Democrats should lead on electoral reform
Red vs. Blue America leads to paucity of viewpoints, benefits conservatives

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published March 15th 2004 in Working for Change
Having all but wrapped up his party's nomination, John Kerry and his fellow Democrats now turn to the challenge of defeating Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Before we leave the primary season behind, we should reflect on what worked for Democrats in the primaries because it holds the key to Democrats' hopes for retaking the Congress.

Every four years the Democratic Party's presidential primary showcases three desirable qualities that usually are missing from our elections: proportionality, competition, and a diversity of views.

Proportionality. All Democratic primaries are conducted using "full representation" (a.k.a. "proportional representation"). That means candidates receive a proportional share of each state's convention delegates matching their percentage of the popular vote (but only if they receive at least 15% of the vote in a congressional district). For instance, when Kerry finished first in Tennessee with 41% of the vote, he won about 41% of convention delegates, not all. John Edward with 27% and Wesley Clark with 23% also won their fair share. If the typical "winner-take-all" approach had been used, Kerry would have won all of Tennessee's delegates.

Competition. Without proportionality, Kerry would have wrapped up the nomination even earlier because he finished first in most primaries. The excitement and debate fostered and sustained by competition would have been seriously dampened -- less voter mobilization, less media attention.

Diversity of views. In sharp contrast to most of our elections that feature landslide results and cagey candidates muddying their positions and playing to swing voters, the proportional method used in the Democratic primaries produced a range of views that showcased real diversity of opinion -- all of which contributed to making a stronger case against George Bush.

Compare the spirited nature of the Democratic primaries to the problems that plague our typical legislative elections: little competition, with most districts gerrymandered into one-party fiefdoms; poor diversity of views, with the US House of Representatives -- the "People's House" -- showing a mere 14% women representatives, fewer than 14% representatives of color, and insignificant representation of third parties or independents; and low voter turnout, often fewer than two out of five eligible adult voters casting votes, with a decided class tilt in favor of the rich and well-educated.

The reason our legislative elections have become so moribund is directly attributable to our continued use of an 18th-century winner-take-all, single-seat district system. Unlike the Democratic primaries, this electoral system does not yield proportionality, competition or a diversity of views. And it hurts Democrats -- particularly the progressive majority within the party -- in competing against Republicans.

For instance, when the legislative districts are redistricted every decade, most seats are made safe for one party or the other, depressing any motivation to mobilize voters. Furthermore, whenever one party controls redistricting, it typically rips off the other party. With Republicans controlling redistricting in several of our largest states, such partisan redistricting has contributed greatly to the Democrats' minority status in the House. Tom DeLay's recent backroom shenanigans in Texas alone may lead to Republican gains of seven seats in 2004.

But it would be a mistake to think that if we stopped redistricting abuses the Democrats problems will be solved. Because the problem for the Democrats is much more fundamental -- it is winner-take-all, single-seat districts themselves.

Given the heavy concentration of the Democratic vote in cities, a large majority of districts tilt toward conservatives in a 50-50 nation. Even though Al Gore won nationwide a half million more votes than George Bush in 2000, Bush beat Gore in 47 more congressional districts as they are presently configured. That's up from a 19-seat edge in 2000, showing how trends in partisan vote dispersion are boosting Republicans. The winner-take-all system does not necessarily yield proportionality -- and right now the edge clearly allows Republicans and conservatives to win more than their fair share of seats.

Bush also carried 30 of 50 states, showing progressive Democrats' near impossible battle to win a majority in the malapportioned Senate where each state, regardless of population, has two US Senators. In short, in the current climate of Red vs. Blue America, any "emerging Democratic majority" as suggested by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira must overcome an 18th-century winner-take-all electoral system that puts urban-centered Democrats at a decided disadvantage.

Not only are proportionality and competition missing from our legislative elections, but so is a diversity of views. Without full representation of the breadth of American political opinion, expect continued tension between Democrats hungry to regain power and activists working for corporate accountability, environmental protection, racial justice and pro-peace policies -- issues too rarely articulated in a winner-take-all politics that has become so mediated by polls, focus groups and the relentless chase for swing voters.

Lacking proportionality, competition and a diversity of views, Democrats and urban progressives have been losing ground to Republicans. The solution for Democrats requires much more than simply redistricting reforms. Democrats must begin enacting various systems of "full representation" to elect our legislatures, just as they have been using for their presidential primaries. With full representation, groupings of like-minded voters win seats in proportion to their voting strength at the polls. If a political party wins twenty percent of the popular vote in a ten seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none; forty percent wins four seats, and sixty percent wins six seats.

Full representation in American legislative elections would result in proportionality so the Democrats win their fair share of seats. It also would boost representation of women, third parties and independents, as well as millions of "orphaned" Democratic (and Republican) voters currently residing in the wrong district or wrong state. Half of our states are plagued by one-party representation, resulting in unprecedented degrees of regional balkanization.

Full representation also would boost racial and ethnic diversity in our legislatures. Based on current populations, particularly in the South, at least ten additional people of color likely would be elected to the U.S. House. And as "full representation" democracies like Sweden, Germany, and even South Africa illustrate, full representation would elect many more women to our legislatures.

Full representation methods address our nation's problems extremely well, and increased interest will come as our 18th-century winner-take-all system continues to break down. If the Democrats focus on increasing proportionality, competition, and a diversity of views in our legislatures via full representation, they not only will help their party but the rest of the nation as well.