Monopoly Politics, Southern-Style
By Rob Richie
Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 23-24
Just who decides legislative elections in the United States? The voters cast ballots, but most Americans, most of the time, experience “no choice” legislative elections. They live in political monopolies that essentially are one-party fiefdoms created in redistricting to produce exactly such lopsided results. With voter turnout shrinking to one of the world’s lowest levels-a 1997 study ranked the United States 103rd in voter turnout among 131 democracies in national elections since World War II-and with alienation from the political process increasing rapidly, particularly among the young, it is high time to consider changing the rules that create and sustain these political monopolies.
Although the South’s politics have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades, the region still provides the nation’s most damning evidence of non-competitive elections and their impact on voter turnout. In 1996, every state in the region ranked among the bottom twenty in voter turnout in U.S. House elections. Of the Southern states, only Arkansas finished among the top twenty in competitive congressional House races (as measured by average victory margins). Six of the seven Southern states with partisan state legislative elections finished among the bottom ten states in the uncontested races, with more than half of races having only one major party candidate.
Turnout and competitiveness are even lower in mid-term elections. In 1994, eight Southern states were among the nine lowest in the nation in voter turnout. No Southern state that year had more than 55 percent of its state legislative seats contested by both major parties, with four states having more than three in five state legislative races won without contest. Turnout in 1998 promises to be even worse; nearly half of the region’s U.S. House races will be uncontested.
The current U.S. election system often produces a legislature with the distortions of a funhouse mirror, poorly reflecting the full spectrum of voters’ opinions and interests. Only 1 percent of the U.S. Senate is black or Latino despite those groups making up more than 25 percent of the nation’s population. In the Deep South, running from South Carolina to Louisiana, Republican candidates won nearly 70 percent of House seats with only 55 percent of votes. Women hold only one of these 36 seats.
Non-competitive elections and distorted representation arise from the winner-take-all election system. Single-member district elections in majority black areas have been the route to fair representation for black voters throughout the South. Rather than returning to at-large systems-winner-take-all elections held in multi-seat districts usually exaggerate distorted representation and dilute black electoral opportunity-non-winner-take-all election systems should be given a serious look.
The principle behind these “proportional representation” (PR) systems is that any grouping of like-minded voters should win legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote. Whereas the current winner-take-all principle awards 100 percent of the representation to a 50.1 percent majority, a PR system allows voters in a minority to win a share of representation. PR may be familiar to those who have closely followed presidential elections, as all Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses and many Republican primaries allocate convention seats by proportional representation.
To convert to a form of PR, five one-seat districts might be combined into a single five-seat district. A candidate could win with the strong support of 20 percent of voters in this district. A slate of candidates with the support of a narrow majority of voters would elect three of five seats.
Proportional systems are used in most mature democracies. Of the thirty-six major, full-fledged democracies around the world, only the United States and Canada do not use a PR system to elect at least one of their national legislatures.
There are both partisan and non-partisan forms of PR; more than 200
localities in the United States in fact use one of three non-partisan systems: limited voting, cumulative voting and choice voting (e.g., single transferable vote). Some PR systems allow very small political forces to win seats, while others set higher thresholds that limit proportionality. Some PR systems eliminate all guaranteed representation of different geographic areas; others allow voters to balance geographic representation with representation of their other communities of interest.
Lowering the percentage of votes necessary to win representation may cause concern about representation of extremists. The experience of PR around the world, however, suggests ways to find reasonable compromises between extremely low thresholds of representation (only one percent in Italy and Israel before those nations raised their thresholds this decade) and the winner-take-all threshold of 50 percent. More fundamentally, for every American voter who wants to elect an extremist, there are probably five to ten voters currently denied an opportunity to elect a more centrist representative because they live in a non-competitive district.
South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994 are revealing. Despite that nation’s bitter racial history and a low threshold in which 1/400th of voters could elect their own representative, the two leading parties won more than 80 percent of the votes with multi-racial candidate slates and messages of inclusion. Radical parties appealing only to blacks or to whites won fewer than 5 percent of votes and just a handful of seats.
Closer to home, Illinois’ experience with cumulative voting for state legislative elections from 1870 to 1980 is reassuring: as the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1995 in calling for cumulative voting’s restoration, “[Cumulative voting] produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics.”
Given a likely record-low voter turnout in 1998 and a Congress that increasingly puts short-term political considerations ahead of long-term policy interests, it is encouraging to see signs of serious interest in proportional representation. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has introduced legislation to give states the option to use PR systems for House elections. The Southern Regional Council, Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, the Center for Voting and Democracy (CVD) are working together to promote education about PR systems. Law review articles are examining PR systems as a potential remedy in voting rights cases.
For more information on these developments and a special report Electing the People’s House: 1998, see the Center for Voting and Democracy web site (http://www.fairvote.org) or contact CVD at: (202) 828-3062.
Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy, based in Washington, D.C.