E-Newsletter August 4, 2005

Released August 4, 2005

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Before this newsletter’s review of how our electoral rules and practices contribute to the current partisan bitterness in our national politics, a few highlights:

  • The Shrinking Battleground: FairVote’s ground-breaking report shows how the share of contested states in the Electoral College is reaching all-time lows – and has a powerful impact on voter turnout and racial fairness

  • Dubious Democracy: FairVote’s 2005 edition makes it clear that we are experiencing the least competitive House elections in American history

  • Redistricting Reform Watch: Find out the potential impact of redistricting reform in your state in FairVote’s new analysis. Track the growing bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for national standards.

  • 100% Voter Registration Project: Our Right to Vote Initiative prepares to launch a plan to achieve 100% registration of all high school students.

  • Instant Runoff Voting in Your State: IRV America program’s new guide to advocacy for spoiler-free voting around the nation.

  • Democracy SoS: Learn about the top election officials in your state and potential 2006 Secretary of State candidates in s Democracy USA project.

  • Professors and Electoral Systems: The Program for Representative Government’s new tools for teaching about proportional voting systems

Executive Director Rob Richie’s Political Quiz for August 2005

What was the gap in 2004 presidential election voter turnout in the 12 most competitive states compared to the 12 least competitive states? What was the gap in voter turnout among adults under 30 in the most competitive states and the rest of the nation?

A.) 5% gap in turnout among all adults, 10% among those under 30
B.) 10% turnout gap among all adults, 17% among those under 30
C.) Gap? What gap? There was no gap.

When was the last time a U.S. House incumbent from Tennessee lost a general election?
A.) 1994, the year the GOP took over the U.S. House – 39 incumbents races ago
B.) 1986, the year of Democratic gains in the South – 83 incumbent races ago
C.) 1974, in the wake of Watergate – 117 incumbent races ago

See the answers and two more quiz questions at the end of the newsletter.

WITH CONGRESS' RECESS SESSION UPON US, the politicians have left the nation's capital to return to their home states, giving those within the Beltway some time to reflect upon the increasingly polarized political climate upon us. Over the years, FairVote's probing research and analysis has highlighted how our nation's zero-sum, winner-take-all elections create incentives for partisan bickering and regional polarization, all the while distracting from important issues and poorly serving the public interest.

America's winner-take-all elections spur this partisan invective in areas ranging from judicial nominations to the redistricting process. This month we highlight the release of several new reports that cast light on the structural incentives for much of this sniping, as well as other defects in our political process.

These eye-opening new analyses are thanks in no small part to our remarkable summer team of volunteer interns. These seventeen volunteer interns, spanning the range from four law school students to a high school senior, came from around the nation to help push for urgently needed reforms to our flawed electoral systems. We are currently accepting legal and undergraduate intern applications for the Fall Semester. For more information visit http://archive.fairvote.org/interns.

Presidential Elections & Regional Partisan and Race Divisions:

FairVote’s new report The Shrinking Battleground: The 2008 Presidential Elections and Beyond provides a devastating critique of the Electoral College and its impact on American politics. Today, fewer and fewer Americans play a meaningful role in electing their president, with alarming impact on voter turnout, racial fairness and political equality.

Aiding and abetting the entrenched partisan polarization that drives lack of voter choice in American winner-take-all elections, the Electoral College creates incentives for candidates to appeal to smaller and smaller groups of people. Indeed George Bush’s campaign did not do a single poll outside the 18 most competitive states for the entire last two years of his drive for re-election – they knew the rest of the nation didn’t matter.

As the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and its impact on greater political equality, the Electoral College’s impact on voter participation and racial fairness are particularly sobering. The gap in voter turnout between the most competitive and least competitive states soared to 10% this year and to fully 17% among those under 30. If the Electoral College is not abolished in the next gap, this gap will only increase, leaving an imprint on voter turnout patterns that will last through most of the 21st century.

This two-tier democracy is all the more troubling because of its racial dimensions. Already the majority population, white voters also are over-represented in battleground states. 30% of white adults live in battlegrounds, in contrast to less than 20% of adults of color – including just one in seven Asian Americans. Only by eliminating the Electoral College and moving to a nationwide vote can we ensure that all voters will be treated equally in contests for our nation's highest office: one person, one vote, with every vote counting the same.

Inequality among our states is perhaps even more entrenched in our current presidential primary system, where the same two states – Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the nation’s whitest states, dominate the attention of would-be presidential candidates and often determine the general election choices for the rest of the nation.

[Read key findings]
[Download the report .pdf 301 KB]
[Read new FairVote commentary making the case for a fairer primary system]

Polarization through Redistricting:

With politicians continuing to use the redistricting process to unfairly punish their political enemies and reward their friends, our legislative line-drawing process has become the latest weapon in partisan warfare. The dominant parties in many states are attempting to build on their power-grabs through mid-decade redistricting plans, while the minority parties in many states are scrambling to offer up independent redistricting proposals. These reform proposals are often a good start to reforming our legislative elections, especially as they curb the partisan abuse-of-power in redistricting, but they often fall short of providing competitive elections and fair representation.

As result, FairVote has established a brand new center to monitor independent redistricting reform proposals. Our Redistricting Reform Watch 2005 analyzes these state-level proposals to see whether they prioritize competitive elections, fair representation, and provide for robust proportional voting solutions.

[Visit Redistricting Reform Watch 2005]

Even still, state-by-state reform proposals risk further skewing the makeup of Congress by allowing a single state to unilaterally alter the composition of a national body. As a result, last month FairVote joined a bipartisan group of nine U.S. Representatives in calling for national redistricting standards at our recent birthday party for Elbridge Gerry, the father of gerrymandering. Our first-annual celebration highlighted the long history of unfair partisan gerrymanders, while honing in on a solution to the problem. Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) has introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which would require states to use independent bodies for redistricting and would limit the process to the traditional once in a decade. The bill now has 40 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum and both sides of the aisle.

[See Photos from the Elbridge Gerry “Birthday”]
[Read FairVote's Press Release on the Event]
[More on the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act]

But this is just the beginning of the problem. As shown in the latest edition of one of our signature reports, Dubious Democracy, our nation's Congressional elections are now the least competitive in history -- with little sign of change in the future.

There are three major culprits for our non-competitive elections. First and foremost, our winner-take-all electoral system turns natural partisan majorities into no-choice elections. The partisanship of the district dictates the representation regardless of those citizens who do not support that party, meaning that partisans are all the most likely to play to their base to avoid primary challenges than reach out to all constituents. Second, partisan methods of redistricting typically allow legislators to craft districts that shore up their advantages -- legislators literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them. Third, incumbents accumulate big advantages over time, including campaign warchests and name recognition, that put challengers in an even deeper hole.

[Visit Dubious Democracy 2005]
[Read coverage of Dubious Democracy]
[Listen to NPR coverage of Dubious Democracy]

Ultimately, the solution for those seeking competitive elections, diversity in government, and eliminating partisan mischief will have to involve nationwide independent redistricting standards and replacing our winner-take-all legislative elections with proportional voting systems. FairVote will be highlighting proportional voting systems and their positive impact on voter choice and fair representation in an amicus brief to be submitted in the current litigation ensuing over Washington state’s recently struck down “top-two” primary system. Internationally, the trend continues to be heavily toward proportional systems; reform-minded prime ministers in Lebanon and South Korea are the latest to seek to push their nations toward proportional voting.

[Examples of how proportional systems might look in House elections]
[Proportional voting around the world]
[Curriculum suggestions for professors teaching about electoral systems]

Judicial Nominations and the Filibuster:

With the filibuster debate over judicial nominations threatening to rear its ugly head once again and President Bush’s recess appointment of controversial nominee John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, the partisan rhetoric surrounding Supreme Court nominations is heating up -- with both parties claiming to represent the mainstream of American voters interests on the high court.

At the center of this partisan divide has been whether the minority party should have the right to filibuster nominees by a president who has not consulted with them in making his choices. Our new report on the last decade of U.S. Senate elections cuts through the partisan rhetoric to show how the question of “majority rule” is problematic in the U.S. Senate. Although the Republican Party holds a clear majority of Senate seats, its members in fact did not win a majority of the votes. Our state-by-state, winner-take-all elections, combined with the Senate’s gross distortions of the commonly accepted principle of equal representation based on population, one party can easily win a disproportionate number of seats. On the flip side, it shows how relatively few people can be represented by senators able to uphold a filibuster.

This raises questions both about the democratic legitimacy of some filibusters (those where the minority senators represent an even smaller minority of people, as was the case with some filibusters against civil rights legislation) and legitimacy of some attempts to end filibusters (those where the minority senators in fact represent a majority of voters). The lesson for FairVote is that we should shift the frame of the debate.

The sting of an unfair electoral system and a majority party’s attempts at domination will surely be felt by both sides over time. The public interest in not served by engaging in divisive and polarizing tactics to either confirm or block nominees. We need fairer methods to better serve Americans and reduce the partisan taint on our judicial system.

One idea calls for judicial vacancies to be filled by a slate-nomination process where each party has the ability to nominate a portion of the judges, ideally with some ability of the parties’ to check the other party’s most extreme choices – with examples of this approach in the process for nominating such bodies as the Federal Communications Commission. The full Senate would then vote to approve the entire slate of judges as a balanced group.

Another proposal would be to set a fixed term for judges, so that the minority party doesn’t fear that a controversial nominee will be in a position of power for decades.

[Read FairVote’s Filibuster 2005 report]

Democracy SoS and Partisan Elections Officials:

As the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 showed, the day-to-day decisions of our nation's partisan election administrators can mean the difference between who wins and who loses in a close presidential election. What ideally would be a civil service position designed to ensure the voting process is in the public interest has become yet another area of scandalous political battle, with the number of election-related lawsuits soaring in the past five years and with charges that particular election officials try to boost their own supporters turnout or tamp down their opponents turnout by altering voter registration and election day procedures.

To highlight the importance of our top election officials, FairVote has launched a new Democracy SoS project. Our 50-state guide provides information on upcoming elections of chief elections officials – typically the Secretary of State -- as well as basic content on their powers, duties, and terms of office. Over the coming weeks, we'll also be publicizing survey results from our recent attempts to canvass top election officials and prospective candidates for their opinions on a range of electoral reforms.

[Visit Democracy SoS]

100% Registration – Reducing Incentives for Partisan Gaming:

One of the best examples of partisan gaming in our politics lays in fights over who can vote. In 2004, we saw charges of registration fraud and registrations being collected during the day and thrown out at night if for the wrong party. Establishing clean and complete voter rolls would help protect against voter fraud and guarantee that every eligible citizen can decide to vote on Election Day.

These goals should be beyond partisanship. However, while most democratic nations automatically register their citizens to vote, the United States relies on citizens to register themselves. This creates incentives for partisan operatives to try to game participation rates in an electoral system where the default setting is non-participation. Citizens have to actively opt into the electoral process. As a result, nearly 30% of eligible U.S. citizens are not registered to vote and effectively shut out of the electoral process. Moreover, in heated election cycles, parties and civic groups often make last-minute attempts to register these sidelined citizens, expending enormous resources and creating a surge of paperwork for election administrators.

One of the simplest ways to move toward clean and complete voter rolls would be to register all students when they are in high school. Moreover, in much the same way that many school districts have required community service to increase civic engagement, mandatory voter registration combined with classes introducing students to the mechanics of voting in their community will empower students to be more active participants in our democracy. Already school districts from California to Rhode Island are discussing such proposals, and we plan a major launch for our High School Registration initiative next month in conjunction with Constitution Day.

[Read our 100% Registration proposals]

San Francisco IRV Success Demonstrates Reduced Polarized Campaigning:

FairVote has long maintained that adopting instant runoff voting (IRV) would help create issue-based campaigns and would reduce divisive negative attacks. Candidates seeking the second choice rankings from at least some of their opponents’ voters would be more interested in building coalitions than tearing down those opponents. Last year’s IRV elections in San Francisco provided support for this theory, as showcased in news coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post that highlighted new behaviors such as rival candidates conducting joint fundraisers.

Further confirming the benefits of IRV, San Francisco State University’s Public Research Institute recently released its final report on its 2005 exit poll showing overwhelming support for the new system and understanding of how to vote with IRV. With such evidence it’s no surprise that instant runoff voting continues to gain support.

[Read New York Times op. ed. on positive campaigning in San Francisco]
[See IRV America’s My State and IRV on-line resource]

Support Fair Elections

As with many non-profits, FairVote relies heavily on individual contributions. That in fact is truer than ever this year, as we are establishing new relationships with foundations in the wake of transitions in the funding world that undercut traditional sources of support. We have an ambitious agenda, and a terrific team leading a campaign for free and fair elections in the United States. If you want to support the nation’s leading organization working locally and nationally to advance instant runoff voting, proportional voting systems, direct election of the president and a constitutional right to vote, please consider a donation today. Thank you!

[Donate Now!]

Rob Richie’s August 2005 Political Quiz: The Full Edition

1. What was the gap in 2004 presidential election voter turnout in the 12 most competitive states compared to the 12 least competitive states? What was the gap in voter turnout among adults under 30 in the most competitive states and the rest of the nation?

A.) 5% gap in turnout among all adults, 10% among those under 30
B.) 10% gap among all adults, 17% among those under 30
C.) Gap? There was no gap.

2. There were 435 U.S. House races in 2004. How many were won by a margin of less than 7%

A.) 12 races – meaning more than 97% of races were won by larger margins.
B.) 29 races
C.) 87 races.

3. In 2000-2004, there were 30 U.S. House races in Massachusetts. How many were won by margins of less than 20%? What was the average victory margin in 2004 races?

A.) 7 races and an average 2004 victory margin of 35%
B.) 4 races and an average 2004 victory margin of 50%
C.) 0 races and an average 2004 victory margin of 65%

4. When was the last time a U.S. incumbent from Tennessee lost a general election?

A.) 1994, the year the GOP took over the U.S. House – 39 incumbents races ago
B.) 1986, the year of Democratic gains in the South – 83 incumbent races ago
C.) 1974, in the wake of Watergate – 117 incumbent races ago

Quiz Answers:

1. (B.) Voter turnout in the 12 most competitive states in the 2004 presidential races rose from 54% to 63% in 2004. Turnout in the 12 least competitive states rose from 51% to only 53%, fully 10% less than in the battlegrounds. Voter turnout among 18-29-year-olds was 64.4% in the ten most competitive states and 47.6% in the remaining states – an even greater gap of 17%.

2. (A.) The 2004 U.S. House election recorded an unprecedented lack of competition. Fewer than 3% (12) of the 435 races were won by a margin of less than 7%; only 10 races were won by tight margins of 5% or less. There has never been such a small share of highly competitive races in American history.

3. (C). Of Massachusetts’ 30 House races in 2000-2004, 16 were completely uncontested. Six more were won by at least 40%, and the remaining 8 won by at least 20% landslides. The state’s 65% overall margin of victory in House races was the nation’s largest. Seven incumbents have won their last four races by landslides.

4. (C.) The last time a U.S. House incumbent from Tennessee lost a general election was in 1974 – giving Tennessee an incumbent win streak of 117 seats. Three small states (North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming) have incumbent win streaks running back to the 1960s.

Thank you!

F a i r V o t e
The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610
Takoma Park, MD 20912
www.fairvote.org      info@fairvote.org
(301) 270-4616

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