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How our winner-take-all voting system stifles democracy

by Jack Beatty

September 10, 1997

It appears that money is not the root of all evil in American politics after all. Instead, according to a comprehensive new study of voting patterns, the Luciferian factor is -- Could this be right? -- political philosophy. This is the startling thesis advanced by Monopoly Politics: Why Demography is Destiny in Most Congressional Elections ... and What It Means for Political Reform, a report produced by the Center for Voting and Democracy, which advocates "proportional representation" and multi-member congressional districts to replace the current winner-take-all single-member system. "Most U.S. House elections are not competitive for one simple reason," the study says. "A clear majority of voters in a given district prefer one party's philosophy over that of the other party." Ticket splitting -- voting for one party in the House race and the other in the presidential race -- is usually cited as displaying the political heterogeneity of congressional districts, but the trend since the mid 1970s has been strongly toward partisanship, with 80 percent of voters in the most recent election casting their ballots strictly along part lines.

True, the better-funded candidate was more likely to win election to the House in 1996. But blame incumbency, not money, for that, the authors of Monopoly Politics say. "[Incumbents] didn't necessarily win because they had more money," an article in The Christian Science Monitor argued recently. "Rather they attracted more money because they were likely to win." In other words, to quote from Monopoly Politics, "Campaign contributors respond to safe seats much more than they cause them."

The study debunks the "myth" that entrenched incumbents are a thing of the past, pointing out that 95 percent of them won re-election last year and going on to say, "Of the 171 incumbents who were first elected before 1990 and who ran for re-election, 169 won, and 162 won by comfortable margins of at least 10%." To know who will win the 1998 House race in your district, check the 1996 presidential vote there: if Bill Clinton won, a Democrat is very likely to carry the district; if Bob Dole won, a Republican will probably win. On that basis alone, without making reference to issues, candidates, or campaign finance, the study predicts the results of the 1998 House races, and goes on to suggest that 317 of those races will be won by comfortable margins of at least ten percent. This seemingly premature certainty is justified, Monopoly Politics asserts, because through legislative redistricting after each census the parties pick the voters before the voters get to pick the parties.

The main goal of Monopoly Politics is to do away with the single-member winner-take-all district. If 50.1 percent of voters vote one way and 49.9 percent vote the other, the seat goes to the winner and the sentiments of almost half of the voters in that district are unrepresented in the House. In multi-member districts seats would be apportioned according to the percentage of the vote won by each candidate. This would increase voter turnout, political scientists say, which currently is held down by the winner-take-all system. It would expand the range of political debate by sending both strong conservatives and strong liberals to Congress, it would greatly encourage minority and women candidates, and it would break the two-party monopoly by leaving space for the formation of a third party.

Against the system of proportional representation -- let's call it PR -- one strong argument is usually made: the stability of American politics would be put at risk. Countries with PR -- Italy and Israel, for example -- are forever forming new governments out of the shards of parties created by PR. How much you are swayed by this argument is a gauge of your discontent with monopoly politics.

In a recent conversation with me, Steven Hill, the West Coast Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said that PR could be introduced without increasing the size of the 435-member House. Take California: if its fifty-two representatives were grouped into four districts, thirteen members from each district would go to Washington -- and among them would be ethnic and racial minorities and members of the Green Party.

Hill's 1996 referendum on using PR in future San Francisco City Council elections won 44 percent of the vote, a remarkable showing. Voters in New York, Santa Monica, and Seattle may get a chance to vote on PR in the year 2000 or just beyond. In the House, Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, is sponsoring a "fair elections" bill that would allow states to introduce PR. Abroad, where most democracies from Germany to Australia use some form of PR, Britain's new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has agreed to allow Britain's delegates to the European Parliament to be elected through PR. Britain's winner-take-all or first-past-the-post electoral system is itself up for debate -- there will be a national referendum on PR before 1999.

The idea behind Monopoly Politics will seem a radical one to Americans raised in the schoolyard tradition of majority rule. Majoritarianism, however, is not synonymous with democracy. Indeed, insofar as it limits meaningful participation and the range of debate and dissent, majoritarianism can be said to constrain democratic energies, not to express them. It is at best a crude means of registering consent, a means toward (rather than the substance of) democracy. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly five years ago, Michael Lind put the alternative democratic case for PR memorably: "Because of our peculiar election laws, the American government is divided between two parties. The American people are not."


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