Cleveland Plain Dealer (Opinion) July 27, 1997

"Get your '98 election results right here"

by Tom Brazaitis

What if I told you that, on any given day, I could accurately predict the outcome of 83 percent of the races at Thistledown?

You might conclude, and rightly so, that the races are fixed and I'm in on it.

Well, the races are fixed -- not at Thistledown, but for the House of Representatives -- and Rob Richie has broken the code.

Richie, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy, called a news conference last week to announce the winners of 83 percent of the congressional races that will be decided on Nov.3, 1998. That's more than 15 months away.

Of those 360 races, at least 268 will be lopsided victories (20 percent margin or more) for the incumbents. Only 75 races, about 17 percent, will be competitive, and most of these will be won by the incumbents, barring a war, a depression or some other catastrophe that would alter the status quo.

For the 1996 congressional elections, Richie predicted 219 landslides, and he was right about all 219 winners, although three incumbents won by less than 10 percent.

That prediction was in October, a month before the election. This time, Richie figured, why wait? Everything anyone needs to know to call the outcome of the vast majority of races already is in place -- namely, the incumbent, the district lines and the composition of the electorate.

Ohio will be more competitive than most states in 1998, according to Richie. Four incumbents are considered vulnerable: Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Sherrod Brown and Republicans Steve Chabot and Bob Ney. One Democrat, Ted Strickland of Lucasville, is considered the underdog. Twelve incumbents are projected as landslide winners and two others, Democrat Tom Sawyer and Republican Steve LaTourette, will win, but with a margin of less than 20 percent.

Richie has compiled his findings in a report titled "Monopoly Politics: Why Demography is Destiny in Most Congressional Elections, and What It Means for Political Reform."

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to the role of money in politics, but Richie says that the amount of money spent on a race is secondary to the composition of the district in determining a winner. That doesn't mean the campaign- financing system does not need reform. Most of the money contributed goes to sure winners, which makes the practice of investing huge sums in politicians even more insidious.

Richie's report begins by observing that over the last half-century, voter turnout in U.S. elections ranked 103rd out of 131 democracies. Why? Because more often than not, the voters have no real choice. The outcome is ordained by demographics.

The fix starts with redistricting. As Richie puts it, "In our country, the legislators get to choose their constituents before the constituents choose them." District lines are drawn by state legislatures using sophisticated computer models to virtually guarantee predetermined outcomes. Democratic districts elect Democrats and Republican districts elect Republicans. In only a few is the balance of power close enough to make things interesting.

Tip O'Neill's famous dictum, "All politics is local," bears re-examining. Much more important than relative campaign spending in any given district is how the district voted in the last presidential race. Almost all districts carried by Bill Clinton also elected Democrats to the House, whereas Bob Dole districts elected Republicans.

What does this mean for the voters? It means that in a district where the incumbent routinely wins by a landslide, if you happen to be of the opposite political persuasion, there is not a thing you can do about it. For as long as conditions remain the same, you are, in effect, unrepresented in "the people's House."

The Center for Voting and Democracy advocates proportional representation, with larger congressional districts of three, four or five members each. Such a system would produce a more equitable distribution of Democrats and Republicans and open the door for an occasional third-party candidate.

It may surprise you to learn that some form of proportional representation, or "PR," is practiced in 32 of the 36 democracies in the world that have at least 2 million people and a high human-rights rating. The only holdouts are the United Kingdom and its former colonies: Canada, Jamaica and the United States.

"Both Canada and the United Kingdom have many influential voices calling for PR," Richie says. It would not surprise me if both adopted forms of PR in the next decade."

With voting participation in this country at a modern- day low, isn't it time we took steps to give ourselves a reason for going to the polls?

(Brazaitis is the chief of The Plain Dealer's Washington, D.C., bureau) .