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The 2002 Elections
and the Case for Reform

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
November 8, 2002

Under-representation of Women and Minorities
Amidst the Noise, Little Competition
The Voters Again Largely Abstain
No Significant Gains for Third Parties
More Evidence of Value of Instant Runoff Voting


This year's elections may well have a momentous impact on federal policy in the next two years, with Republicans having gained secure control of both branches of Congress and the White House for the first time in half a century. But they also underscore the need for fundamental reform of our political system.

Let us count the ways. Voter turnout rose, but again was abysmally low in most states, falling below 40% of all voting age Americans despite national congressional elections and numerous competitive gubernatorial races. Most legislative races lacked any meaningful competition, with with only four U.S. House incumbents losing to non-incumbent challengers in their severely gerrymandered districts. Minor parties again made no significant gains, and the major parties will control all 50 governor's mansions for the first time in more than a decade. Women and minorities remain severely under-represented, with this year's status quo election for their representation standing in stark contrast to the 1992 surge in women and racial minorities after the last round of legislative redistricting. Compared to 1994, there in fact are two fewer African-Americans in Congress than there were in 1994 and fewer states with women in their U.S. House delegations.

Much of the information below was culled from election returns as of Wednesday morning, with some races still undecided. Nevertheless, the trends are clear and unmistakable.

Under-representation of Women and Minorities

The number of women in Congress will remain exactly the same -- stuck at a mere 14 percent of U.S. House seats, in stark contrast to nations electing their legislatures by proportional representation. (After this fall's elections, for example, women hold 44 percent of the seats in Sweden and 32 percent in Germany). In U.S. House elections, women picked up some open seats, but were disproportionately represented among losing incumbents, and ultimately the new House will have three more Republican women and three fewer Democratic women. Liddy Dole's win in the Senate race in North Carolina balanced Jean Carnahan's defeat in Missouri.

After much hullabaloo about female candidates potentially winning governor's races, women only increased their share of governor's mansions by one, up to six. Women lost competitive gubernatorial races in Alaska, Massachusetts, Maryland and Rhode Island, but did win in Kansas (a Democrat), Michigan (Democrat), Hawaii (Republican) and Arizona (where Democrat Janet Napolitano apparently has won with full public financing).

The number of African Americans in the U.S. House also will remain the same. Republican incumbent J.C. Watts retired, and Democrats picked up one new African American Member in Georgia. Importantly, a black Democratic nominee lost an open seat in Georgia even though the district partisanship in that district was strongly Democratic. Race still matters, as the district is about 60% white, further proof that the key factor in minority representation is the ability to create an electoral threshold where minority voters can participate in enough numbers to elect their candidate. Traditionally accomplished by drawing a "minority opportunity" district with enough minorities to elect their candidate of choice, the growing dispersion of racial minorities in much of the country is pointing the value of proportional representation systems in which minority voters of all sorts are more likely to be able to cast an effective vote.

With Democrats Ron Kirk losing in the Texas U.S. Senate race and Carl McCall in the New York governor's race, African-Americans continue to be shut out in the Senate and governor's mansions. Bill Richardson won in New Mexico, giving us the first Latino governor in several years, but there are still no Latinos in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate does not have a single African American or Latino despite those groups making up a quarter of our population.

Amidst the Noise, Little Competition

While the headlines screamed loudly about the race to win control of the Congress and huge money poured into those races that were close, most legislative races in fact were completely noncompetitive. Our Center for Voting and Democracy's pre-election projections of who would win and lose more than 75% of U.S. House races held up with a perfect score -- the same model projected 929 of 930 winners accurately in 1996-2000. We already can issue our projections for the November 2004 elections (yes, that's right -- the elections two years from now) in more than 350 House races with the same degree of confidence. See our Monopoly Politics 2004 Projections .

We can confidently make these projections without knowing anything about the quality of the candidates and inequities in campaign finance because we use "winner-take-all" elections in districts that generally tilt clearly toward one party or the other. This lean is no accident, as state after state enacted incumbent protection plans in redistricting over the past year. With only a few exceptions, incumbents and party leaders gerrymandered districts to guarantee the reelection of incumbents, as well as the over-representation of whatever party controlled the redistricting process in their state. In California, the Democratic Party incumbents actually paid "protection money" in the amount of $20,000 apiece to have their legislative districts drawn to guarantee them a safe seat, an audacious example of political "insider trading."

Thus, the U.S. House was very much a status quo election, with Republicans increasing their majority by only a few seats even though they beat the Democrats by 6% in the national two-party vote. Four incumbents lost to other incumbents in races where they were thrown together by redistricting, but overall 98% of incumbents were returned to office, with no advantage for either side.

The reason it was so difficult for either party to make significant gains was that were so few seats up for grabs. Typically, after the decennial redistricting, one would expect 100 or more out of 435 seats to be competitive; instead, this time around there were some 40 competitive races, and that number will likely decline throughout the decade as new incumbents solidify their hold over their districts. That will mean a Republican majority in the House for several more election cycles unless Democrats can break out of the current partisan balance and win a healthy majority of the national popular vote in House races.

The Voters Again Largely Abstain

Voter turnout in the 2002 elections is estimated to be about 39 percent of voting age adults. Even though higher than the 1998 midterm elections, that's the lowest voter turnout in the established democratic world for elections of a national legislature. With "incumbent protection plans" prevailing across the land and the parties too often attempting to obscure their differences in close races, voters were left with what they perceived as no-choice elections.

While we have a two-party system, the frame of reference of most voters is of a one party system -- the party that dominates their district or even their state. In monopoly politics states like Massachusetts and Nebraska, only one party won representation in their U.S. House delegation, as if there were no other political parties in the state. Moreover, because most of these districts are so lopsided, there really aren't even campaigns in many districts to engage voters and turn them out to vote. Consequently, voter turnout remains a flat line on the oscilloscope.

Two measures designed to increase turnout were defeated. Election day registration ballot measures were voted down in California and Colorado in amidst poorly informed discussion about their impact on a secure election process. Even as they lost, the nation's highest voter turnout again was recorded by Minnesota, one of six states with election day registration.

No Significant Gains for Third Parties

Third parties won eight state legislative seats this year, which was the most since 1942, but that makes only a small dent in the more than 7000 state legislative seats and hundreds of executive seats in states across the U.S. Democrats and Republicans secured all 50 governor's mansions for the first time since 1990.

Vermont's Progressive Party maintained four legislative seats, winning one outside of Burlington for the first time in its history, but its strong candidate for lieutenant governor Anthony Pollina finished third after polling higher earlier in the year. In Minnesota, Independence Party candidate (and former Democratic congressman) Tim Penny lost in the gubernatorial race after polling close to the lead all year, although one Independence Party incumbent held on after converting from the Republican party. Greens lost major party ballot status in states such as New York, but a Green state legislative candidate did win a significant victory in Maine, no doubt helped by Maine's Clean Money/ public financing law. Greens also won local races, including taking a city council seat in Providence and an at-large school board race in San Francisco for a nonpartisan position. The two other third party state legislative wins were in Alaska (a Republican Moderate candidate) and New York (a Working Families Party candidate who also won the Democratic nomination under New York's fusion system). Tom Golisano, the Independence Party candidate for governor in New York, won nearly 10% of the vote, although he spent more than $50 million in his campaign.

The "winner take all" electoral system continues to be a tremendous barrier to third party participation and representation, and voters desiring choice outside of the two major parties -- particularly young voters -- will be frustrated without changes to our winner-take-all electoral system.

More Evidence of Value of Instant Runoff Voting

Finally, several results from the election bolster the case for instant runoff voting (IRV), the ranked choice system adopted by voters in San Francisco for their next city elections in 2003.

  • In Vermont's governor's and lieutenant governor's races, no candidate won a majority of the vote. According to Vermont's constitution, the state legislature now will pick the winner in a secret ballot. This had the potential for all sorts of backroom shenanigans, but the losing Democratic Party candidates decided to concede defeat rather than press their case -- even though at least one of them likely was the true majority winner who lost only due to split votes with independent and third party candidates. These results will provide more steam to the state's strong movement for instant runoff voting, which was endorsed by over 50 Vermont towns in separate referendums last March, as well as by outgoing governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, the Secretary of State and the state's AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters, PIRG, Grange and Common Cause.
  • In Louisiana's U.S. Senate race and in one U.S. House race, no candidate won a majority the vote, and now the top two finishers advance to a traditional, two-round runoff election to decide the winner in early December. Just imagine the huge amounts of money -- and restless partisan activists -- that will pour into the state over the coming weeks. With the Senate so closely divided, the state emerges as one where the Republicans can either pad their slim majority or the Democrats can narrow it to just 51-49. Thus, this runoff election has the potential for a real Florida circus scenario. If Louisiana had used instant runoff voting -- which they already use for their military overseas ballots because there often is not enough time to mail overseas a second ballot and receive it back by the runoff -- the election would be over and Louisianans and the entire nation would be spared yet another divisive and money-fed slugfest.
  • Hawaii's second congressional district was won by Democrat Patsy Mink despite her death several weeks ago. Now the state will hold two "free-for-all" special elections: one to decide who will serve the remaining weeks of her current term, the second in January to decide who will serve until 2005. Both races will be single rounds of voting, with large numbers of candidates. Unlike in Louisiana, there will be no runoff, meaning that the winners may have a very low share of the vote -- and easily could be unreflective of the partisan leanings of the district. Instant runoff voting would be the obvious solution for such special elections that must be conducted quickly.
  • There were several gubernatorial races with non-majority winners. When a candidate wins with fewer than a 50 percent majority of the vote, you cannot really be sure that this candidate was preferred by the most voters in that race. For instance, besides the Vermont governor and lieutenant governor's races, Democrats won the Wisconsin governor's race 45% to 41%, with 11% of the vote going to Libertarian Ed Thompson. The Oregon gubernatorial race was won by the slimmest of margins, with both candidates well under 50%. In Oklahoma, Republican (and former pro football player) Steve Largent has lost narrowly, with 14% going to an independent. In Arizona, the Democrat won 45% to 45%, with 7% going to an independent (a former Democrat) and 2% to a Libertarian. In California, incumbent Democrat Gray Davis spent $68 million on re-election yet received only 47% of the vote as many Democrats were not pleased with the pall of corruption and incompetence that hung over Davis. Green Party candidate Peter Camejo benefitted from this, picking up 5%.
  • In Senate races, winners apparently have less than half the votes in Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota. In House races, at least two key open seats were won by plurality (less than a majority), including District 1 in Arizona and District 7 in Colorado, where the candidates are nearly tied and the Green, Libertarian and Reform candidates each won about 2%. Florida Democrat Karen Thurman lost by four thousand votes, far fewer than the 12,000 votes cast for two independent candidates.

It's high time to adopt instant runoff voting more widely to allow multiple candidates to run, yet not end up with distorted results and non-majority winners and systems of proportional representation that would more fully, fairly represent and engage the American electorate.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie is executive director of the Center. Visit the Center's website to view projections for the 2004 U.S. House races.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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