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Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Reflecting the electorate
April 13, 2003
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

One of our political institutions that receives all too little scrutiny is our 18th-century "winner take all" voting system. Yet it has profound effects on the health of our representative democracy.

Take, for example, elections to the King County Council. Actually, using the term elections is a gross misnomer since in the last full cycle more than half the races -- seven of 13 -- were uncontested. Of the remaining six, none was remotely close, with two won by 50 percentage points and two others by 30 points. The closest race was won by a lopsided 17 points.

With no contests prevailing, incumbents don't really have to campaign hard and work for your vote. They don't have to justify their actions for the past four years or tell you their plans. When election results are so predictable, most voters have the sense to ignore the charade and stay home. Not surprisingly, voter turnout in King County Council races is extremely low, sometimes as low as 25 percent of eligible adult voters.

Seattle City Council elections also have not exactly been paragons of political competition or choice. In 1999 and 2001 -- the last full election cycle -- five of nine council races were won by landslide margins, and another three races were won by comfortable 10-point spreads. Only one race was close, and voter turnout was less than 40 percent of eligible adults.

Fair representation has suffered too. Not long ago the City Council represented the city's racial diversity but now it is virtually all white. Being a liberal city, Seattle also elects all Democrats to its council, as if there is not a single Republican, independent or minor party voter living there who deserves representation.

State legislative elections also have been plagued by a lack of competition and choice for voters. In 2002, nearly two-thirds of the winners ran unopposed or won by landslide margins. The Legislature elects three representatives to each of 49 legislative districts (two House members and one senator per district), and from 1998 through 2002, seven of 10 of these districts have been represented by only one party. Winning voters had a monopoly of three representatives; losing voters had zero.

Moreover, this has been accompanied by an alarming level of regional balkanization, a kind of Washington version of the infamous Red vs. Blue America map -- Democrats win most seats in Western Washington and the GOP wins most seats in Eastern Washington. Such balkanization, not uncommon in other winner-take-all democracies such as India, has a tendency to exacerbate partisan differences and make it more difficult to find common ground.

Not surprisingly, this has contributed to exasperating levels of gridlock during this period of huge budget deficits, as both sides hunker down in their foxholes. Each side wants to balance the budget on the backs of its opponent's voters. There's little incentive for GOP legislators to do anything for cities in Western Washington or for Democrats to reach out to rural voters in Eastern Washington because neither party wins seats in those regions.

The common denominator that vexes elections for the Legislature, Seattle City Council and King County Council is the use of our antiquated winner-take-all system. Under this setup, the group of voters with the most votes wins 100 percent of the representation but geographic minorities -- whether partisan or racial -- win none at all. It's not that there are no Republican voters living in Seattle or Tacoma, or Democrats in Pasco or Pullman, or racial minorities in Seattle and elsewhere.

It's just that under this system only one side can win. The geographic minority is hopelessly outvoted, and when this happens election after election, the losers start giving up, a quite sensible reaction.

Fortunately, other electoral arrangements offer great promise to alleviate these conditions. "Full representation" voting systems (also known as proportional representation) with names like choice voting, cumulative voting and party list voting have been designed to reform the defects of the winner-take-all system.

With these systems, groupings of like-minded voters win representation in proportion to their voting strength. A political grouping (whether liberals, conservatives or moderates) winning 51 percent of votes earns a majority of seats but not all seats; other groupings winning 40 percent or 20 percent of the popular vote respectively win 40 percent and 20 percent of the representation, instead of zero seats. These more modern systems, now used by most established democracies in the world and also in the United States, create a multichoice democracy that fosters more political competition, better representation and less regional balkanization.

Even so modest a change as combining three adjoining districts into one three-seat district elected by a full representation voting system could make a profound difference. In such a district, just over 25 percent of like-minded voters could elect one of the three seats. If such a system were used to elect the Legislature, for example, geographic minorities like Democrats in Eastern Washington and Republicans in Western Washington could win their fair share of seats because all they would need is a quarter of the vote in that three-seat district.

Pennsylvania uses three-seat districts elected by a full representation system to elect most of their 67 counties' commissioners. The commissions usually have bipartisan representation, two members from one-party and one from the other party. Illinois also has used such a system to elect its Legislature. Nearly every Illinois three-seat district had two-party representation, with Democratic strongholds like Chicago electing a few Republicans and Republican strongholds electing some Democrats. All parts of the state were bipartisan, giving all regions a genuine voice in the all-important legislative caucuses of both parties.

Seattle might take note of the experience of Amarillo, Texas, which recently instituted a citywide full representation system to elect its school board. Under its at-large system just like Seattle's, no African Americans or Latinos ever had been elected to Amarillo's seven-member school board, despite making up more than 20 percent of the population. Full representation had an immediate impact: Both a black candidate and two Latino candidates have won seats, women also won representation for the first time, and voter turnout more than doubled.

With an alarming erosion of our representative democracy occurring at local, state and federal levels, now is not the time to be stuck to the flypaper of old ideas. Elections could be vastly improved by upgrading our antiquated 18th century winner-take-all system in favor of more modern full representation systems.

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