Winner-take-all 2-party system restricts political debate

By John Burbank
Published November 20th 2002 in Tacoma News Tribune

The November elections were dismal for the people of our state. Not in who got elected and what party they represented, but in what voices were not heard through the fog of election rhetoric, what issues were not discussed, what deceptions were foisted upon the voters, and who voted by not voting.

In our state we have a winner-take-all system, in which the top candidate is automatically elected. What this means is that the only vote that counts is the one vote that puts a candidate over 50 percent. Democrats and Republicans assume a certain base level of support and compete for the swing voters.

The parties disguise their political positions with saccharin-like rhetoric about working for families, a sound economy, better schools - rhetoric than feels good and often means nothing but might get that one winning swing vote. And sometimes they try to scare voters about the opposition candidate with stories that are just made up.

Thanks to our winner-take-all system, the two parties monopolize political campaigns and crowd out any alternative voices that may actually enliven political discussion. So, for example, the Libertarians and Green Party candidates are not taken seriously and are effectively denied a public voice.

The results of this system were abundantly apparent in the elections of 2002. The Pierce County auditor reports that 55 percent of registered voters voted in the November election. That sounds pretty good, except when you start to do the numbers. In Pierce County, 192,000 people voted out of a total adult population of 522,000. That means that fewer than two out of five adults bothered to vote.

On the other side of the Cascades fewer than one in three adults voted in Franklin County. The statewide figures are equally dismal: More than 60 percent of adults did not vote.

But what is more damning are the uncontested elections. East of the Cascades, more than half of the legislative seats up for election went uncontested. Republicans had a free ride in 13 races and Democrats in one. In the Tri-Cities area, Pat Hale, Shirley Hankins and Jerome Delvin all ran unopposed. In Tacoma, state Rep. Dennis Flannigan had a free ride, as did all three Democrats in the 29th District.

With no opposition, there is no reason to vote. In the 29th District, fewer than one out of five adults voted in the legislative elections. That turnout is a disgrace in a democracy.

During the Cold War we justly attacked the Soviet Union for having a one-party tyranny. As a people we agreed that you can't build a democracy with one party monopolizing power. So what do we have here? In some districts we have a one-party system, and in some a one-and-a-half party system. No wonder people don't vote.

It does not have to be this way. We could revitalize our democracy by giving votes equal weight. A system of proportional representation would ensure that all significant political support was translated into representation in Olympia.

Here is one way it could work. With almost 12 percent of the state's population, Pierce County could get 12 state representatives, with these 12 representatives chosen by the proportion of votes their parties received. If the Democrats got 35 percent of the vote, they would get four seats, and if the Republicans got 40 percent of the vote, they would get five representatives.

The real kicker comes with what happens if the Libertarians get 8 percent of the vote: They would get a representative. And the same with the Green Party. You would no longer be throwing away your vote by voting for a third-party candidate.

Imagine the dismay of the two dominant parties with having to actually compete for voter support with parties that are not afraid to clearly define the issues and their positions without hesitation. New parties could spring up, with their members knowing that if they succeed in gaining 8 percent of the vote, they will have a voice in Olympia.

We might have a labor party, a right-to-life party and a women's party. Citizens might get excited and decide that their votes could make a difference.

So instead of "not finding the time" to vote, the adults who are left out of the political formula now might just register and vote. They would have a voice. Now that would be democracy.

John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (, writes every other Wednesday.