Forging a Vibrant Democracy

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Published February 15th 2003 in Progressive Populist
Two centuries ago, Thomas Paine wrote that political institutions are the slowest to adapt to advances in technology and knowledge. The root of the problem then and now is that elections often are a poor substitute for open exchanges of ideas and free markets. When governments are immune from real competitive pressures, institutional inertia rules.

The partisan implications of the 2002 elections are obviously significant, but we must not overlook the real evidence that our nation is in a paralyzing political depression. Consider that once again voter turnout was less than 40% of adults, far below the international norm for national elections, and even more skewed by how few low-income, youth, and people of color participated. The U.S. Senate continues to have no African-American or Latino representatives, and no members elected on a third party line.

The U.S. House theoretically could have been shaken up after redistricting, as it was a decade ago, but instead incumbents did such a masterful job at protecting themselves that only four lost to non-incumbent challengers, the fewest in history. Nearly five of every six races were won by landslide margins of more than 20%, shutting out potential partisan changes and smothering any chance to improve the startling under-representation of women and racial minorities. State legislative races were generally even more static than congressional elections.

At what point does a democracy cease to be democratically governed? We largely maintain the key freedoms of the Bill of Rights, but with the active consent of fewer and fewer citizens. George Bush was elected with the support of only one in four adults. The Republican Members led by Tom Delay and Dennis Hastert in the U.S. House won even fewer votes.

Most of our political leaders have lost the spirit of innovation that guided our founders. They avoid questions about our basic electoral rules that determine the accountability and legitimacy of our government. And now the Republican-dominated Congress promises not even to fund the federal electoral reform law passed in the wake of the Florida debacle in 2000, leaving cash-starved states to fend for themselves in improving basic voting processes. Here are a just a few among several important reforms that we believe must be debated.

  • Number of representatives: The size of the U.S. House of Representatives has not increased since 1911, even as the average number of people in House districts has tripled and some districts have nearly a million people. The very geographic basis of our Winner Take All system is undermined when the districts are so populous. The end result is "taxation with less representation."

  • Bicameral state legislatures: Because of an interest in voters being able to hold legislators accountable, no other established democracy has two legislative branches of equal power. Yet 49 out of 50 state legislatures follow the bicameral model of our U.S. Constitution that was designed as part of the "grand compromise" to balance states' rights with the principle of one person, one vote. Two houses in a state legislature undercut accountability and are redundant when they both represent geographic interests.

  • Single-seat districts: All U.S. House elections and most state legislatures and major cities' councils are elected from single-seat districts. Single-seat districts mean that 51% of voters allegedly "represent" 100% of people in the district, and 49.9% of losing voters can be shut out. By limiting the opportunities for non-geographic communities of interest to win representation, single-seat districts make where we LIVE more important than what we THINK. They also give incumbents the opportunity to gerrymander district lines to guarantee themselves safe seats. This 18th century construct artificially props up a two-party system that poorly reflects our country's political diversity and consigns most Americans to "no-choice" legislative races.

    Most other established democracies have jettisoned exclusive reliance on single-member districts in favor of systems of proportional representation. Such systems mirror a free market economy, with voters having the choices they treasure so highly as consumers. A political force winning 51% of votes earns a majority of seats, but not everything. A party winning 10% wins its fair share of representation too.

  • Plurality elections: Of the few mature democracies still using "winner-wins-all" elections, fewer still use plurality elections in which winners don't need majority support. Some nations use runoff elections. Australia uses an innovative instant runoff voting (IRV) system where voters rank candidates in order of choice. Ballots are counted so that winners need majority support, and voters are freed of worries over "wasting" their votes on "spoilers" with no chance to win. Last year, San Francisco voters handily adopted IRV for city races, while several other states have vibrant efforts to adopt IRV for their elections.
It is time for national and state discussions of our electoral rules. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his twilight years that "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times." Our leaders who think that our democracy is beyond such re-examination are betraying the spirit of our founders -- and the trust of us all.

Rob Richie is the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy,  Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center, and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of Winner Take All Elections" (Routledge Press,