Not Quite an Exact Portrait

Not Quite an Exact Portrait

Talking points on election reform.


In its current form, the United States electoral system discriminates against large segments of the population, reinforces the power of money to influence politics, serves to bolster the two-party system and produces results that often conflict with the will of the majority. Perhaps in recognition of this state of affairs, only 51 percent of eligible voters participated in the last US presidential election in 2000, the lowest level in the advanced industrial world. The reality is that the representative nature of the US government, as determined by elections, is more myth than reality–a comforting storyline that masks a harsh truth.

Consider the following facts:

§ There are no African-American or Latino members of the US Senate.

§ Barely a quarter of the adult population voted for any of the current members of the US House of Representatives.

§ Major-party Senate candidates spent an average of $4.8 million in the 2002 election cycle (making extremely remote the possibility of a successful candidacy by an individual without access to personal wealth or wealthy contributors).

§ Women hold just 14 percent of seats in Congress.

§ There are no members of Congress representing Washington, DC–a city of more than half a million people, a majority of whom are racial minorities.

Why is it that the overwhelmingly white male population of the representative government looks so different from the diverse population of the country? Maybe because voting policies and procedures promote disenfranchisement and nonparticipation, while the election system fosters non-competitive races, limited options and plurality, rather than majority, winners. There are numerous ideas on the table to reform the current system, virtually all of them in effective practice elsewhere in the world. We summarize many of them below.

A Constitutional Right to Vote

Contrary to popular belief, there is no constitutional right to vote in the United States. Although federal law prohibits the disenfranchisement of particular groups of potential voters, it falls far short of guaranteeing the right to vote. As the Supreme Court made clear in Bush v. Gore in 2000, the states are not even required to allow people to vote in presidential elections–they can simply assign the task of choosing electors to their legislators.

The fact that no constitutional right to vote exists leaves the election system decentralized, and thus seriously vulnerable to disenfranchisement at the state and local level–from purges of voter lists on account of past felony convictions to confusing administrative practices that complicate the registration and voting processes. In fact, more than 4.5 million Americans are currently forbidden from voting on account of felony voting restrictions alone, which disproportionately affects the poor.

Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. has introduced HJ Resolution 28, which would add a right to vote amendment to the US Constitution. This would be a positive step on the road to fairer elections and more meaningful representation.

Independent Redistricting Commissions

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.

Fusion Voting

Fusion voting is another voting method that increases elected officials’ accountability and fosters the development of a competitive, multiparty system. With fusion, candidates can run on more than one party line–an option that allows minor parties to grow and develop even without a full slate of its own candidates.

Ten states, including New York, Mississippi and Utah, currently allow fusion voting, which the Working Families Party has used to grow its organization. When political parties capitalize on it, fusion gives voters more options, more of a voice in their government and in the end, better representation.

For example, in Suffolk County, New York, in 2001, Bill Lindsay ran for the county legislature on both the Democratic and WFP lines. On election day he squeaked out a 50.6 percent-49.4 percent victory, with 3 percent coming from the WFP. Without “spoiling” the election for Lindsay, their preferred candidate, WFP voters made their presence known and affected the election while continuing to a build their party.

Campaign Finance Reform

The amount of money in politics is, without a doubt, excessive and unfairly distributed. In 2000, presidential and Congressional candidates spent a combined $3 billion on the election, with incumbents dominating in the race for cash. And the situation is only getting worse. In fact, this presidential race is, by far, the most expensive in American history. Campaigns for the House and Senate require raising exorbitant amounts of money as well–roughly $5 million, on average, for a Senate run, and around $900,000 for a House bid.

The obvious consequence is that only people with money or with access to money can make serious runs for public office. And instead of responding to the needs of their constituents, many elected officials respond first to the wishes of campaign contributors and lobbyists, whose support they must maintain to stay competitive in the next election cycle.

In Arizona, the Clean Elections system–passed by voters in 1998 in an effort to take the corrupting influence of money out of politics by allowing candidates to receive public funding for statewide campaigns–has led to more competition among contenders, greater diversity in candidate fields and higher voter turnout. Political leaders throughout the country should view the Arizona reform as a successful start and begin to give serious consideration to the idea of public financing for all elections.

There are also other reform measures that could give candidates with fewer resources a fairer shot. These include, but are certainly not limited to, free radio and television air time for political candidates and increased public-affairs programming. Such measures would allow more candidates–especially those without great wealth or huge campaign chests–to present themselves to the public and voters to decide on the issues.

By discriminating against large groups of people and diminishing the power of the vote, the US election system has pushed voters and potential candidates away, sacrificing the possibility of a genuinely representative government. As a result, of all the countries that hold national elections, the United States ranks 139th in voter turnout since 1945.

The reforms mentioned above, while certainly not a complete list, would each go a long way in helping reform the US election system and insure better representation for the American people.

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