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