Not Quite an Exact Portrait | The Nation


Not Quite an Exact Portrait

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Independent Redistricting Commissions

About the Author

Patrick Mulvaney
Patrick Mulvaney is a Reprieve Fellow and Staff Attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. His work...

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As the eighteenth annual demonstration against the Army's School of the Americas nears, we quiz Democratic hopefuls on whether they would shut it down. Their answers are not encouraging.

A favored Democrat's mayoral primary win divides a city between those who support his hardball anticrime tactics and minorities who see them as a blueprint for racial profiling.

Beyond just the right to vote, a representative government depends on meaningful elections, which give the people a real voice in selecting their representatives--and thus, a way of holding their elected leaders accountable. But thanks to the corruption of political gerrymandering, combined with the current winner-take-all system (discussed below), few people today actually have the opportunity to vote in competitive Congressional elections. Instead, they vote in landslides--elections specifically engineered to insure that a given party emerges victorious.

Consider this: In the 2002 Congressional elections, only thirty-eight of the 435 House races were won by margins of victory of less than 10 percent, and just another forty-one were won by margins between 10 and 20 percent. This means that the remaining 356 races were not the least bit competitive. Furthermore, since 1996, 98 percent of House members running for re-election have retained their seats--a direct result of gerrymandering.

Indeed, short of redrawing state lines, elected officials from both parties have done practically everything in recent years to manipulate the system in the interest of political gain. The end result--aside from ridiculously shaped districts cutting through towns and cities to clip certain desirable demographics--is a serious blow to the institution of representative government, and in the minds of many, an example of the futility of voting.

To curb the abuses of political gerrymandering, it is essential for states to create independent, nonpartisan commissions to draw Congressional redistricting maps. Iowa and Arizona have formed such commissions, and by doing so, they have gone a long way toward avoiding the kind of Texas-style redistricting scandals that poison American democracy.

Proportional Representation

Even in states without districts plagued by gerrymandering, most people wind up voting with no legitimate hope of influencing elections. The most reasonable solution to this is to move to proportional representation, a system that is currently in place in Germany, Portugal, Switzerland and Greece, among many other nations. In such a system, voters would elect several representatives from larger Congressional super-districts, instead of just one from each of the current, smaller districts. A change to proportional representation would insure that voters--not just those who support the favorite--have some say in who represents them in Congress.

For example, under the current system, one party can hold six adjacent Congressional seats by routinely carrying each with, say, 50 percent of the vote. In the meantime, the second-largest party, which carries, for example, 33 percent of the vote in each district, gets no representation, and neither does the third, despite carrying 17 percent. If turned into a six-member super-district under a proportional system, the representation would break down more fairly, with three seats going to the largest party, two to the second-largest and one to the third.

Proportional representation in the United States would allow more people to play an active role in the selection of their representatives--even those who do not necessarily vote with a majority of their fellow constituents. PR systems are currently working in many countries. In fact, the Center for Voting and Democracy reports that of the forty-five countries that have both a population of more than 2 million and a high average freedom score (as measured by a widely accepted Freedom House study), thirty-seven use systems with some form of proportional representation. Even in the US, numerous school boards and municipalities now use this process to insure better representation for voters and more accountability for elected leaders.

Instant-Runoff Voting

Unfortunately, the potential for undemocratic outcomes in US elections is extraordinarily high. In fact, in races with more than two candidates garnering votes from significant slices of the electorate, undemocratic outcomes are the norm. Since third-party contenders inevitably peel votes away from one of the two major-party candidates, they often meet resistance and opposition from people who would otherwise look favorably on their campaigns.

The way to end the "spoiler" role altogether is by enacting instant-runoff voting (IRV). In this process, voters select not just their favorite candidate but also their second, third and possibly fourth choices as well. Then, if no candidate captures a majority of voters' first-round choices, the system eliminates the candidate with the fewest votes and tallies again, this time counting the second choices of the voters whose first-choice candidate was eliminated.

While the current system allows candidates opposed by a majority of their constituents to win elections, IRV insures that at least 50 percent of the voters cast a ballot for the winning candidate, even if he or she was not their first choice. While some countries use a two-phase runoff system, IRV eliminates the main objection to that--the high cost of holding another election--by using the runoff process in a single election.

Instant-runoff elections in the United States would foster a more positive campaigning environment (by forcing candidates to vie for second- and third-choice votes), insure majority rule and increase turnout by giving voters more options. San Francisco's city elections are operating on an instant-runoff system this November; as a result, the candidates have run more positive, issue-oriented campaigns--thus providing a strong testament to the merits of IRV. Outside the US, IRV is currently in use in Ireland for presidential elections, in Australia for House of Representatives elections, and in London for city elections.

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