April 13, 2003
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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