Deseret News, August 6, 1997

Hope to beat Hansen, Cook, Cannon? Don't count on it

By Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson

         Next year's Utah congressional elections are already over, decided and finished. The incumbents will win.
        The Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy says that now, even before opponents are chosen or the first political ad purchased - and a year and a quarter before ballots are cast.
        It does so complaining that state legislatures draw U.S. House districts to protect local majority parties.
        So barring an incumbent facing prison, an extraordinarily well-financed opponent or other political catastrophe, local majority incumbents will win.
        It sees no such disaster in the future for Utah's three incumbents. In fact, it predicts Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon, R-Utah, will win by landslide margins of at least 20 percentage points in their conservative Republican districts.
        It predicts that Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, will win by only a ``comfortable margin'' of 10 percentage points because his district has a closer (but still skewed) balance of conservatives, liberals and moderates.
        In fact among the House's 435 seats, the center says only 75 are truly up for grabs - in places where incumbents face catastrophe, or had won an unusual election against someone mired in problems - and now the ``normal'' majority is threatening to take back the seat.
        The center also says half of all 435 House seats are held by incumbents it calls ``untouchables'' because their party controls over-whelm-ing majorities of voters there (thanks to redistricting by fellow politicians) making any real challenge impossible.
        ``The voters are not equally balanced in most districts,'' says the center's executive director, Rob Richie.
        ``Either because of redistricting - and let's remember that in our country the legislators get to choose their constituents before the constituents choose them - or because of other factors, demography is destiny,'' he says.
        Not surprisingly, the re-election rate for incumbents last year was 94.5 percent. Even the year of the ``Republican revolution'' in 1994 when Republicans won the House for the first time in four decades, incumbents still had a re-election rate of 91.1 percent - meaning even the revolution affected a relatively few seats.
        While talk of campaign finance reform is currently in vogue, Richie says it alone wouldn't do much to truly create a level playing field. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't have some worth.
        ``Our findings suggest that campaign reform is all the more important. Which is worse? Asking for money to help win a competitive election or asking for money for an election you have no chance to lose?'' Richie asks.
        He notes most money now goes to incumbents because lobbyists and others want to invest with likely winners - and incumbents are near-sure bets.
        Richie says all that contributes to low percentages of people voting, figuring they are powerless to change much. So the center is making a radical proposal.
        It is pushing for multimember districts, such as those common in many city councils and in some legislatures (such as Maryland).
        An example of how that could work in Utah is its three House seats could go to the top three vote-receivers in the same statewide election. Different systems could allow voters to vote for three different people, concentrate all votes on their favorite candidate or rank their preferences.
        The center says that may help to make representation more proportional. Now, 51 percent of the vote brings 100 percent of the representation. With multimember districts, a third of the population could more easily - it says - win a third of the representation. It says that would truly level the playing field.
        The center also notes that among the 36 democracies with at least 2 million people and a high human- rights rating from Freedom House, only three besides the United States (Great Britain, Canada and Jamaica) still have ``winner take all'' districts.
        But don't bet on a change any time soon. Congress banned multi-seat districts in 1967. And the odds of changing something that has protected its members so well has about the same chance as, well, an incumbent losing next year.