Year End Review
From John Anderson, President of the Center for Voting and Democracy
The 1996 elections left little doubt of the democratic bankruptcy of our current winner-take-all voting system. Failures in two acid tests of democracy -- majority participation and majority rule -- were particularly obvious. Voter turnout dropped below 50% of the adult population for the first time in seven decades, and a majority of voters -- despite their artificially limited choices -- voted against Bill Clinton's successful re-election campaign for president and against Republicans' successful effort to maintain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
One-sided congressional races again were the norm. Nineteen out of every 20 House incumbents won re-election, up from the aberration of "only" 91% in 1994. Over half of House seats were won by incumbents who won both their 1994 and 1996 elections by easy landslide victories (over 20% victory margins). We can expect this number of "untouchable" incumbents to climb even higher in 1998. Knowing who was going to win these races, campaign contributors dished out record-high dollars to the sure winners, cynically buying access to influence legislation in the new Congress.
State legislative elections were even less competitive -- particularly ironic given the lofty rhetoric from both parties about giving more power to states because of their greater proximity to voters. A third of state legislative races were uncontested by one of the two major parties. Most other races were contested in name only; in New York state, for example, only nine out of 211 state legislative elections were decided by less than 10% victory margins.
Minority opinions once again were big losers. In states with one strong party, supporters of the second biggest party too often were denied representation. Most flagrantly, Republican candidates in Massachusetts won roughly a third of votes cast, yet all of the state's 12 congressional representatives are Democrats. U.S. House delegations in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are all Republican despite Democratic candidates averaging 37% of the vote in these states' 13 districts. And everywhere, all those living in the hundreds of districts that are "safe" for either a Republican or Democract will have little reason to vote in 1998.
Third party candidates, of course, fared far worse. Despite broad support for smaller parties participating in elections and debates, 49 of 50 states have no third party representatives in their state legislatures or Congressional delegations -- such national parties as the Greens, Libertarians, U.S. Taxpayers, New Party and Natural Law did not elect a single candidate to fill one of the seven thousand-odd state legislative seats around the nation. After his 19% of votes cast in the 1992 presidential race won no electoral votes, Reform Party nominee Ross Perot's share of the vote this year fell by more than half -- many potential supporters almost certainly just stayed at home, which is what more than a third of those who voted for Perot would have done if he not on the ballot.
Women and minorities continue to be dramatically under- represented. Only one of 100 U.S. Senators is black or Latino, the number of blacks in Congress decreased for the first time in more than a decade and there are no black or Latino governors. Women hold only nine U.S. Senate seats and two governorships. Women have increased their share of U.S. House seats only from 47 (11%) in 1992 to 51 (12%) in 1996 despite 163 new Members being elected during that period.
Apologists for our system will argue that all of these signs of citizen dissatisfaction, limited voter choice and distorted representation are unimportant because the United States remains the world's most powerful nation. But a strong argument can be made that the United States succeeds in spite of winner-take-all elections, not because of them.
Campaign debate too often is brutish, narrow, shallow, and unconnected to governance. Learning their lessons well, Democrats demonized and distorted Republican attempts to reform Medicare nearly as successfully as Republicans in 1994 demonized and distorted Democratic attempts to reform health care policy. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole twisted each other's records on "wedge issues" -- as Dole frankly called affirmative action and immigration policy -- but left unchallenged their shared views on major issues that deserve debate such as expanding free trade, balancing the budget, increasing military spending and maintaining Social Security.
Governance in fact too often has little connection to campaign debate. Specific promises can be easily broken, vague promises can be defined as kept only by their very vagueness. American society goes on, of course, with the clashing machinery of our separated powers churning out the least unacceptable policies from the ongoing two-party coalition that we politely call "divided government." But its strength may not continue to survive such tepid campaign dialogue, exclusion of representation of principled minority opinion and "zero sum" governance where the two parties too often act on policy more for political positioning than practical problem-solving.
That's why our work is so important. Despite a small budget that allows us only one paid staff member, the Center once again had a remarkable track record this year. For example:
* Two Bills in Congress: Rep. McKinney's Voters' Choice Act to restore states' opportunities to use PR was the result of ongoing consultation with the Center. Rep. Pat Williams' bill to create a commission on PR was an indirect result of three commentaries that I and CV&D Vice-President Matthew Cossolotto wrote for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call on the need for this commission.
* A Strong City Campaign: Tireless efforts by our West Coast Director Steven Hill led to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors placing the choice voting system of PR on its November ballot. The resulting campaign -- with the support of many CV&D members -- fell short 56%-44%. The first win for PR will be the hardest, and I was encouraged by PR garnering so many votes in such a short campaign and by obtaining a near sweep of key endorsements. We certainly will see more city campaigns in the coming two years, largely sparked by CV&D supporters and aided by some of the materials -- including an excellent new video -- that the Center produced for city campaigns.
* Media Coverage: The Center's news conference on our Dubious Democracy report and uncompetitive congressional races ran four times on C-SPAN, while our Executive Director Rob Richie appeared three times on MSNBC. Widely- syndicated columnists William Raspberry and Clarence Page wrote commentaries supporting PR and citing the Center, while many news articles quoted the Center and discussed PR. Rob met with the editorial boards of the Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. I attended the Tribune meeting, and was pleased to see that a Tribune columnist since then has advocated PR for electing Congress and the Chicago city council.
* Articles: Rob Richie, Steven Hill and I once again were quite successful in publishing articles, with three commentaries in the Christian Science Monitor, two letters each in the New York Times and Washington Post, two commentaries in Roll Call and commentaries in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Nation, In These Times, Washington Times, Humanist and Houston Chronicle. A speech by Matthew Cossolotto on PR and Europe was reprinted in full in Vital Speeches.
* Outreach: The Center steadily reaches out to organizations and individuals who will help promote PR -- efforts that definitely have an impact. After such outreach, for example, such leading figures as Jesse Jackson, the Reform Party's Russell Verney and Ralph Nader spoke publicly in favor of PR this year. The Center's booth at the convention of the American Political Science Association (whose president this year was CV&D Advisory Committee member Arend Lijphart) helped us meet hundreds of professors. CV&D chair Ed Still spoke to organizations of black political scientists and black state legislators. And many CV&D members around the nation sparked activity and debate on PR in ways too numerous to mention -- calls for change are definitely gathering steam.
Thank you for having me as your president, and my thanks to you for your work in building this fine organization. I welcome your comments, and look forward to working with you in 1997.
From the Desk of John Anderson
As I stood beside Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney this week at a Supreme Court news conference to support her call for proportional representation election systems for Congress, I was struck by how far the movement for "PR" has come since we first raised a lonely voice for PR in 1992. Your support and the support of individuals like you have made it all possible: the Center literally could not survive without the support of our loyal members.
This year was another memorable year for the Center and a disturbing one for our democracy. My enclosed memo to fellow Board members recounts a few of the Center's most important accomplishments and reviews America's "democratic deficit" -- a deficit that can't be balanced without our continued efforts to promote a vibrant, vital and representative democracy in which votes count, ideas matter and policy truly flows from the people.
With my memo is a short questionnaire. We have great opportunities to move our ideas forward in 1997, but given our limited resources, we must set clear priorities. Your help in setting these priorities and shaping our message is extremely important.
As we leave 1996, we must reflect on what was the year's most important election for many PR advocates: the vote on the choice voting form of PR in San Francisco. Despite a glowing endorsement from the San Francisco Examiner, the support of Mayor Willie Brown and a near sweep of key organizational endorsements, choice voting lost 56% to 44%.
We have much to learn from San Francisco. It is not enough to convince leaders. We need to spark a national conversation on PR in the United States. With the Voters' Choice Act in Congress, with Rep. Pat Williams' effort to form a national commission to study PR and with the growing interest of local and national affiliates of organizations like the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Rainbow Coalition and the Reform Party, we indeed are creating opportunities for this national conversation. But we must redouble our efforts.
We need more articles, more radio and TV appearances, more outreach meetings, more grassroots activism. Our talented staff and volunteers must respond quickly to opportunities to connect issues of the day with the need for PR. And we must focus attention on the problems of winner-take-all elections. They are fundamentally undemocratic. It is wrong when 51% of voters earn 100% of representation. It is scandalous that so many legislative elections are uncompetitive. It is absurd to make where you live more important than what you think
We also must discuss other over-looked reforms that speak to our goals of fair representation, high voter turnout and competitive elections. It will strengthen our mission for the Center to encourage more choices in elections to single winner offices, to expose political gerrymandering and to explore voting methods that increase participation.
But today we need your continued support -- to give more than before, if possible, as demands on the Center are increasingly great. To help us carry out the ambitious agenda I have summarized here, please send us a contribution -- and your questionnaire. Thank you!
With my best wishes,