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Durham Herald-Sun

We vote only to confirm the inevitable
By Lee Mortimer
September 13, 2002

Whatever suspense existed in this election season came and went with the primary. All thatís left to do is announce the victory totals when election day arrives in November.

Humorist Will Rogers remarked at the Democratic National Convention in 1932 that the only thing Franklin Roosevelt had to do to defeat Herbert Hoover in that Depression year was ìto still be alive on election day.î

That pretty much sums up the near certainty of re-election that most of todayís office-holders can expect. It may be good for incumbents, but the continued falling voter turnout of recent decades is a sure sign of an ailing and alienated democracy. When elections become structurally non-competitive, it robs voters of their right to cast an effective and meaningful vote.

Lobbying, public forums, demonstrations, letters to the editor--all are things that citizens do as a way of influencing government. The thing that has the least influence on what government does is voting. Thatís because voters today have a very limited ability to effect electoral outcomes.

Court battles over redistricting have revealed for all to see that most lawmakers win their offices--not at the ballot box--but on computer screens and in redistricting committees. The people who draw election districts and assure victory to the favored candidates have effectively pre-empted voters in deciding who wins most elections.

Of the principal races involving Durham, most were over before they began because the incumbents have no opposition. Even where there is an opponent, the incumbents are usually so far out in front that itís equivalent to having no opposition. Only because a few incumbents are stepping aside will a few newcomers be taking their places.

None of Durhamís five Democratic state legislators had an opponent in the primary, and only Sen. Wib Gulley has a Republican opponent in the general election. Congressman David Price will have his usual cake walk to victory over a little-known Republican opponent and a Libertarian. School board elections lived up to most peopleís expectations.

In the at-large elections for county commissioners, the five Democratic candidates have only Libertarian opponents on the November ballot. Though Republicans represent 30-35 percent of the Durham electorate, they knew it was futile to compete under winner-take-all rules.

Durham is fortunate to have people representing us who are conscientious and do a good job for their constituents. But with 85 percent of office-holders facing no effective opposition, governing bodies at all levels have become essentially self-appointed and self-perpetuating.

Only one of North Carolinaís 13 congressional districts will see anything resembling a competitive election. Republicans claim the new court-drawn legislative districts will be ìmore competitive.î But that wonít last once a new set of incumbents gets established.

Control of the General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives is at stake in November. But only voters in a small number of districts with competitive races will actually decide the outcome. The vast majority of voters will have no role in shaping the new state legislature and new Congress because elections in their districts are a foregone conclusion.

In the recent election cycle, the few contests competitive enough to warrant votersí interest would have included the 2000 governorís race, the 2001 Durham mayorís race and the upcoming U.S. Senate race. But most election contests remain so lopsided that casting a vote amounts to confirming the inevitable.

Even the Bush-Gore ìcliff-hangerî in 2000 was a non-event for most American voters. ìEvery vote countsî as long as youíre in Florida or a dozen or so ìswing states.î But most voters are in states like North Carolina, where one party or the other has a lock on all their stateís electoral votes, and the opposing presidential candidate has no chance of winning those states.

The only way to make voting meaningful is by changing the rules and structure of elections. As a first step, state legislators need to take redistricting out of their hands and put it into the hands of an independent redistricting commission. Lawmakers would do voters, taxpayers and themselves a huge favor by replicating what 14 other states already do.

But to give elections back to the voters requires moving to non-winner-take-all methods, such as limited or cumulative voting for multi-member elections to governing bodies, and instant runoff voting for multi-candidate contests with one winner. Winner-take-all elections can never be fair because large numbers of voters are unable to elect a representative.

Perhaps whatís needed now is less voting and more attention to making voting a worthwhile exercise.

Lee Mortimer is a long-time advocate of election reform. He was a candidate for the Durham School Board in 2000.

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