A way to motivate
America's 'orphaned voters'
By Neal R. Peirce
September 16, 2002
Washington Post Writers Group
What's wrong with politics in America?
What explains our abysmal
voter turnouts -- down, according to one international study, to
138th in the world, sandwiched between Botswana and Chad?
vast segments of the country political wastelands for one party or
the other? Why are so many million voters "orphaned" in states where
the candidates they prefer are likely never to win?
And if the
majority's supposed to rule, how come such huge amounts of campaign
advertising get thrown at small contingents of swing voters -- the
very people who're typically the least informed, or alternatively
the most zealous on a narrow issue, like Miami Cubans?
Political analyst Steven Hill
offers up a single answer in his new book, Fixing Elections
(Routledge publishers). It's the winner-take-all
system of elections -- letting the highest vote getter earn the
office and the power, with almost zero regard for minority votes or
The Constitution's Framers, Hill notes, were an
inventive and innovative bunch. For them, winner-take-all -- indeed
any mildly democratic method -- was advanced for its time. But, Hill
reminds us, the framers were dealing with "a small electorate of
perhaps 200,000 propertied white males that excluded the poor,
women, African slaves, and indentured servants from voting."
system sufficient in 1789 is dangerously outmoded, he suggests, in
today's world of multiple ethnicities and races, sharply divergent
belief systems, global ties and free trading mass society.
and should invent more sensitive electoral systems, Hill asserts. He
points to Illinois' interesting experience, from 1870 to 1980, with
three-seat state House districts. The system was chosen to pull a
heavily divided state together after the Civil War. Voters could
cast all their three votes for one candidate, or distribute them as
Result: any candidate who got over 25 percent was
likely to win. Overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago districts usually
elected two Democrats and one Republican, downstate districts two
Republicans and one Democrat. There were few "orphaned voters."
Legislative partisanship wasn't acute because both parties
represented the entire state. More mavericks, willing to buck their
party's leadership, got elected. Bipartisan coalitions were
Today's state legislative leaders, accustomed to using
the cudgel of campaign cash to dictate issues and members' voting,
would likely fight cumulative voting. But last year in Illinois a
bipartisan, blue-ribbon commissioned, headed by former Republican
Gov. Jim Edgar and Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and former
Democratic U.S. Representative, warmly endorsed return to the former
system. The three-member districts, noted Mikva, "helped us
synthesize some of our differences, made us realize we had a lot in
common as a single state."
Combining U.S. House districts in
similar fashion, writes Hill, could reduce partisanship, give people
of all persuasions a motivation to vote, and give America's fast
growing minorities -- especially Hispanics and Asians -- a much
better chance at winning office.
Winner-take-all could also be
curbed in presidential elections, avoiding a Florida-like 2000
debacle, by apportioning each state's votes to reflect the full
popular vote. Or by going to direct national election of the
president, using an alternative "instant runoff" method that lets
voters rank candidates by their order of preference -- meaning
there's less chance the candidacy of a splinter contender (like
Ralph Nader in 2000) could draw enough votes to flip the final
It's desperately important, writes Hill, that we start
experimenting freely with election laws -- to encourage political
participation across all regions and groups, to reinvigorate our
imperiled democracy. The Founding Fathers tinkered and experimented
-- and would expect us to. In science, business, other realms, we
Americans have created one of the most inventive societies on earth.
Our federal system ought to be tailor-made for experimentation.
we're so cocky. We view our political system, writes Hill, "as the
Copernican center, the jewel of democracy." Yet in fact, other
societies recently adopting democratic institutions, from states of
the former Soviet bloc to South Africa, have declined to go for
winner-take-all voting and rejected archaic methods like our
Electoral College. New Zealand recently junked winner-take-all after
Maybe change at the state and local level can come
first. In essence, Hill notes, single seat districts assure
geographic representation based on where you live, while
proportional methods provide representation of how you think.
Couldn't the two systems be complementary? Couldn't a single state
elect at least one house of its legislature by three-member
districts as Illinois did, while letting winner-take-all live on in
Or couldn't communities follow San Francisco's recent
adoption of instant runoffs? (Statewide instant runoffs for Alaska
lost last month, but supporters intend to keep pushing.)
moral's simple: the American republic never needed so desperately to
experiment. It's time we got on with it.