Racine Labor (Wisconsin) (Opinion) August 22, 1997

Voters need to start drawing the line

by John Heckenlively

If I told you about a pool where you could accurately predict which team would win 83 percent of the time, I bet you'd want to get in on it. Well, there is such a pool, and there are already some very big players betting in it. The pool is the election for the U.S. House of Representatives, and those betting are called lobbyists.

The 83 percent figure comes from a report by the Center for Voting and Democracy called "Monopoly Politics." It predicts the outcome in 360 of the 435 races for Congress in November 1998.

It's worth paying attention to. Robert Richie, Executive Director of the CVD, predicted 209 congressional landslides in 1996, and all 209 won. He predicts even more landslides for 1998: 125 Republicans and 113 Democrats.

For those wondering, the First District of Wisconsin isn't one of them. It's ranked as vulnerable due to the departure of Congressman Mark Neumann. Democrats are also predicted as having a good chance of picking up the Second District, vacated by Scott Klug.

Unfortunately, newly-elected Democrats Jay Johnson and Ron Kind face tough odds for re-election.

One popular belief about campaign financing is that incumbents are likely to win because they are given large sums of money. The CVD says exactly the reverse: incumbents are given large sums of money because they are likely to win.

Of the 25 members of Congress raising the highest percentage of money from outside their own district, the top 10 all won their past three elections by over 20 percent. Most of the 25 come from very safe one-party districts, and the others are all safe, well-established incumbents.

According to Richie, the campaign finance situation is even worse than we think. Corporations and wealthy contributors aren't buying elections -- they're actually buying legislators who stand no chance of losing.

Only about 75-100 congressional districts are truly competitive in this country. The others lean dramatically to one party. Why?

Because incumbents of both parties carefully design districts to protect their turf.

"Redistricting is quite simply a process in which legislators choose their constituents before their constituents choose them," explains Richie.

What is the solution? According to the CVD, proportional representation (PR). Of the world's 36 major democracies, 32 use some form of proportional representation for electing federal representatives. The only holdouts are Great Britain, Canada, Jamaica and the United States. And both Britain and Canada are moving toward PR systems.

Under a proportional representation system, instead of nine single-member districts, Wisconsin might have three three- member districts. Under such a system, it requires 34 percent to get elected, instead of 50 percent.

Experience in other countries show there are several powerful advantages to using PR. One is that political and racial minorities have a greater opportunity to elect representatives, broadening political dialogue.

Women also stand a much greater chance of getting elected under PR systems. In Germany, women won 39 percent of the seats elected under PR, and in New Zealand they won 45 percent.

One of the most often-heard reasons people give for not voting is that "my vote doesn't mean anything." Under the current system of winner-take-all, that's true for around 80 percent of voters. Under a PR system, 75-80 percent of voters actually put someone in office when they vote.

While money plays a role in contemporary politics, districting plays a far more critical one. If we truly want to restore the principle of "one person, one vote," voters must start drawing the lines instead of the politicians.