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Tallahassee Democrat

Why Congress is out of touch with the people
Antiquated winner-take-all system cheats American voters
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
March 16, 2003

Recent research by University of Minnesota's Lawrence Jacobs and Columbia Unversity's Robert Shapiro indicates that the United States Congress is now on the same page as the American people a mere 40 percent of the time. Whether the issue is health care, education, energy, Social Security, the environment, taxes, or foreign policy, evidence points to the fact that the policy passed by Congress is dangerously adrift from the wishes and desires of most Americans.
The reasons for this are intimately connected to the most fundamental aspects of our political system --  our "winner take all" elections. Our 18th century "winner take all" voting system has excluded millions of voters from representation, deformed political debate and legislative policy, fostered a debilitating loss of political ideas, and exaggerated splits between cities, suburbs and rural areas.
Health care, transportation, and education concern everyone, for example, but due to "winner take all" incentives these issues are largely framed to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs.  That's because the suburbs are where the major political parties are relatively balanced and where party leaders believe elections are won and lost. Not surprisingly for a geographic-based system like ours, where one lives can have huge impacts on who benefits most. This is particularly true under the sway of modern campaign tactics like polling and focus groups, which are so sinisterly suited to carving up the electorate and targeting campaign spin to small slices of undecided voters who live in a handful of swing districts.
So when Al Gore talked in Campaign 2000 about reducing traffic, he framed road congestion as a suburban family issue, not about urban dwellers riding a dilapidated public transit system for two hours each way to work. That's because most urban inhabitants aren't swing voters. Many are poor and minority, some speak English as a second language, and practically all vote Democratic when they vote at all. And so Democrats take these voters for granted. When they try to mobilize them at all, they do so by demonizing Republicans rather than with positive policy proposals for cities or the poor, because such proposals might alienate suburban swing voters. For the many urban voters, Democratic candidates rely more on fear than hope.
Similarly, Social Security reform predictably has ground down to a spate of partisan name-calling. The congressional debate over Social Security, and as a result much of the public debate, has been marred by "winner take all"-type posturing, bumper-sticker politics, and spin wars between Republicans and Democrats trying to curry favors with swing voters. The media pundits shrug their shoulders and assume that's just how politics works, instead of laying the blame where it most belongs -- at the feet of "winner take all".
Numerous examples can be pointed to where important policy issues have been savaged by manipulative partisan calculations, not only during campaigns but in the ongoing permanent campaign known as the legislative process. In many ways, the incentives of how to win "winner take all" elections have shipwrecked the national agenda.
Our "winner take all" system first was adopted in the 18th century when only white men of property could vote and the world was simpler. Geography often defined the key differences among the population. But today it is outdated for the diverse, pluralistic, multi-partisan, and multi-racial world we have become.   Most of the established democracies in the world today use more modern methods known as "full representation" or "proportional representation" voting systems that were devised to correct for the defects of the antiquated "winner take all" system.
Full representation allows more voters to win representation and more political perspectives to sit at the legislative table having input into policy. Even if a voter is a geographic minority in their area - like a Republican living in a Democratic district, or vice versa -- they still can win representation. These full representation systems tend to produce higher voter turnout -- double that of the U.S. -- and more substantive campaigning about policy and ideas instead of mudslinging and personal attacks. Full representation democracies elect more responsive legislatures that produce majoritarian policy that is closer to the mean of what voters say they want.
As Congress drifts further from the American mainstream, it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to reexamine our 18th century political practices that are causing this schism and fracturing our nation.

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