E-News Update, February 12, 2000

The year 2000 just may end up being a year to remember for political reformers. Reform-minded major party presidential candidates John McCain and Bill Bradley have run far ahead of last year's expectations, reform voices like Ralph Nader and John Anderson may join the fray as third party candidates and political reform is showing some real life in the states.

Our Center is seeking both to ride this wave and steer it when we can. Representatives of the Center have been on the road a lot in recent weeks, prodding and pushing reform measures and cultivating contacts in every corner of the country. Just today I'm off to Alaska (where I'll make a major speech in Anchorage and have meetings in Juneau), while CVD's Steven Hill is on a panel at Harvard and CVD majority rule project director Caleb Kleppner is trekking through the snows of Vermont a few weeks after an organizing trip to New Mexico. Southern regional director Fred McBride had meetings in three southern states last month, and is busily planning more workshops and meetings as part of our "Full Representation" project with the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy.

It is guaranteed that we will see breakthroughs this year in the United States' inevitable drive toward fairer, more responsive electoral systems -- more on those prospects in the next update. Today I wanted to alert you to a new report we have on the web and share samples of some of the excellent writing and thinking on proportional representation, instant runoff voting and political reform. Following you will find:

  • CVD essay contest: Five more days!
  • Dubious Democracy 1998 -- House Election Report on Web
  • Commentary: Sacramento Bee proposes PR; letters on PR in NY Times and Washington Post; Elian Gonzalez and the electoral college
  • Notable quotes from Jim Nicholson (RNC chair), former Congressman Dan Hamburg and columnists Martin Dyckman and Pam Adams
  • News shorts: PR-activists-turned-candidates; high poll numbers for generic third party House candidates; Feminist Majority Expo
  • Just One More: Proportional Representation at work in Iowa


If you are under 25, could use $1000 and can write a short essay on why young people aren't voting, then you still have time to enter our national essay contest called "Why Don't We Vote." The deadline is February 15, so you must hurry. The contest is open to anyone under 25. For details, please see the Contest page. Note that we may post strong essays that are sent after the deadline, but they will not be eligible the prizes.


The following is from our February 2 news release on our new report "Dubious Democracy: 1998", now on our web site. (Other new items include a stirring speech on reform by CVD president John Anderson.)

The report details measures of voter turnout, electoral competition and representation in all fifty states from 1982-1998. Among its features, the report includes rankings of states in 1998 elections in such areas as voter turnout and average victory margin.... The Center's executive director Rob Richie commented: "This reports details that most Americans, most of the time, experience "no choice" House elections. They live in political monopolies where the talk should be of creating a two-party system, let alone one with viable third parties. With voter turnout shrinking to one of the lowest levels in the world and near our nation's all-time low, it is high time that we ask if these political monopolies should continue." The reports contains attractive charts and tables to present its wide array of statistics. Among revealing statistics presented in the report:

  • The average victory margin in U.S. House races in 1998 was 43% -- meaning winners on average won more than 70% of votes cast in their race. Fewer than one in ten races were won by competitive margins of less than 10%.
  • More than one in five seats -- 94 in all -- were won without competition from a major party. (Although high, note that more than two in five state legislative races were similarly uncontested in 1998.)
  • No incumbent elected before 1994 was defeated in 1998, and 395 of all 401 incumbents were re-elected. More than half (241) of seats are held by incumbents who have won their last two elections by "landslide" margins of least 20% (earning our "untouchable" tag).
  • Fewer than one in three American adults cast a vote in House races in 1998; barely one in five adults voted for the U.S. House member who represents them.

As an indictor of the impact that lack of competition has on voter participation, the report found that voter turnout was 44% in the 43 House races won in 1998 by less than 10% margins, 40% in the 254 races won by between 10% and 50%, and 30% in the 117 races won by more than 50% (there were no votes cast in 21 uncontested House seats).

"Dubious Democracy: 1998" exhaustively catalogues just how non-competitive House elections have been in states around the nation over the past two "cycles" of redistricting, from 1982 to 1990 and from 1992 through the present. The Center constructed its study around redistricting cycles because of its belief that the configuration of districts is the single most powerful factor in who wins and loses legislative elections in a winner-take-all electoral system.

In its state-by-state comparisons, Washington finished first in 1998 in the Center's "Democracy Index"...



The following official editorial ran in the Sacramento Bee (the daily in California's state capital) on January 31st -- it advocates consideration of proportional representation and instant runoff voting.

"HEADLINE: No on Prop. 23;
A reform only a dog could love."

Proposition 23, the "None of the Above" initiative on the March ballot, is a piece of silliness. It treats a serious problem -- citizen disaffection with electoral politics -- in an unserious way. The measure, sponsored by Al Shugart, a computer industry entrepreneur who ran his 120-lb. Bernese mountain dog for Congress in 1996, would require election officials to list "none of the above" as a choice on ballots for each office in state and federal elections in California. Citizens unhappy with the candidates offered by the two major and five minor parties on the California ballot could vote for "none of the above," but the votes would not be binding. The candidate with the most votes would still be elected, no matter how many voters selected "none of the above."

Shugart touts "none of the above" voting as a way to let voters send a message about their frustration; it would thereby, he argues, increase voter participation.

The evidence doesn't back the claim. Nevada, the only state where voters can select "none of the above," has a voter turnout lower than in California; indeed, in 1996, a smaller share of Nevada's registered voters turned out than anywhere else in the country.

Experience and political science research suggest there are voting reforms that actually could help more citizens feel connected and more effective. Proportional representation, used in some form in most democracies, gives voters who prefer policies other than those supported by major parties a better chance to have their voices heard. So does instant runoff voting, in which voters list their candidate preferences in order; this allows citizens to register their support for minor-party candidates without fear of throwing away their votes.

By contrast, Proposition 23's "none of the above" reform is just the kind of a joke you'd expect from a Bernese mountain dog: all bark, no bite and producing an even messier ballot. No on Proposition 23.



Following are two letters by CVD staffers appeared in January in the Washington Post and New York Times. After it a CVD commentary; for more such commentaries, see the commentary  index page. (Note that soon we will add more commentary from non-CVD activists as well!)

"Choices for School Board"
By Eric Olson, CVD Deputy Director
Washington Post, 1/28/00

The D.C. Council rejected an appointed school board [Metro, Jan. 19] and favors reducing the board size to seven, with four elected from wards and two additional members and a president elected at-large. But the questions remain how to elect members that best reflect the community and how to create a system in which the best candidates will run.

In the 1990s, half the ward elections were won with less than a majority. In the case of Sandra Butler-Truesdale's wins, for example, 75 percent of voters cast ballots against her. The absence of a majority requirement means the board may not be truly representative.

Reforms such as instant runoff voting and proportional voting would allow voters more meaningful choices, and prevent people from wasting their vote. Such reforms also give more chances to community leaders to win and make it easier for consensus candidates to perform well, instead of divisive candidates.

"Make It a Real Race to Represent Us"
New York Times, January 7, 2000
By Rob Richie, CVD Executive Director

Thank you for exposing the "dirty little secret" that few House of Representatives races offer real choices (front page, Jan. 3). But the problem runs far deeper than campaign finance and voter complacency.

House elections have been noncompetitive for decades. In 1984-90, 97 percent of incumbents won, and nearly four in five races were won by 20 percentage points or more. State legislative races offer even less choice. This decade, more than one-third of such races have been uncontested.

To have competitive elections, we must stop allowing legislators to choose their constituents by redistricting. We should also consider alternative systems that break up political monopolies -- for example, proportional representation, in which groupings of voters win seats in proportion to their share of the vote.

"Cuban Boy Steamrolled by Electoral College"
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
[Various papers such as Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1/00]

Americans have been touched -- and puzzled -- by the story of the six-year-old Cuban boy who survived a nightmarish ordeal at sea, only to end up caught in the nets of outdated Cold War confrontation in Florida. Polls show a healthy majority support sending Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba, as does the Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Why then isn't Elian already back with his classmates in Havana?

The answer to this question is important, because it illustrates the worst aspects of our peculiar system of electing our president.

The presidency is the only federal office where a candidate can win a majority of the popular vote, but lose the election. Instead, a candidate wins by capturing a majority of Electoral College votes, which are allocated state by state.

The mathematics of it allows a candidate to win the presidency by gaining the most votes in only eleven key states -- the largest states, by population. Our fourth largest state, Florida has 25 electoral votes and will be hotly contested in November.

What's more, Electoral College votes are allocated by a winner-take-all method. Whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state -- even if less than a majority in a three-way race -- wins ALL that state's electoral votes. Events in big, competitive states like Florida are dramatically amplified by this winner-take-all method. If Elian's plight was unfolding in Wyoming, he would be back in Havana. At the same time, our winner-take-all system gives inordinate influence to "swing voters" -- those independent voters who can swing their support to either Democrats or Republicans. In a close race, whichever candidate wins the support of swing voters wins the election.

Florida's contests in recent decades have been notably influenced by a particular group of swing voters: Cuban Americans. They are a cohesive, well-financed and vocal minority that has much greater impact than a group their size typically warrants. If Elian was Haitian he would have been given a one way ticket back to Port-au-Prince, despite the poverty he might experience there.

But Elian is Cuban, and Florida is a big prize. And we have a peculiar winner-take-all method of electing our president that allows this small group of swing voters to circumvent immigration law, defy the Attorney General and grab national headlines.

And so Elian is being courted like a visiting dignitary, given the golden key to Disney World and everything else a child from a poor country could want. If ever he does get back to Cuba, his mouse ears will be the envy of all his classmates.

States have the right to change their winner-take-all method. Instead they could use proportional representation systems like those used to allocate delegates in most states' presidential primaries. With a proportional system, a candidate with 51 percent of the popular vote in a state wins a majority of that state's electoral votes, but not all; the remainder go to other candidates in proportion to their share of the vote.

The effect of such a change would be to downplay the importance of the largest states, and make all states more competitive for electoral votes and more attractive to presidential candidates.

Americans following Elian's story day after day are seeing a child's plight turned into presidential spectacle, heated up like Cold War leftovers. But the next time you see another news report about Elian, reflect on the power of swing voters in our winner-take-all system, particularly with the antiquated Electoral College. If you are the right group of swing voters in the right state, you can bring powerful politicians to their knees.


A Portrait of America telephone survey conducted by Rasmussen Research asked voters to imagine an election where a third party candidate had a legitimate chance of winning. The result: 30% of likely voters say they would vote for a Democrat; 26% for a third party candidate; and, 25% for a Republican. The previous high for third parties in the last five years 17%, was recorded days after the 1998 elections. Among men, the generic third party had more support than either Republicans or Democrats (31% third party, 28% Democrat, 25% Republican). Republicans finish behind both third party candidates and Democrats in all age groups under age 65. Third party candidates are the top choice of those between 40 and 64. Democrats and Third Party candidates draw roughly equal support from the under 40 crowd. For details, see Portrait of America.

Of course the key question is which third party might gain votes. That's where proportional representation and instant runoff voting are particularly important.


The "drive to revive" cumulative voting in Illinois will hold a "fund-raising, energy-building dinner" on March 4 in Chicago, with former Illinois Congressmen Abner Mikva and John Anderson. On March 6, the Illinois House of Representatives will hold its first hearing on state representative Sara Feigenholtz's amendment to restore cumulative voting. Along with the Midwest Democracy Center, our Center is a co-producer of a new video documentary on cumulative voting in Illinois; the video is a near-final draft, with insightful interviews that show the breadth and depth of support for restoring the semi-PR system in Illinois. For information on Illinois, visit: www.midwestdemocracy.org


On March 31 - April 2, 2000, in Baltimore, the Feminist Majority will hold Feminist Expo 2000. More than 6,000 feminists, over 310 national organizational and campus co-sponsors and 65 international delegations are participating. Several panels, including possibly a major plenary session, will feature proportional representation. For information, see: http://www.feminist.org/expo2000/expo2000.html.


"Rotating regional primaries, where the states in a given region would hold their primaries within a specific 30-day window, might stretch out the process again. And offering incentives for states to choose delegates by proportional representation instead of on a winner-take-all basis might let some second-place finishers stay in the race."

- Jim Nicholson, Washington Post commentary on Dec. 19, 1999, about the possibility of joining Democrats in requiring PR for allocating convention delegates in primaries and caucuses


"Can you imagine the public outcry if the government told us we could only choose between two types of soap powder? Two kinds of cereal? Two brands of automobile? Two cuts of meat? As we march into a new millennium, in a time fraught with danger about issues as basic as the survival of our species, how about opening up a few new stalls in the marketplace of political ideas?

"Instant runoff voting (IRV) would encourage people to vote their true preference without sacrificing the opportunity to influence the actual result of the election... With Green leadership, a proposal for IRV was recently introduced by San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. Proportional representation in multi-member districts would give Americans the same degree of choice at the ballot box that is already enjoyed by much of the rest of the world."

- Dan Hamburg, California Congressman from 1993- 1995 and executive director of Voice of the Environment, wrote this column for the Santa Monica Mirror (CA)


"Public opinion polls show a majority favors moving the [confederate flag from the statehouse in South Carolina]. It's the Legislature -- or more specifically, the House -- that's the problem. How legislators are elected seems to be at the root of that problem. Minorities are electing more of their own but aren't winning the policy objectives that ought to be the ultimate results of their newfound voting rights....

"Any of several proportional voting models, applied in multiseat districts, could enable black voters to elect at least as many black legislators even as they increase their influence with white lawmakers.... U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina's only black member of Congress, has expressed an interest in proportional representation. There is interest, but no commitment so far, among black state legislators as well."

- Martin Dyckman, in St. Petersburg Times, 1/25/00


"Quiet as kept, the real stunner in last April's election for at-large seats on Peoria's City Council wasn't Leonard Unes' loss or Gary Sandberg's win. Incumbents have gotten beaten before. Candidates unpopular with mainstream leaders have gotten elected before. The real surprise was incumbent Eric Turner's first-place finish in an election where incumbents generally didn't make impressive showings. "Turner, one of two blacks in a field of nine candidates, is a bona fide first. It happened for many reasons, but cumulative voting is one of them. Never before has a black candidate come in first in Peoria's citywide, at-large election."

- Pam Adams,in January 12, 2000 column for the Peoria Journal-Star, on cumulative voting at work in Peoria.


"It has been eight years since the "Year of the Woman" nearly doubled the number of women in Congress. But it has been slim pickings ever since.

"A recent study found that the United States ranks 43rd in the world in its percentage of women elected to its national legislature. Currently, women hold only 12 percent of Congress, a lower percentage than such nations as Mexico, South Africa or Seychelles. In 1998, fewer than half of our states elected women to the House of Representatives...."

- Start of a widely-published op-ed by Rob Richie and Steven Hill that appears on our web site at: www.fairvote.org



Turnout in Iowa's caucuses last month was down sharply from recent contested caucuses. Turnout was much higher in New Hampshire, but very low in votes in Alaska and Delaware. Stay tuned on the turnout front.

At least both parties in Iowa, like New Hampshire, use proportional representation to allocate delegates. Here are excerpts from an article on Iowa that nicely lays out the value of PR. Imagine this story if one side was going to win all of the delegates.....

A Precinct's Democrats Pack Pews to Defy Polls
By Mike Allen, Washington Post, January 25, 2000

Iowa's caucuses, often called democracy's strangest ritual, tend to attract only committed party members because of their complexity and because they last several hours. Voters divide into groups according to the candidates they support, and then they have a chance to lobby the other members and try to woo them into switching sides. When it came time to be counted, Gore supporters were sent pulpit left, Bradley supporters went pulpit right, uncommitted were in the middle set of pews and "other" was supposed to go to the back. The Bradley crowd filled 15 pews, while the Gore supporters spread over just 12. One by one, they counted off as if they were in gym class. Bradley's precinct organizer, Dale Chell, shouted out the last number--105--and pumped his fist as the young crowd whooped at their winning count.

By comparison, the Gore group practically whispered its count, which ended at 55. Now it was time for horse trading--a chance for each side to lure the other.... In a very unusual result for an Iowa caucus, no one switched. "You look pretty set," said the chair, Tomlonovic. And so it was: five delegates for Bradley, and three for Gore.