By Steven Hill
November 16, 2012
After well over a year campaigning and an estimated $6 billion spent (including by SuperPacs), we ended up with the same president and roughly the same Democratic-controlled Senate and GOP-controlled House. The status-quo prevailed, ultimately, so it looks like we can look forward to two more years of stalemate.
Most of the people I have talked to are not so much happy that Obama won as they are relieved that Romney didn’t win. So many Americans today vote according to what we call “negative consent,” not so much for a candidate or party as much as against one. Near-final estimates are that voter turnout in 2012 was only about 58 percent of eligible voters, quite a bit lower than in 2008 (62%) and even 2004 (60%). That means an astonishing 93 million eligible citizens did not cast ballots. For congressional elections, it looks like we didn’t even hit 50 percent voter turnout.
That’s depressing. My associates and friends in other countries where voter turnout often hits 75-90% shake their heads over such dismal numbers. I often joke that if people all over the world were allowed to vote in the American election, they would turn out in droves because they know how important the US president is to what happens in their own countries. But in the States, such low participation rates are a clear consequence of the lack of choice that Americans must resign themselves to in our two party-dominated system.
The American people, with its vast array of ethnicities, religions, languages, geographic regions, political philosophies, jazzy urban centers, websites and Twitter tweets, are a dazzling peacock of dizzying color and shimmering array — but the U.S. government is still a drab, two-toned bird.
The free market has spread everywhere, except to our politics.
But it’s also a function of the fact that in our geographically-based system, all voters are not equal. Your vote counts more depending on where you live. As we just saw in the presidential election, the mad science of political campaigns pushes the candidates to focus narrowly, not only on a handful of battleground states, but also on a handful of swing voters within those states. A handful of voters in a handful of states decided this “national” election. Because of what I call the “steroids of politics,” the mad scientists have become experts at slicing and dicing the electorate, with damaging impacts on the body politic.
And most legislative districts are not competitive either, but it’s really not due to redistricting abuses, as conventional wisdom suggests. It’s much more due to partisan demographics, i.e. where people live, with the Democrats/liberals dominating the urban areas and the coasts, and Republicans/conservatives dominating in the rural areas, many suburbs and flyover states. The demographics are so daunting that it’s nearly impossible for even an independent redistricting commission to create competitive races (as California just discovered in its first election using lines drawn by a commission).
And that’s not all: these partisan demographics also give a decided advantage to the Republicans when it comes to winning a majority of seats in the U.S. House. In an article I wrote for The Nation recently, I presented a troubling reality that will be devilishly difficult to correct:
“Because of partisan demographics (i.e., where people live), Democratic voters are overly concentrated. This becomes a big problem when using a single-seat, winner-take-all method for electing representatives, because it tilts the field toward Republicans. The problem is easy to see in urban areas, where progressive votes are heavily concentrated. Urban Democrats win with huge majorities, but winning a district with 80 percent doesn’t help the party gain any more seats than winning with 60 percent. It just bleeds more Democratic voters out of the surrounding districts.
Yet it’s not just urban districts that reflect the tilted partisan landscape. FairVote has run simulations showing that partisan demographics give the GOP a natural, built-in edge in a majority of House districts. For example, if Obama and Romney tie in the national popular vote, those same votes cast through Congressional districts would make Romney the winner in 245 House districts, compared with Obama’s 190. That means Democrats can win a House majority only if their candidates win dozens of districts won by Romney, a steep uphill climb.”
The gerrymandering of legislative district lines contributes to this bias, but only marginally—the big culprit is single-seat, winner-take-all districts, combined with these hardwired partisan demographics. The Republican edge, which also exists in most state legislatures, has been consistent for decades. But it was masked by the success of Southern Democrats in Republican districts, which was a legacy of Jim Crow. Now those Blue Dog Dems have become Republicans, and so the overall impact is like having a footrace in which one side starts out ten yards ahead of the other.
As I wrote in that Nation article, the solution is to move beyond single-seat districts to multi-seat districts, and to organize elections according to the rules of proportional representation (PR) rather than winner-take-all. Doing so would make more voters’ trips to the polling booth meaningful. It would also give Democrats a more level playing field and help resolve the voting-rights tensions that have arisen within the party’s big tent.
For example, consider the difference that modestly sized districts of between three and five representatives elected by PR would make in the South. The “Solid South” used to be a Democratic stronghold, but now it’s Republican country. Democrats as well as African-Americans have been hurt by the near disappearance of an endangered species: the moderate Southern Democrat. Following the 2010 election, the thirty-seven House seats in the Deep South were held by twenty-eight conservative Republicans (twenty-seven of them white), none of whom are at risk of losing in 2012. Democrats elected eight African-Americans and a single white Congressman.
Using proportional representation with three- to five-seat districts would alter this landscape fundamentally. FairVote’s simulations show that a typical three-seat Southern district elected by PR (which would require winning 25 percent of the vote to gain a seat) would likely elect one white conservative Republican, one black liberal Democrat, and a more centrist Republican or Democrat. Besides electing more black Democrats and white moderates than the current method, such a plan almost certainly would elect more women (currently holding two seats), and perhaps more black Republicans, without gerrymandering a single district.
This new approach would have similar effects at the state level, producing representation that more accurately reflects the demographics of today’s South. The resulting cross-fertilization in Republican and Democratic caucuses would lessen some of the polarization and rancor currently infecting state and federal legislatures.
Other regions of the country would see similar results. In New England, moderate Rockefeller Republicans, once a granitic mainstay of Yankee politics, could be viable again. FairVote’s simulations show that Democrats would have more electoral opportunities in every state that has three or more House districts. Passing such “full representation” plans would be fair and right, and it would benefit Democrats. Another win-win.
Other important reforms: Public Financing and Free Media Time
Another area to target is campaign finance reform. As the economic collapse of 2008 showed, when big money dominates the political process, our nation suffers dramatically. Moreover, Democrats have a harder time competing with Republicans and conservative Super PACs in the money chase, more so following Citizens United. That decision was one of the Supreme Court’s most unpopular in years, so legislative efforts to roll it back would be popular. Many states have already undertaken countermeasures, like supporting stricter federal disclosure laws and a constitutional amendment against corporate personhood.
But it would be more immediately effective to enact public financing and free media at the state level. Public financing could be paid for in ways that don’t hit the public purse too hard: fees charged to political consultants and PACs, sin taxes and contributions from citizens via tax rebates. Requiring television and radio broadcasters—which use the public’s airwaves free of charge—to provide free media time has always been a popular idea, though clever ways would have to be found at the state level to get around federal primacy over media regulation.
Besides those three reforms, others are possible. Measures supporting a compact among states to elect the president directly by a national popular vote have been enacted by states with 132 electoral votes—49 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it (this does not require a constitutional amendment; states are allowed to decide how to award their electors within the electoral college method, and can choose to award them to the winner of the national popular vote). Ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), already on the books in San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and elsewhere, allows voters to rank a first, second and third choice, empowering citizens across the spectrum to vote their conscience without worrying about the spoiler effect. In partisan races, it would prevent a center-left split vote like the Gore-Nader clash that plagued the 2000 election.
One step at a time we can transform the American political system, taking it out of the 18th-century museum in which it is stuck and transplanting it into the 21st century.