Losers Take All This November?

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill

The hard turn to the right by the Republican Party after securing control of the White House and Congress has spurred a powerful reaction. Voter interest in the 2004 elections has skyrocketed, with a corresponding increase in voter registration and plans for voter mobilization. Democrats are hoping that a surging tide will help them sweep the popular vote for the presidency, US Senate and US House.

But there's just one problem. Due to the perversities of our 18th-century electoral rules, that prospective sweep may not prevent Republicans from retaining control. Given this plausible result, it's not too soon to plan for non-electoral strategies to challenge the false perception of a Republican mandate.

Here's how it could happen. George W. Bush is in the White House today even though Al Gore won more than a half million more votes around the nation in 2000 and even though the combined popular vote for Gore and the Green nominee Ralph Nader in both Florida and the nation was more than 50%.

The reason is two-fold. First we don't elect the president directly, instead relying on that democratic dinosaur, the Electoral College, which gives more representation per capita to low population, mainly conservative Red States. Four times in our history we have had "wrong-way" winners, and it will happen again if John Kerry increases his majorities in big states like California, Illinois and New York but loses key battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida.

The second problem with presidential elections is the use of plurality, winner-take-all rules to allocate electors. George Bush doesn't need a majority to win all of Florida's electoral votes, he just needs more popular votes than anyone else. With Ralph Nader once again running, the center-left vote may split like it did in 2000. The candidate preferred by a popular majority may not win in Florida or nationwide. Also support for pro-peace candidacies like Nader and Green Party nominee David Cobb is suppressed because voters become afraid these candidates will "spoil" the election. States should reverse these flaws by adopting instant runoff voting.

In the US Senate, Republicans hold a slim 51-49 seat majority, helped by the constitutional structure that gives two senators per state, regardless of population. Low-population Red America states like Dick Cheney's Wyoming have way more representation per capita than high-population states like California or New York. As it turns out, nearly all the competitive Senate races this year are in conservative Red states, putting Democrats at an immediate disadvantage.

Democrats face an uphill battle to pick up two Republican seats without losing some of the five Democrat-held open seats in the South. Given that Democrats should sweep the big state Senate races this year, with likely big margins in California, Illinois and New York, they look guaranteed to win a large national popular vote margin in Senate races -- yet they may well end up with fewer senators than the Republicans.

Prospects in the US House also look daunting. House elections at least are "one-person, one-vote," thus avoiding the kind of unfairness we see in the presidential and Senate races. But there's another problem for Democrats: their vote is more concentrated than the Republican vote, particularly in the urban areas. If you apply the 2000 presidential vote to today's congressional districts, George Bush carried 47 more House districts than Al Gore, even as Gore won the popular vote.

This bias against progressive and liberal voters has existed in House races for years -- but it's more obvious now that more conservative voters, especially in the South, are more reliably voting Republican. Adding to that disadvantage for Democrats is the stranglehold of incumbency in House races. More than 98% of incumbents have been re-elected in the three national elections since 1996, and without a popular surge toward one party, that is likely in 2004. Democrats would need to effectively draw an inside straight to win control of the House, even if gaining 1-2% more votes nationally than Republicans.

All this conjecture could be moot if Democrats have national majorities of 53% or more this year, but that seems unlikely. Democrats and progressives need to begin asking the tough question: What happens if Democrats win more votes than Republicans, but the Republicans retain full political power in Washington while in effect losing the election?

If that happens, progressives should be ready for a range of actions. Senate filibusters to block one-sided legislation and presidential nominations are one tactic. Another would be to explore direct action and protests that underscore that partisan assaults won't be accepted lightly.

But longer-term, progressives need to take a closer look at these unfair electoral rules and start more focused advocacy for full (proportional) representation voting methods for the House, and for instant runoff voting both within states and for national presidential elections (after abolishing the Electoral College). Reform of the US Senate also must be in the crosshairs, both reducing its powers and making it less skewed in favor of low population states. John Kerry and John Edwards today hardly talk about political reform, but it's a strong message for swing voters -- and the right message for those seeking a fair and accountable democracy.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and Steven Hill is the center's senior analyst and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (www.FixingElections.com). Email info@fairvote.org.

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