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10 Surprising Stories About Election ‘08

FairVote’s Election Analyses & Prescriptions for the Future
Dear Friend of Fair Elections,

We thought we’d share our view of this historic election through ten surprising stories about Election ’08. They are:
  • Electoral Reform on the Ballot – New Victories and Implementations for Instant Runoff Voting
  • The 2008 Spoiler Effect – Key Non-Majority Winners (and non-winners)
  • Closer Than You Think – How Sen. McCain Could Have Won While Losing by Seven Million Votes
  • The Electoral College Swing State Map Grew Smaller, Not Larger – The Real Presidential Partisan Geography
  • Dubious Democracy – The Power of Incumbency Lives On in No-Choice House Races
  • Diversity Stalls – Stagnant Representation of Women and People of Color
  • Voter Turnout and Swing States – Why Turnout Dropped in Many States:
  • Winner-Take-All in the Northeast – A New Era of Democratic Domination
  • Cleansing Republicans from Democratic-Leaning Districts – Why The Roots of Polarization in Congress Lie in Voters and Winner-Take-All Rules
  • Democrats Winning Control of the Process – Their Near-Sweep of Secretary of State Races
As always, FairVote could use your support with volunteer energy and donations (both directly and through the Combined Federal Campaign -- our CFC number is 10132).

Thank you!

Rob Richie
Executive Director

1. Electoral Reform on the Ballot – New Victories and Implementations for Instant Runoff Voting:

This November’s ballot measures showed that Americans are ready to transform our politics. Landslide majorities voted for spoiler-free, majority elections through instant runoff voting (IRV) in Memphis, Tennessee (71% - see www.yesonfive.org) and Telluride, Colorado (67%), which extends a nearly unbroken string of wins for IRV in ballot measures since 2002. Meanwhile, an opportunity to win the ranked choice form of proportional representation lost in Cincinnati (see www.eightisgreat.org) after a late infusion of opposition money and deceptive advertising dropped the majority support won among early voters down to 47%. Other FairVote-endorsed reforms won with more than 70% of the vote in Maryland (for early voting) and Connecticut (for 17-year-old primary voting), while redistricting reform won in California.

Instant runoff voting had a terrific first election in Pierce County, Washington, accommodating a full range of voter choice in a high-turnout general election. If early returns hold up, the system will elect the first women county executive in the state’s history, with her victory dependent on the preferences of the third and fourth place candidates that vaulted her from second into first. San Francisco also held its fifth set of IRV elections; local press lauded the impact it had in reducing the degree of negative attacks that too often dominate our politics.

Stay tuned for major reforms in the coming year that we expect can be won in legislatures and on the ballot. The nation had learned a lot about why we need to care about electoral rules and mechanics. Now is the time for action.

2. The 2008 Spoiler Effect – Key Non-Majority Winners (and non-winners):

Speaking of instant runoff voting, despite the decisive and incontestable victory of, the spoiler problem again showed the need for IRV. Minor party candidacies had a major impact on several races:
  • Even with Barack Obama’s strong national numbers and the low vote totals for minor party and independent presidential candidates, electoral votes in three states and one congressional district were won over the opposition of most voters in that jurisdiction. Obama’s 49.9% of the vote in Indiana defeated John McCain by a margin less than Libertarian Bob Barr’s 1.1%. Obama won North Carolina with 49.7% of the vote (Barr won 0.59%), while McCain carried Missouri with only 49.4% of the votes (where Obama won 49.2 % and Ralph Nader 0.6%). Obama also looks likely to pick up an electoral vote by taking Nebraska’s second congressional district with less than 50%.

  • Nine U.S. House seats were elected with less (and sometimes far less) than a majority of the vote, including Ohio’s Second district that was won with only 45%.

  • The Senate had several non-majority results. In Oregon, Democrat Jeff Merkley will win narrowly with less than 49% of the vote, while Republican Ted Stevens looks likely to be re-elected in Alaska with a similar vote-share. In Minnesota, where fully 14 of the last 20 statewide races have been won with less than 50%, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley won 437,377 votes (15%) and two other candidates won more than 20,000 votes in an election in which incumbent Republican Norm Coleman leads his Democratic challenger Al Franken by merely 326 votes – they are now going to a recount. IRV would have given the backers of Barkley and the other third party candidates a way in choosing between the frontrunners, both of whom won less than 42% of the vote.

    Meanwhile, Georgia requires its Members of Congress to win a majority of the vote, and incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss leads with 49.8% in a race where Libertarian Allen Buckley won 3.1%. Chambliss will face Democrat Jim Martin in a December 2nd runoff. Turnout is sure to plunge from Georgia’s record participation this week, and the candidates and their backers will spend millions. IRV would have given us a clean winner on election night.

3. Closer Than You Think – How McCain Could Have Won While Losing by Seven Million Votes:

Barack Obama apparently has won 365 electoral votes (if he picks up Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district), which is 95 votes more than needed to win. He also has won a comfortable majority of the national popular vote, defeating John McCain by more than seven million votes. But remarkably a shift of less one-third of a percent of all votes cast would have elected McCain.

Thanks to the current Electoral College system, our President is elected through 56 separate contests (50 states, five congressional districts and the District of Columbia), rather than a single nationwide contest. A shift of fewer than 398,615 votes in seven states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Colorado, and New Hampshire) would have given Sen. McCain a majority of 273 electoral votes.

Indeed, in five of the last 12 elections, relatively small shifts of votes would have elected the second-place winner. In 1976, for example, shifts of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio would have resulted in a win for Gerald Ford despite Jimmy Carter’s 1.7 million national lead. Similarly, in 2004, a shift of 59,393 votes in Ohio would have nullified President Bush’s 3.5 million-vote lead nationwide and elected John Kerry.

4. The Electoral College Swing State Map Grew Smaller, Not Larger – The Real Presidential Partisan Geography:

Despite many pundits’ claims that the Electoral College map has been redrawn, this election in fact reduced the number of swing states in a nationally even year. A state is only a true swing state when it has a real chance to decide the election. This year, Barack Obama won by 6% nationally, allowing him to win states like North Carolina and Indiana that he didn’t need to win – and that he would not have won in a nationally even contest this year.

The biggest changes in the underyling partisanship of states have been states moving further into the non-competitive realm, with the number of competitive states (partisanship between 47% and 53%) dwindling. By our partisan measures that are remarkably accurate predictors of likely swing states four years before an election, only 11 states are now likely to be competitive in a 50-50 year in 2012, down from 13 after 2004,16 after 2000 and 33 after 1976. Of the 13 states with the most competitive partisanship, 11 are repeats from 2004, with Indiana and North Carolina moving into competitive range and Michigan and New Mexico shifting to a pronounced Democratic tilt. The great majority of states did not shift their partisanship definition by more than 3%; the biggest movers were two non-swing states, Hawaii (moving decidedly toward Democrats and their home state candidate Obama) and Arkansas (moving sharply toward Republicans)

Look for FairVote’s updated Presidential Election Inequality report to come out by early next year. We will also use information from our Presidential Candidate Tracker (www.fairvote.org/tracker) that showed that the candidates held 99% of their campaign events in 17 states.

5. Making History (or not) - Stagnant Representation of Women and People of Color:

In this year’s presidential election, the candidacies of African American Barack Obama, Latino Bill Richardson and women Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin captured the imagination of millions of Americans. Sen. Obama of course became the first person of color ever elected president. But that excitement did not translate into notable gains for diversity in congressional and gubernatorial races:
  • African Americans if the Illinois governor does not select an African American to replace Obama. Two women won (Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire), but there is only a net gain for women of only one seat, making the Senate 83% male.
  • In the House, there was a net gain of only two women – notching women up 0.5% to 16.5%. There were no gains for African Americans and an increase of one Latino, with Ben Lujan’s victory in New Mexico.
  • Women defeated men in the two close gubernatorial elections, but there was no net gain for women in governor’s mansions.
  • Women did win a remarkable seven statewide offices in North Carolina, while, according to the invaluable analysts at the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://ncsl.typepad.com/the_thicket) the New Hampshire state senate became the first woman-majority state legislative chamber in our nation’s history. On the other hand, the South Carolina state senate became the first legislative chamber to not have a single woman representative since 1991, and the share of women in state legislatures stayed flat at 23.7% -- less than 3% higher than it was in 1993.

6. Dubious Democracy – The Power of Incumbency Lives On in No-Choice House Races

FairVote’s Dubious Democracy and Monopoly Politics series of reports on congressional elections have played a key role in generating public awareness of the appalling lack of meaningful voter choice in U.S. House races and how partisan imbalance in districts is the key role in determining most winners. This year again showed the overwhelming power of incumbency, with only a handful of incumbent defeats despite “change” being this year’s campaign mantra. Most incumbents won overwhelming victories, with the average victory margin again sure to top 30% and be far beyond the impact of potential changes in redistricting practices or campaign finance laws. Indeed only one reform would give every voter a meaningful choice in House races in every election: replacing winner-take-all elections with a form of proportional representation, as has become the international norm.

As one measure of the frozen nature of U.S. House races, our Monopoly Politics model allows us to project winners in the great majority of upcoming U.S. House races as soon as we know the presidential and congressional results in each district in the previous election--- with our projections only modified by whether a seat becomes open and by what is projected to be the national two-party partisan division. This year our model projected 157 Members who were not expected to face serious challenges in either a strongly Republican year (55% Republican) or strongly Democratic year (55% Democratic). All of these Members indeed were re-elected, and only 11 did not win by landslides of at least 20%.

7. Voter Turnout and the Swing State Effect – Why Turnout Dropped in Many States:

For years, pundits have argued that young people don't make a difference in elections, but sure wasn’t true in 2008. The organization CIRCLE (www.civicyouth.org) estimates that young people made up a sixth of voters on Tuesday, with somewhere between 22 and 24 million voting – at least a 2.2 million increase from 2004.

This election had the highest overall voter turnout in an American election since at least 1964 -- with a lowball estimate of 62.6%, with ballots still being counted. But our turnout will still be lower than most other well-established democracies, and even that overall rise can be misleading. According to preliminary data, nearly a third of our states (16) experienced a decline in turnout this year. Fourteen of these states were ignored in the presidential race as non-battlegrounds; the only battlegrounds with lower turnout are Pennsylvania and New Mexico. These results are consistent with CIRCLE’s findings in 2004, when eligible voters under 30 were a third more likely to vote in the ten closest states than in the rest of the nation.

This fall, FairVote conducted field research throughout Maryland to determine the most effective tactics to increase youth participating. Results will be released this winter, but in the meantime you can find more information about FairVote's student voting curriculum at fairvote.org/learningdemocracy. To find complete turnout information for 2008, visit George Mason University Professor Michael McDonald's website (elections.gmu.edu).

8. Winner-Take-All in the Northeast – A New Era of Democratic Domination:

In the last dozen years, Democrats have won sweeping victories in the Northeast, with the region’s Republican Party now on life-support. After the1992 elections, Republicans in New England and New York collectively held 20 of 54 U.S. House seats and held at least one House or Senate seat in every state. The intervening years for Republicans in the region have been devastating, especially in 2006 and 2008. New England’s last Republican House member, Chris Shays of Connecticut, was defeated this week, and Republicans now hold only 3 of 29 seats in New York and no Senate or House seats in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The shift has affected down ballot races as well, in both New England and broader swathes of the Northeast. In 2006 Democrats took control of both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature, and this year took control of the New York Senate for the first time in four decades, gained monopoly control in Delaware and greatly expanded their margins in state legislatures throughout the region.

9. Cleansing Republicans from Democratic House Districts – The Roots of Polarization in Congress Lie in Voters and Winner-Take-All Rules:

Each federal election cycle, FairVote projects U.S. House results (www.fairvote.org/mp) based on the impact of incumbency and which party holds a partisan advantage in each Congressional district as determined by the relative performance of the major party candidates in that district compared to their national average. First developed in 1997, our measure of partisanship was adapted by Charlie Cook for his partisan index. Our initial report that year showed just how powerful the role of district partisanship held. After the 1996 election, of the 82 districts that were at least 59% Republican, Democrats held four. Of the 98 districts that were at least 59% Democratic, Republicans held only one.

Since that time we have seen just how powerful the role of partisanship is in determining which party wins open seats. This year, for example, out of 33 open seats with decisive results, there were 29 went to a candidate with the party that would be expected to win in a 54% Democratic year, including eight of the ten Democratic gains. We also have seen partisanship as the most reliable predictor of where incumbents will lose.

Today, after two consecutive strong elections for Democrats, the impact of partisanship can perhaps be most clearly shown by the steep decline in Democratic districts. After the 1996 elections, Republicans held 37 of the 189 districts with a Democratic partisanship, including more than a third of the 91 districts with a Democratic partisanship between 50% and 58%. Today, however, Republicans hold only ten of the 199 districts that now lean Democratic. Democrats indeed hold all of the 146 most Democratic districts, including every single district that is more than 55% Democratic, and hold all but four of the 177 districts that are more than 51.6% Democratic (with one of those seats still possibly shifting Democratic this year if Dave Reichert loses in Washington State). Of the 44 districts that Republicans held in 2005 in districts that were at least 47.4% Democratic, they now hold just 18.

Democrats today are doing somewhat better in Republican terrain, but watch out – if there is any comparable national toward Republicans in 2010, expect a wipeout of dozens of Democrats in such “red” districts. Republicans have the advantage over Democrats of being able to win a majority of the U.S. House without winning a singe district that is less than 52% Republican.

These numbers tell an important story for those seeking less partisan voting patterns in our legislatures. Many of the Republicans who have lost in Democratic districts were particularly respected by moderates, such ahs Maryland’s Connie Morella, Iowa’s Jim Leach and Connecticut’s Chris Shays. What overpowered them was the combination of winner-take-all elections and voters growing more consistent in their voting patterns. The fact is that the crosscutting representatives that some pundits like to extol are less likely to come from competitive districts as from the other party’s districts. And it is those representatives who are not surviving in today’s highly charged partisan climate.

The only remedy for electing people from the minority party in a majority party’s terrain is a form of proportional representation. One modest example had a highly positive impact in Illinois, where in three seat state legislative districts it took just over a quarter of the vote to win a seat in elections from 1870 to 1980. That system opened the door regularly to the kind of crosscutting representatives who are increasingly unlikely to win today.

10. Democrats Winning Control of the Process – A Near-Sweep of Secretary of State Races:

Throughout the 2008 cycle, FairVote has tracked Secretary of State races because of that office’s critical role in most states in proposing and administering election policy. This year, six states' chief election officials were up for election, and it’s likely that Democratic women candidates will win five of them. The results are as follows:
  • West Virginia -- Natalie Tennant (D)
  • Oregon -- Kate Brown (D)
  • Montana -- Linda McCulloch (D) leads incumbent Brad Johnson (R) 49%-48% in a raced still too close to call
  • Missouri -- Robin Carnahan (D)
  • Vermont -- Incumbent Deb Markowitz (D)
  • Washington -- Incumbent Sam Reed (R)
FairVote hopes to work with these (and other) officials throughout their term to debate and implement electoral reforms and improve election administration throughout the country. For more on Secretaries of State and our surveys this year of county election officials that were published in five reports on local preparedness and uniformity in election administration, visit www.fairvote.org/sosresearch
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more analysis and reform news as we head into an exciting new era for electoral reformers.

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