The 2000 election isn’t the only thing wrong with American democracy. Here’s how we can make it better
December 12, 2002
The debacle of 2000 left many Americans shaking their heads and asking how it could happen here. A disputed presidency decided in the courts instead of at the ballot-box is problem enough, but the election also illustrated several more fundamental problems with our Democratic system. The reality that we elected a president who actually received fewer votes than his opponent led to renewed questions about our Electoral College system. The influence of big-money on campaigns was never in more depressing evidence. More important, for not the first time, we witnessed a spoiler thrown the election to a candidate opposed by the majority of Americans.
All of these issues are important, but our electoral problems didn’t end in 2000; it was just the beginning. The 2002 elections had some of the same problems that were apparent in 2000: 3rd party candidates shifting election results (as happened in an important Attorney General race in my home state of Delaware) and big-money playing too important a role in critical elections (the underhanded effort by the Pharmaceutical industry to elect pro-industry candidates being just the best example of this). But the 2002 congressional elections showed another growing problem with our system. Only about 40 (and that in a generous estimate) of the 435 House of Representative seats were at all competitive this year due to incumbent and party protecting redistricting measures taken in response to the 2000 census. That means in over 90% of House races the results were determined well before anyone stepped foot in a ballot box. This is not democracy.
What can we do to fix the system? There are three important steps that we can take that will help put the power of electing our leaders back into the hands of the people and help renew both our faith in and our enthusiasm for our democracy and our government. First, we must change the way states redraw their House districts every ten years so that blatantly political calculations are taken out of the equation. Second, we must take much more drastic steps to take money out of our political process. McCain-Feingold was a good first step, but it doesn’t do nearly enough and is already being undermined by Republicans and Democrats alike anyway. Lastly, we must change the way we vote so that pluralities can no longer elect candidates opposed by the majority of the voters. We can do this by instituting a new voting system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).
The 2002 congressional races saw the highest average margin of victory in over 50 years. Over 90% of the races weren’t competitive. In many, the victor did not even face a major-party opponent. Why? Because the redistricting process has become such a defining force in elections. Thad Boyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, said before the elections, “whoever sets up the legislative districts for the 2002 election basically sets up the elections for the whole decade.” He’s right. State legislatures that draw up the new election maps have enormous power. The can draw snaking districts that follow no logical contours in order to assemble a district that contains unbeatable majorities of Republicans or Democrats or that caters in specific ways to powerful incumbents. As State Senator Mark McDaniel of North Carolina put it, “we’re in the business of rigging elections.”
2002 give us powerful examples of the effect redistricting can have on elections. The primary goal of redistricting in most states is to protect incumbents. Politicians do nothing better, and work at nothing harder, than protecting themselves and their own, and redistricting gives themselves a powerful tool of self-preservation. Take California. With 53 seats, a progressive tradition and a changing population one would think that California would have a considerable amount of competitive races. That was not the case at all this year. California’s Democratic legislature and Senate passed perhaps the nation’s most blatant pro-incumbent redistricting plan. The result was that not only did no incumbent lose, but only one of California’s 53 seats was decided by a margin of less than 10 percentage points and that was the seat vacated by disgraced Congressman Gary Condit.
In other states where one party dominates the legislature and the Governor’s mansion, the goal of redistricting isn’t only to protect incumbents, but to advance the party was well. Indeed, redistricting has become the first partisan battle of any election; Republicans crowed (as it turned out correctly) that their redistricting efforts would help net them 5-10 seats this year. In state after state, both major parties worked the system to their political advantage. Republicans in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan among other places and Democrats in Maryland and Georgia (amazingly, in heavily Democratic California the pro-incumbent instinct was so-strong that the party passed on an effort to secure itself the gain of 2-4 House seats that it could have; I don’t know if this is good or bad). Florida is a telling example. It is obviously a rather bipartisan state. Not only did 2000 show us that, but the state has two Democratic senators and a Republican governor. The state legislature, however, is dominated by the GOP and the districts they drew up helped Republicans to win 18 of Florida’s 25 seats. For a state that is split pretty close to 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans having one party be so dominant in its congressional delegation seems amiss.
This pro-incumbent, pro-party emphasis has two problems. The first I have noted: it leaves precious few competitive races. With no competitive races voters have no real reason to get involved or even vote. Incumbents are not challenged with new ideas, nor are they help accountable for their actions. The very tenants of democracy are thrown away. Second, this kind of election rigging results in a skewed representation of a state’s population. Political power should go to the party that is able to muster the most support at the ballot box, not the one who is able to outmaneuver the other behind closed doors.
Fixing the system would not be hard; there is already a model to follow. Iowa has been held up, and rightly so, an example of how non-partisan redistricting makes Democracy work better. In Iowa, the maps are not drawn by the legislature but rather by a nonpartisan commission that must follow four specific criteria: population equity, contiguity, unity of counties and cities and compactness. The result this year were 5 districts, equal in population and based on logical geographical compactness – there were no misshapen districts that snaked oddly through the state. The result was four competitive races out of five House districts. In the end, three Republican and one Democratic incumbent all held on to their seats, but all were forced to run competitive races against credible challengers. The incumbents won, but so did democracy and that’s what’s important here.
States are allowed to decided how their own redistricting system will work, but that need not be the case. Congress should pass a law requiring states to follow Iowa’s lead and move to a nonpartisan approach. It won’t matter for another 10 years, but in the long run such a chance would have a more positive effect on our democracy than almost any other we can make. States should also be encouraged to move to a similar process for their own state legislatures.
Many progressives and reformers have been trying to work on the problem of money in politics for some time with little success. Recently, John McCain and Russ Feingold finally saw their campaign finance reform legislation enacted into law after years of fighting mainly Republican opposition. Their law is only a start and, unfortunately, its opponents (led by the White House) are already trying to undermine its enforcement and implementation. Still, clean election proponents must keep trying and we must go much further than McCain-Feingold.
The power that money has over elections is pervasive and perverse. In short, money is everything. Money not only wins elections, but without it candidates can’t even begin to get their message out, let alone win elections. Powerful corporations, industries and unions have learned to work the system to their own advantage, advancing candidates who will forward their agendas regardless of constituents’ wishes. Not only have candidates become incredibly beholden to their deep-pocketed benefactors (just look at President Bush’s energy policy) but the whole culture of fund-raising has come to dominate not only politics but governance. Nancy Pelosi was recently chosen as the Democrats’ minority leader in the House. Her rise up the Democrats’ ranks had to do with a lot of things but the primary reason: she was an incredible fund-raiser. Similarly, Terry McAuliffe was chosen to head the DNC because of his ability to shake down donors for big soft money contributions. Shouldn’t we be choosing our leaders on the basis of their ability to lead, rather than their ability to raise money? And shouldn’t we want our representatives in government to focus on the business of running the country rather than hopping from fundraiser to fundraiser.
What we need is to completely eliminate this element from elections. Four states already have clean election laws that provide candidates public funds if they agree to abide by preset spending limits. Maine’s law is the strictest, fully financing candidates and disallowing private contributions entirely.
Maine’s law probably goes a little too far in that it infringes too much on the freedom to express political views by supporting the candidate of your choice. But we should look at the laws passed by Arizona and Vermont as examples to build on. A good clean-elections law would provide sufficient funds to run a winning campaign if a candidate can demonstrate a broad enough base of support (say by receiving a target number of $5 contributions) and is willing to abide by spending limits. As in Arizona, candidates would receive more public money if they are in danger of being heavily outspent by their opponent. In addition, a hard cap on donations of $500, not the increase to $2000 that McCain-Feingold bill implemented, should be instituted so that candidates would have find a broad base of supporters if they wanted to out-spend publicly finance candidates. As in McCain-Feingold, soft money should remain banned. Moreover, limits must be placed on the kinds of support outside interest groups can give to candidates. Specifically, nebulous groups like the United Seniors Association, which was basically a drug industry financed front group that ran millions of dollars in ads for pro-industry Republican candidates, must be forced to disclose their financial backers in all of the advertisements. Also, more barriers must be put in place to prevent coordination between interest groups and candidates and parties.
One of the main lessons of 2000 was that our current plurality rules system of elections is flawed. In several states, including Florida and New Hampshire, George W. Bush won even though he was likely opposed by the majority of voters? Why? Because Ralph Nader siphoned off voters from Al Gore. This isn’t the first or the last time this has happened. In 1992 Bill Clinton won only 43% of the popular vote. Many Republicans claim we would have lost to George H. W. Bush had Ross Perot not been a factor. That conclusion is debatable but the fact that Clinton was elected only with a plurality of votes is not. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party helped split the Republican vote for both president and Congress – even though Democrats only won 45% of the congressional vote in Indiana, they captures all 13 of its House seats because Bull Moose candidates siphoned off GOP votes. That’s hardly proportional representation.
Most countries have runoff elections in which the top two finishers in the first round advance to a second and decisive election. This is also the case, as recently illustrated, in Louisiana. Runoff voting helps ensure that candidates be able to achieve majority support in order to be elected. But there are still problems with it. The cost of running a second round of elections is prohibitive, not only to the government but to candidates. As we witnessed in Louisiana, such a system is susceptible to political maneuvering. There, the GOP flooded the contest with candidates in order to hold Senator Mary Landrieu under 50% and force a runoff in which the weight of the whole national party could be used against her.
There is a way to reap all the benefits of runoffs without the problems: instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV sounds somewhat complex but it is really rather simple. Voters would rank their top three choices instead of simply voting for a single candidate. At first, the rankings would not matter, only the top choice of each voter could be considered. If one candidate received the majority of the voters top choices he would be declared the winner. If no candidate received 50% then the bottom candidate’s name would be dropped and anyone who selected him would then move on to their second choice. For example, in Florida in 2000 neither Bush nor Gore won 50% of the vote. Using IRV, the ballots listing Nader as the their top choice would then have been re-tabulated taking their second choice, either Bush or Gore. The system functions the same as a runoff would, except it is instantaneous.
IRV would have a number of advantages. Obviously, it would prevent majority-opposed candidates from taking office. It would also increase the influence of third parties by giving voters the ability to vote for other parties of their liking without “wasting” their votes. Booting 3rd parties would help bring both new ideas and an important check on the major parties. IRV would also force candidates to concentrate more on ideas and issues and less on negative tactics because they would need to be able to win the support of third party voters as their second of third choice. Turnout would increase as more people were allowed entrance to the system.
IRV isn’t some off the wall idea. Ireland uses it to select its president and Australia uses it to elect its legislature. San Francisco recently became the first major US city to implement it. Unfortunately, Alaskan voters recently rejected a ballot proposal to institute IRV for all state races aside from Governor, though the measure was endorsed by John McCain.
Real election reform will be hard to implement. The steps suggested hear are somewhat radical, at least to an entrenched American political system. Moreover, there is no real constituency to push these issues while there are powerful forces arrayed against them: incumbents worried about their own seats and dependent on their corporate backers, big-money interests hungry to not only keep but increase their influence, political parties resistant to the rise of any viable alternatives. But because they are hard does not mean they are worthwhile, and we should keep fighting for them. Change can probably be best achieved at the grass-roots level – building support for changes on the local and state levels first, like in Iowa, Maine and San Francisco, and moving on from there. But a reformist ally in the White House would certainly speed things along. A principled reformer like McCain could ally himself with the liberal election reform proponents in Congress to jump start real reform. This in unlikely but not possible. McCain won’t be running again, but someone like Howard Dean might be a possible reformist alternative. And perhaps McCain could be enticed into accepting the second spot on a ticket if he were promised that such an administration would place a high priority on campaign and election reform. It would take something like a Dean-McCain victory, and a Democratic Congress, to get things moving on a federal level. But crazier things have happened.