent reformers like Harold Washington willing to take on local machines. In 1995 the Chicago Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting's return, writing that "it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."

2) Less regional polarization: One-seat districts don't even represent geographic interests well. Nationally, Republicans represent most rural districts, while Democrats represents nearly all urban districts. When only one side represents a region, policy for that area is subject to the whims of the majority party. Cities can suffer under Republicans who so little need urban voters, but also can suffer under Democrats too quick to accept the local status quo. Setting environmental policy in the Rockies is far more problematic when those open to change are shut out of representation. And indeed Democrats and Republicans co-exist everywhere. Bill Clinton won at least 25% of the vote in every House district in 1996, for example, meaning that a Democrat likely could be elected by a full a representation system from every single three-seat district in the nation. Republicans might only be shut out in one or two heavily urban districts -- meaning, for example, that Massachusetts would have three Republican Members of Congress rather than none.

Illinois' legislature today suffers from regional divides, but it was different with cumulative voting. The loss of full representation has undercut bipartisan support for key policies and greatly exacerbated urban/suburban fractures. Chicago has been a big loser in equitable funding of public schools, for example. Abner Mikva, who got his start with full representation, observed it "helped us synthesize some of our differences, made us realize that even though we were different than the downstaters, different than the suburbanites, that we had a lot in common that held us together as a single state."

3) Less partisan rancor : The impeachment of President Bill Clinton was only the most pronounced example of the bitter partisanship that reigns in Washington. Nearly every major legislative initiative seems calculated for political advantage, and perhaps nothing turns the American people away from politics more than the sniping between party leaders. Yet voices of compromise are vanishing, in part because of the growing homogeneity of representation in districts that lean clearly toward one party of the other.

Former Republican Congressman John Porter notes that in Illinois, "We operated in a less partisan environment because both parties represented the entire state." Former state representative Giddy Dyer says that under single-seat districts "It's gamesmanship, how can we beat the other one? Each party views the other one as an enemy. That lack of civility began when we did away with [full representation]."

Cumulative voting also resulted in much better representation of black and women candidates over the course of the century than the winner-take-all state senate elections. It encouraged more grassroots campaigns where money was less of a factor. Full representation plans would not do away with the problems of inequities in campaign finance, but it would give important new opportunities to candidates with strong support among constituency groups that can turn out voters without much cash.

This aspect of full representation is particularly important given that Congress remains overwhelmingly male, and the U.S. Senate has no blacks or Latinos. Several members of your commission are well-versed in voting rights laws. As you know, under current rules, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans only have made significant advances when districts are drawn to turn their typical minority status into a geographic majority. It is not an ironclad relationship between race and candidate preference, but a depressingly powerful one. Yet the Supreme Court has made such districting more difficult.

Full representation plans are particularly promising as an alternative means to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Combining adjoining districts into bigger districts with between three and five representations would be almost certainly increase the number of black-elected US House representatives in such states as Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana -- and avoid costly and divisive legal challenges that have kept some states' plans in court for most of the last decade. Women also would likely increase their numbers -- still stalled below 14% of Congress -- as more women tend to run and win in multi-seat districts.

I know that some of you may think that proportional representation automatically means "instability." We tend to be far better versed in the role of small parties in causing problems in Italy and Israel than in their positive role in the great majority of democracies allowing full representation. We also tend to overlook problems with winner-take-all representation in such nations as Algeria, India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. But note from the examples cited above that full representation need not be a party-based system and that the threshold of representation can be low enough to allow more diverse representation without being so low as to allow small parties to win seats. Given the obvious difficulties we face in representing racial minorities -- it is no accident that the Supreme Court has debated a voting rights case every year for the last decade, with more expected in the years ahead --and given the hardening, geographically-based divisions in Congress, it is time for Congress to lift its 1967 mandate against states considering multi-seat district systems, which is the only barrier to modest systems of full representation. Among those who support providing states with the option to consider full representation systems are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Justice's voting section, former Republican Congressmen Tom Campbell and John Porter and leading Members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses such as James Clyburn, Loretta Sanchez and Melvin Watt.

A commission like yours has been desperately needed for some time. But like the frog sitting in a pot of water with a slowly, but steadily, rising temperature that eventually reaches a boil, our democratic crisis of careless attention to securing the right to vote has developed slowly, such that it has generally escaped notice and comment by the news media and elected officials alike. Our democracy's crisis has become business as usual, and thus hardly newsworthy.

Until Florida. It was the splash of cold water in the face that we needed. The integrity of the mechanisms by which votes are counted, the rules and procedures by which citizens are added or removed from lists and the logistics by which voters are helped or hindered in casting their votes are of course in need of review and reform. But if we stop there we will have squandered a rare opportunity to focus attention on even more fundamental defects in America's election system. Thank you, and I would be happy to make the resources of the Center available to the staff of your commission as you pursue your work.

 
 
 
 
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