How to make local races for Legislature meaningful
Published July 16th 2008 in The Capital Times, Madison, WI

We understand, and up to a point respect, the gripes of those who bemoan the lack of competition in local legislative races.

But no one should be shocked that state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, attracted no opponents, and that state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, will face only a token challenge from a perennial candidate running as an independent.

Nor should anyone be surprised that Madison Reps. Joe Parisi, Terese Berceau, Spencer Black and Mark Pocan have no foes in their Democratic primaries or in November.

The fact is that Madison is represented in the Legislature by progressives who share the city's values.

Our legislators tend to be leaders in the two chambers: Risser is the Senate president; Pocan and Miller serve on the powerful Joint Finance Committee; Parisi is a contender for a top leadership post, perhaps majority leader, in the next Assembly. They are, as well, leaders when it comes to promoting the interests and ideals of Dane County: Risser is the great defender of the University of Wisconsin, Miller's in the forefront of the struggle to expand access to health care, Black is the Assembly's most ardent environmentalist, Berceau champions a woman's right to choose, Pocan is a bold and articulate advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

It is true that a minority of Madisonians, roughly 30 percent of the electorate, votes for Republican candidates in federal and state races -- although that figure may drop this fall, with popular presidential candidate Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, leading the Democratic ticket. It is also true that the Green Party has a strong base of support, especially on Madison's isthmus, and has pulled as much as 30 percent in some precincts in countywide races.

But those who want more diverse representation from Madison and Dane County achieve little by griping about the political successes of our current senators and representatives.

Rather, they should embrace electoral reforms -- such as multi-member districts or proportional representation -- that could provide representation to Republicans, Greens and perhaps even Libertarians in the Madison area.

Under a multi-member district plan, voters in a Senate district might still elect three Assembly representatives. But instead of having each of the Assembly members represent a specific subdivision within the Senate district, representatives could be elected districtwide. District residents would vote for three candidates. But backers of a Republican or Green might choose to back just one contender -- concentrating their limited power behind that candidate.

Under a proportional representation plan, a resident of a multi-member district might cast his or her vote for a party slate and the seats would then be distributed according to the percentage received by each party. For instance, if 66 percent of the vote went to the Democratic slate and 34 percent to a Green slate, two Democrats and one Green would be elected.

Another system, instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank their candidate choices for a particular office. This system is especially appealing for nonpartisan elections, as it allows citizens to express a first-choice preference and, if the preferred candidate cannot win, votes are then transferred to a second choice. But it might have applications in legislative contests.

Of course, these reforms may seem complicated to voters who are used to single-member districts and the traditional system where the candidate who gains the most votes in a district wins the seat.

But, as other countries have long recognized, and as other states and communities in the U.S. are coming to recognize, voters are quite capable of embracing more democratic systems that produce broader partisan and ideological representation.

To their credit, some Wisconsin legislators are exploring options for electoral reform. Mark Pocan and Mark Miller are leaders on this front.

Thus, even as they run unopposed this fall, the two Dane County Democrats are standing up for the interests not just of their fellow partisans but of minority political views.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why they have no challengers.