Freeing Voters from "No Choice" Elections

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
November 14, 1997

 It's the voters, stupid!

The politicians know it. Legislators get irritable if you talk about campaign finance reform. But they get downright furious if you try to change their district lines or propose limiting their power to gerrymander these lines.

The insider pundits know it. Already they are talking about the 1998 elections as if having veto power in the next round of redistricting was the most important reason to be governor.

David Broder wrote in his recent syndicated column that Republicans need to win the California governor in order to prevent "a Democratic-designed redistricting plan, after the census of 2000, that would virtually guarantee the Democrats majority status in the legislature well into the new century."

But most reformers don't seem to have a clue about the power of redistricting -- or its implications for what we must do to give voters real choices and force legislators to face real competition.

The lack of competition in legislative elections in the United States is nauseating. Most Americans, most of the time, experience "no choice" elections for their city council, their state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. They live in political monopolies where there is no two-party system, let alone one with viable third parties.

Take U.S. House races. The average margin of victory is consistently over 30%. To put that in perspective, no incumbent lost in 1996 who had won by at least 20% in 1994. Of the 34 Democratic incumbents who lost in 1994's big year for Republicans, only one had won by more than the average victory margin in the previous election -- and 134 Democratic incumbents coasted to easy victories by over 20% even in 1994. Is it any wonder that more than nine in ten incumbents have been re-elected in each of the last ten House elections?

It's even worse for elections to the state legislature. More than one-third of state legislative races in the 1990s were not even contested by two major parties -- only 62 of Massachusetts' 200 races in 1996 were contested!. Those races with two candidates are mostly contested in name only. In 1996, there were 211 state legislative races in New York -- only nine were won by less than 10%, the victory margin that marks a competitive election.

Most city council elections are even more lopsided. No incumbent lost in New York City's council elections this month. Only one out of 51 council races was won by less than 10%.

The fact is that most incumbents don't have any chance of losing -- not in a great Republican year nor a great Democratic year. They are shielded by the walls of their single member districts -- the walls that most of them took a direct role in shaping.

That's why our Center already has declared winners in 361 of 435 House races to be held next November. In fact we declared the winners last summer, and if we're wrong in more than a handful, we'll be shocked. You can check our predictions on our web site.

Most legislative elections are non-competitive for one simple reason: a clear majority of voters in a given area prefer one party's political philosophy over that of the other party. We could bore you to tears with numbers proving this point. Here are some good ones: of the 100 U.S. House districts where Bill Clinton won his highest percentage of the vote, Democrats hold 99 seats. In the 150 worst districts for Clinton, Democrats hold only 16.

It's even clearer in open seat races without an incumbent. A third of Republican winners were outspent in races for open House seats in 1996. But not one was able to win in the 18 seats where Clinton ran ahead of his national average of 49%. Republicans won 29 of 35 where he ran behind his average.

It's not that Clinton had long coat-tails. His vote in a district simply indicates how the voters think in that district. Voters vote a certain way in the presidential race, and most of them vote the same way in the House race regardless of how much money is spent. And most don't change between elections.

It's also true in state legislative races. In New Jersey, assembly members are elected from districts with two members. In 1997, 39 of the 40 districts elected two members from the same party even though the state has a reputation for ticket-splitting.

Given this voter consistency and the fact that most districts are not "level playing fields," most elections are decided during the redistricting -- or  shall we say, "incumbent protection" -- process. That is when Democrats and Republicans blatantly carve up the political map to protect incumbents and create noncompetitive districts "safe" from changing parties.

Gerrymandering has been with us since the early 1800s, but in today's computer era, the capacity of legislators to gerrymander their districts using precise census data and polling has increased significantly. Legislators now quite literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them.

A lesson for campaign finance reformers is that they should focus more energy on campaign financing in local races and in party primaries, where money indeed has a major impact because voters lack the guide of partisan labels. And parties have the power to set new rules for their primaries right now without blaming the other party for failed legislation.

Those reformers concerned about the corruptive influence of money on the governing process also have all the more reason to expose the many special interests who donate huge sums to candidates they know will win.

In many ways our findings are reassuring for those who believe in the American voter:  most voters are grounded in a political philosophy that leads them to generally prefer one party over the other, no matter what clever campaign ads they see and hear. If it was otherwise, we would have more reason to be depressed about democracy's prospects.

But the implications should be disconcerting to traditional reformers. To create the much-touted level playing field in which most people can cast a meaningful vote, it won't be enough to make elections financially competitive. We will need to make the districts themselves more competitive.

Taking legislators our of the redistricting process would be a good start. More fundamentally, however, we need to rethink our exclusive use of non-competitive single-seat "winner take all" districts. Most mature democracies long ago made the switch to multi-seat proportional representation systems. These systems are founded on the idea that all voters should be able to win support in proportion to their share of the electorate.

 Proportional representation is a simple notion, really, but one that is poorly understood in the United States. Rather than allow 51% of the vote to win 100% of representation, "PR" provides that 51% wins a majority -- but no more. A community of interest -- as defined by votes -- should have a chance to win a fair share even if less than 50%.

The result is a much more exciting politics -- and a far more legitimate democracy, one in which voters have real choices and have votes almost always count. Proportional systems come in a range of reforms. There is one that will address nearly every concern you hear expressed about the "excesses" of democracy.

We urgently need state and national conversations about what is fair representation and real democracy as we head into a new century with new challenges. And in the end we must free voters to define their representation with their votes, not force them through winner-take-all, single member districts into accepting "monopoly politics" in a turgid two-party system that so poorly speaks to our aspirations that barely a third of eligible voters will go to the polls in 1998.

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