2002 Elections Underscore Imperative of Major Reform
This year's elections may well have a momentous impact on federal policy in the next two years, with Republicans having gained secure control of both branches of Congress and the White House for the first time in half a century. But they also underscore the need for fundamental reform of our political system to provide the democracy that we deserve and which should be demanded of the world's most powerful nation.
Let Us Count the Ways
Voter turnout again was abysmally low in most states, falling below 40% of all voting age Americans despite national elections in which control of the Congress was to be decided, and despite numerous competitive gubernatorial races. Most legislative races lacked any meaningful competition, particularly for incumbents. Minor parties again made no significant gains and even experienced setbacks, with the major parties now controlling all 50 governor's mansions for the first time in more than a decade. Women and minorities remain severely under-represented, with this year's status quo election standing in stark contrast to the 1992 surge in women and racial minority winners after the 1991 legislative redistricting.
Much of the information here was culled from election returns as of Wednesday, with some races still undecided. Nevertheless, the trends are clear and unmistakable.
Under-representation of Women and Minorities
The number of women in Congress will remain exactly the same -- stuck at a mere 14 percent of U.S. House seats, in stark contrast to nations electing their legislatures by proportional representation. (After this fall's elections, for example, women hold 44 percent of the seats in Sweden and 32 percent in Germany). In U.S. House elections, women picked up some open seats, but were disproportionately represented among losing incumbents, and ultimately the new House will have three more Republican women and three fewer Democratic women. Liddy Dole's win in the Senate race in North Carolina balanced Jean Carnahan's defeat in Missouri.
After much hullabaloo about female candidates potentially winning governor's races, women only increased their share of governor's mansions by one (there are now six female governors). Women lost competitive gubernatorial races in Alaska, Massachusetts, Maryland and Rhode Island, but did win in Kansas (a Democrat), Michigan (Democrat), Hawaii (Republican) and, as of this writing, Arizona (where Democrat Janet Napolitano apparently has won with full public financing).
The number of African Americans in the U.S. House also apparently will remain the same. Republican incumbent J.C. Watts retired, and Democrats picked up one new African American Member in Georgia. Importantly, a black Democratic nominee lose an open seat in Georgia even though the district partisanship in that district was strongly Democratic. Race still matters, as the district is about 60% white, further proof that the key factor in minority representation is the ability to create an electoral threshold where minority voters can participate in enough numbers to elect their candidate. Traditionally accomplished by drawing a "minority opportunity" district with enough minorities to elect their candidate of choice, the growing dispersion of racial minorities in much of the country is pointing to the value of proportional representation systems in which minority voters, no matter where they live (i.e. in the right district or not), are more able to cast an effective vote.
With Democrats Ron Kirk losing in the Texas U.S. Senate race and Carl McCall in the New York governor's race, African-Americans continue to be shut out in the Senate and governor's mansions. Bill Richardson won in New Mexico, giving us the first Latino governor in several years, but there are still no Latinos in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate does not have a single African American or Latino despite those groups comprising a quarter of our population.
Amidst the Noise, Little Competition
While the headlines screamed loudly about the race to win control of the Congress and huge money poured into those races that were close, most legislative races in fact were pale farces of competition. Our Center for Voting and Democracy's pre-election projections of who would win and lose more than 75% of U.S. House races held up with an apparent perfect score -- the same model projected 929 of 930 winners accurately in 1996-2000. Within days we will issue our projections for the November 2004 elections (yes, that's right -- the elections two years from now -- get your results right here) in some 350 House races with the same degree of confidence.
We can confidently make these projections without knowing anything about inequities in campaign finance or the quality of the candidates because we use "winner-take-all" elections in districts that generally have a lopsided tilt toward one party or the other. This lean is no accident, since with only a few exceptions incumbents and party leaders gerrymandered districts to guarantee the reelection of incumbents as well as the over-representation of whatever party controlled the redistricting process in their state. In California, the Democratic Party incumbents actually paid "protection money" in the amount of $20,000 apiece to have their legislative districts drawn to guarantee them a safe seat, an audacious example of political "insider trading." Such "incumbent protection plans" prevailed in state after state.
Thus, the U.S. House was very much a status quo election, with Republicans increasing their majority by a few seats due to redistricting advantages even though the Democrats probably equaled Republicans in the national two-party vote. Four incumbents lost to other incumbents in races where they were thrown together by redistricting, but overall 98% of incumbents were returned to office, with no advantage for either side.
One of the reasons it was so difficult for the Democratic Party to retake the House was because there were so few seats up for grabs. Typically, after the decennial redistricting, one would expect 100 or more out of 435 seats to be competitive; instead, this time around there were some 40 competitive races, and that number likely will decline throughout the decade as new incumbents solidify their hold over their districts. That will mean a Republican majority in the House for several more election cycles unless Democrats can break out of the current partisan balance and win a healthy majority of the national popular vote in House races.
The Voters Again Largely Abstain
Voter turnout in the 2002 elections is estimated to be about 37 percent of voting age adults. That's the lowest voter turnout in the established democratic world for elections of a national legislature. With "incumbent protection plans" prevailing across the land and the parties too often attempting to obscure their differences in close races, voters were left with what they perceived as no-choice elections.
While we have a two-party system, the frame of reference of most voters is of a one party system -- the party that dominates their district or even their state. In monopoly politics states like Massachusetts and Nebraska, only one party won representation in their U.S. House delegation, as if there were no other political parties in the state. Moreover, because most of these districts are so lopsided, there really aren't even campaigns in many districts to engage voters and turn them out to vote. Consequently, voter turnout remains a flat line on the oscilloscope.
Unfortunately, two measures designed to increase turnout were defeated. Election day registration ballot measures were voted down in California and Colorado in a blizzard of misinformation about the potential for fraud. The opposition's claims were ridiculous, as six other states already use Election Day Registration and have had no more problems than any other state. Even as these measures lost, the nation's highest voter turnout again apparently was recorded by Minnesota, one of the six states with Election Day Registration.
Despite Mighty Efforts, Few Big Gains for Third Parties
Third parties doubled their numbers of seats won at the state legislative level from four to eight, the most since 1942 -- and yet, with more than 7000 state legislative seats and hundreds of executive seats across the U.S., the small number held by third parties serves to amplify how difficult it is for them to win in a "winner take all" system. Vermont's Progressive Party maintained four legislative seats, winning one outside of Burlington for the first time in its history, but its strong candidate for lieutenant governor Anthony Pollina finished third after polling higher earlier in the year. In Minnesota, Independence Party candidate (and former Democratic congressman) Tim Penny lost badly in the gubernatorial race after polling close to the lead all year, although one Independence Party incumbent held on after converting from the Republican party. Greens lost major party ballot status in states such as Minnesota and New York, but a Green state legislative candidate did won a significant victory in Maine, no doubt helped by Maine's Clean Money/public financing law. Greens also won local races, including a city council seat in Providence and an at-large school board race in San Francisco for a nonpartisan position. The two other third party state legislative wins were in Alaska (a Republican Moderate candidate) and New York (a Working Families Party candidate who also won the Democratic nomination, benefiting from the use of fusion whereby candidates can be nominated by more than one party).
But the "winner take all" electoral system continues to be a tremendous barrier to third party participation and representation, and voters desiring choice outside of the two major parties -- particularly young voters - will continue to be frustrated without changes to our "winner take all" electoral system.
More Evidence of Value of Instant Runoff Voting
Finally, several results from the election bolster the case for instant runoff voting, the ranked choice system adopted by voters in San Francisco for their next city elections in 2003.
- In Vermont's governor's and lieutenant governor's races, no candidate won a majority of the vote. According to Vermont's constitution, the state legislature now will pick the winner in a secret ballot. This has the potential for all sorts of backroom shenanigans, although the losing Democratic Party candidates apparently will concede defeat rather than press their case that they may have been the true majority winner due to split votes with independent and third party candidates. These results will provide more steam to the state's strong movement for instant runoff voting (IRV), which was endorsed by over 50 Vermont towns in separate referendums last March, as well as by outgoing governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, the Secretary of State and the state's AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters, PIRG, Grange, and Common Cause.
- In Louisiana's U.S. Senate race and in one U.S. House race, no candidate won a majority of the vote, and now the top two finishers advance to a traditional, two-round runoff election to decide the winner in early December. Just imagine the huge amounts of money -- and restless partisan activists -- that will pour into the state over the coming weeks. With the Senate so closely divided, the state emerges as one where the Republicans can either pad their slim majority or the Democrats can narrow it to just 51-49. Thus, this runoff election has the potential for a real Florida circus scenario. If Louisiana had used instant runoff voting -- which they already use for their military overseas ballots because there often is not enough time to mail overseas a second ballot and receive it back by the runoff -- the election would be over and Louisianans and the entire nation would be spared yet another divisive and money-fed slugfest.
- Hawaii's second congressional district was won by Democrat Patsy Mink despite her death several weeks ago. Now the state will hold two "free-for-all" special elections: one to decide who will serve the remaining weeks of her current term, the second in January to decide who will serve until 2005. Both races will be single rounds of voting, with large numbers of candidates. Unlike Louisiana, there will be no runoff, meaning that the winners may have a very low share of the vote -- and easily could be unreflective of the partisan leanings of the district. Instant runoff voting would be the obvious solution for such special elections that must be conducted quickly.
- There were several gubernatorial races with non-majority winners. When a candidate wins with fewer than a 50 percent majority of the vote, you cannot really be sure that this candidate was preferred by the most voters in that race. For instance, besides the Vermont governor and lieutenant governor's races, Democrats won the Wisconsin governor's race 45% to 41%, with 11% of the vote going to Libertarian Ed Thompson. The Oregon gubernatorial race is too close to call, with both candidates well under 50%. In Oklahoma, Republican (and former pro football player) Steve Largent apparently has lost narrowly, with 14% going to an independent. In Arizona, Democrats leads 46-45, with 7% going to an independent (a former Democrat) and 2% to a Libertarian. In California, incumbent Democrat Gray Davis spent $68 million on re-election yet received only 47% of the vote as many Democrats were not pleased with the pall of corruption and incompetence that hung over Davis. Green Party candidate Peter Camejo benefited from this, picking up 5%.
- In Senate races, winners apparently have less than half the votes in Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota. In House races, at least two key open seats were won by plurality (less than a majority), including District 1 in Arizona and District 7 in Colorado, where the candidates are nearly tied and the Green, Libertarian and Reform candidates each won about 2%.
Many liberals and progressives are licking their wounds over the Republican gains in the Congress. And no doubt Democratic leaders and activists are analyzing what went wrong, and how to do better next time. But Democratic Senators like Barbara Boxer in California and elsewhere are likely to face a Green Party opponent in two years. Perhaps even the presidential election will see another run by Ralph Nader, as the Green Party already has formed a presidential exploratory committee. Rather than fear these candidacies, an enlightened Democratic Party might embrace the potential for these parties to bring new voters into the process and accommodate that development with instant runoff voting. As this year's election demonstrates, Democrats on their own don't necessarily mobilize progressive voters.
This is all the more reason for Democrats in states under their control, like California, New Mexico, and elsewhere, to push through immediately legislation that implements instant runoff voting and other reforms that will deal with the "spoiler" problem and allow multiple candidates to run, yet not end up with distorted results and non-majority winners. Along with instant runoff voting, it's high time for us to abolish "incumbent protection plans" and partisan redistricting practices and turn the job over to nonpartisan independent commissions using nonpolitical criteria to create public interest redistricting. And beyond that, we should consider evolving away from "winner take all" districts entirely in favor of proportional representation electoral systems that will add competition, vitality, and choice to our democracy, and will more fairly represent and engage the American electorate.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie is executive director of the Center. To see the Center's projections for U.S. House races in 2004, visit www.fairvote.org.
comment on this article >
back to top ^