Tacoma News Tribune
2-party system restricts political debate
November 20, 2002
The November elections were dismal for the
people of our state. Not in who got elected and what party they
represented, but in what voices were not heard through the fog of
election rhetoric, what issues were not discussed, what deceptions
were foisted upon the voters, and who voted by not voting.
state we have a winner-take-all system, in which the top candidate
is automatically elected. What this means is that the only vote that
counts is the one vote that puts a candidate over 50 percent.
Democrats and Republicans assume a certain base level of support and
compete for the swing voters.
The parties disguise their political
positions with saccharin-like rhetoric about working for families, a
sound economy, better schools - rhetoric than feels good and often
means nothing but might get that one winning swing vote. And
sometimes they try to scare voters about the opposition candidate
with stories that are just made up.
Thanks to our winner-take-all
system, the two parties monopolize political campaigns and crowd out
any alternative voices that may actually enliven political
discussion. So, for example, the Libertarians and Green Party
candidates are not taken seriously and are effectively denied a
The results of this system were abundantly apparent
in the elections of 2002. The Pierce County auditor reports that 55
percent of registered voters voted in the November election. That
sounds pretty good, except when you start to do the numbers. In
Pierce County, 192,000 people voted out of a total adult population
of 522,000. That means that fewer than two out of five adults
bothered to vote.
On the other side of the Cascades fewer than one
in three adults voted in Franklin County. The statewide figures are
equally dismal: More than 60 percent of adults did not vote.
what is more damning are the uncontested elections. East of the
Cascades, more than half of the legislative seats up for election
went uncontested. Republicans had a free ride in 13 races and
Democrats in one. In the Tri-Cities area, Pat Hale, Shirley Hankins
and Jerome Delvin all ran unopposed. In Tacoma, state Rep. Dennis
Flannigan had a free ride, as did all three Democrats in the 29th
With no opposition, there is no reason to vote. In the
29th District, fewer than one out of five adults voted in the
legislative elections. That turnout is a disgrace in a democracy.
During the Cold War we justly attacked the Soviet Union for having
a one-party tyranny. As a people we agreed that you can't build a
democracy with one party monopolizing power. So what do we have
here? In some districts we have a one-party system, and in some a
one-and-a-half party system. No wonder people don't vote.
not have to be this way. We could revitalize our democracy by giving
votes equal weight. A system of proportional representation would
ensure that all significant political support was translated into
representation in Olympia.
Here is one way it could work. With
almost 12 percent of the state's population, Pierce County could get
12 state representatives, with these 12 representatives chosen by
the proportion of votes their parties received. If the Democrats got
35 percent of the vote, they would get four seats, and if the
Republicans got 40 percent of the vote, they would get five
The real kicker comes with what happens if the
Libertarians get 8 percent of the vote: They would get a
representative. And the same with the Green Party. You would no
longer be throwing away your vote by voting for a third-party
Imagine the dismay of the two dominant parties with
having to actually compete for voter support with parties that are
not afraid to clearly define the issues and their positions without
hesitation. New parties could spring up, with their members knowing
that if they succeed in gaining 8 percent of the vote, they will
have a voice in Olympia.
We might have a labor party, a
right-to-life party and a women's party. Citizens might get excited
and decide that their votes could make a difference.
So instead of
"not finding the time" to vote, the adults who are left out of the
political formula now might just register and vote. They would have
a voice. Now that would be democracy.
John Burbank, executive
director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org),
writes every other Wednesday.